By Sierra Angel
Stepping off of the plane in Kansas City, Missouri I was met with a wall of humidity, the sweetly scented air felt like it would suffocate a person. We got the rental car and headed for Topeka, about an hour away. Not only was I in a part of the country that I did not feel entirely comfortable in climate wise, I was about to spend a week as a not entirely passable transgender woman in the home town of the Westboro Baptist Church. If the humidity and heat didn’t kill me, the gay bashers might. I could only hope that the WBC did not represent the views of the general population.
If you aren’t familiar with the WBC, these are the folks that picket the funerals of dead soldiers with signs reading “God Hates Fags”. They believe that gay marriage and LGBTQ people in general makes God angry, and that is why people die in wars and natural disasters. In fact they spent much of the past few weeks picketing funerals of tornado victims in Oklahoma. This cult has held over 50,000 pickets to date.
Recently an organization called Planting Peace bought a house directly across from the Westboro Baptist Church and painted it in the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. This house is now known as The Equality House, and it stands in stark contrast to the cult headquarters across the street. This face to face stand off of oppression versus love is nothing new to Topeka. After learning a bit about the history of the city I realized that it made perfect sense. Topeka had always been a flash point for civil rights issues since its beginnings.
Slavery and Segregation
The Equality House and the Westboro Baptist Church were on my list of places to visit in Topeka, but my plan was to see them on my way out of town. First and foremost I was here on business. Fortunately as part of my business trip a tour of some of the important historical sites was included. I couldn’t be happier that my work is connected to civil rights, enabling my activism and career paths to weave together nicely at times.
My first full day in Topeka was a whirlwind of learning. The morning started with a visit to the historic Ritchie House. Built in 1855 by John Ritchie and his family just after Topeka’s founding, the house was used by the family as a station in the underground railroad, helping runaway slaves seeking freedom in the Northern States and Canada. John Ritchie was a devoted abolitionist who collaborated with other Free State advocates in an effort to see that Kansas entered the union as a free state. Slavery was the divisive political issue of the times and Kansas was right in the middle, with two different groups of people fighting to bring it into the union. Some wanted it as a free state, some as a slave state. It was during these dangerous times the state was nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas”.
The next stop on my tour was the Brown v. Board of Education historical site. Topeka’s segregation ran deep and was especially entrenched and fought over in the public school system. African American families fought the “separate but equal” doctrine in Topeka, bringing lawsuits in attempts to break the color lines. Four similar lawsuits from across the country joined the Kansas case and came before the Supreme Court as what became to be know as “Brown v. Board of Education”.
The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in this landmark case enabled the end of racial segregation, though it was fought bitterly for at least another decade. The ruling that separate was inherently unequal was one thing, yet enforcing de-segregation was quite another. Afro-American students faced protests, violence, and had to be escorted into schools by police at times.
The Brown v. Board historical site was truly a wonderful and educational experience. If you are in Topeka, this is a must see. Everyone we had come into contact with seemed genuinely proud of Topeka’s role in advancing civil rights.
Over the course of the next few days I had the opportunity to eat at a few local favorite restaurants. The food was good and the response of people was generally decent. For the most part no one even noticed me. People who did read me were respectful if a bit confused at first. I decided to find out what the locals thought about the Westboro Baptist Church.
I casually brought the WBC up in conversation among various groups of people, and the response was very similar each time. Some Kansas natives told me they felt embarrassed by the WBC, and that they wished they would leave. Everyone I spoke to was appalled at the cult’s tactics. In casual conversation folks were very open about their distaste for the cult. I wondered if people would be so candid if they were on the record?
The last night I was in Topeka I decided to take dinner alone at the Falling Water Grill in the Capitol Plaza Hotel where we had been staying. I went down the glass elevator and into the beautiful dining area, got a table and ordered a shrimp alfredo and a Bloody Mary.
I sat enjoying my drink and listening to the fountains until the server brought my alfredo. He sat the plate down in front of me and I eyed him through the steam rising from my pasta and shrimp. He was a tall well built guy in his 30′s, who had been polite despite his obvious discomfort. He read me as trans* early on and was a bit skittish. His discomfort gave me the perfect opportunity to strike. He asked me if I needed anything else and I smiled and looked into his eyes.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked. The man nodded his approval. “I am a writer for an LGBTQ website.”
“A what?” he asked, obviously perplexed by my reciting the alphabet out of order.
“I write for a website that deals with gay issues.”
“Oh, I see,” he blurted out as he looked around nervously.
“I was curious if you might tell me what your opinion is of the Westboro Baptist Church?” I asked.
He looked at me long and hard before starting his measured response.
“Fred Phelps and the Phelps family have been staples of the community for many years. But despite this they are generally not well received in Topeka.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and looked at me evenly. It sounded like he had memorized that canned response.
“Fair enough. Let me ask you another question. Would you say that Topeka as a whole is proud of or embarrassed by the actions of the Phelps family and their church?” I chose to give him a multiple choice question on purpose, but he saw through my trap. This man had been trained how to answer these type of questions and deal with the media.
“Let me just say, as I have already made clear, The Phelps family is not well received here.” His words ended abruptly. Our conversation was over.
I thanked him for his time and slowly finished my dinner, pondering what kind of strange undercurrent of control the Phelps family and their cult had on the community in general. If you bad mouth them, they will probably protest the funeral of your loved ones or yourself. They might picket your church on Sunday, a regular tactic of the WBC. If you wanted them to leave you alone, maybe you just shut up.
Equality House vs. Cult of Hate
The last morning I slept in. The heat and humidity were wearing on me, and I was looking forward to getting on the plane back to my beloved mountains. I drug all my luggage down to the lobby and made a quick stop at the Falling Water for a coffee to go. The two girls working at the counter were very nice and we began to chat. I mentioned I was going to stop by the WBC with a protest sign and give them some hell. They both smiled and got excited. They both told me they would be very happy knowing I was going to bother the WBC. I regret not having the time to exchange contact information with these ladies, had I more time I would have spent an hour talking to them. But alas I was running late and there was a plane to catch.
My friend Lisa Wilson and I had stayed up late the night before making our own picket signs. We weren’t really sure what was going to happen in front of the “church”, but we knew we couldn’t leave Topeka without seeing this place.
We parked a half a block away and walked down with our signs in hand. The WBC compound looked more like the house of an eccentric rich family than a church. There were signs all over that said “no trespassing” and “protected by video surveillance”. There were other signs too. The sign by the front entrance read “fag marriage dooms nations”, and out front on the billboard at the corner of the property under the upside down American flag and pride flags flapping in the breeze were the words “Memorial day – Thou shall not kill. Soldiers die for fag marriage.”
Across the street the owner of the Equality House, Aaron, was preparing to mow the lawn. He had a lawnmower with a gay pride flag and a transgender flag on either side of it. He called it the gay rights lawnmower. He invited us on to the property to take some pictures and chat for a while. It felt much better to be standing on friendly ground even if it was just across from the WBC.
They had recently planted a small tree in the yard in honor of a transgender person who had stayed in the house who had passed away. I stood next to the transgender tree and told Aaron our story, why we were here, how far we had come, and what my family had been through personally as we dealt with hate since my transition. He was amazingly kind, listened intently to our story, and invited us to take as much time as we wanted. He told us of future plans for the house and about Planting Peace.
The rainbow colored house really changed the mood of the neighborhood. It stood as a glowing reminder that love is everywhere and that love can conquer hate. It stands as a bulwark against fear and hate for those passing by the church. The clash of two opposite ideals seemed to fit in Topeka perfectly. From the battle over slavery to the battle over segregation to the battle for LGBTQ rights, Topeka will likely continue to be a flash point for conflict.
I was pleasantly surprised by my visit to Topeka. What I thought would be a rough trip was perfectly peaceful. My fears about being treated poorly were washed away by the wonderful people I met in Kansas. The people of Topeka have fairness and equality bred into their family lines for generations, going back nearly two centuries. They will likely continue to stand against oppression and hate for generations to come. As long as there is hate in Topeka, the citizens of the city will be battling it with love as they live their daily lives, just as they always have.