Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

Westboro Baptist Church Protestor

Westboro Baptist Church Protestors

Westboro Baptist Church is an unaffiliated Baptist church, at least technically. In actuality, it is one of the most abhorrent and rabid hate groups in the United States.  And on this lunchtime bike ride I stopped to watch a couple of its members, who were here in D.C. actively protesting on the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in front of The White House.

The church originated in 1955 as a branch of the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka, about three miles west of the Kansas State capitol. East Side Baptist Church initially hired a man named Fred Phelps to be an associate pastor, and then promoted him to be the pastor of their new church plant, Westboro Baptist, in a residential neighborhood on the west side of Topeka. Soon after it was established, Phelps broke all ties with East Side Baptist. Since that time it has basically been a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps. And despite Phelps’ death in March of 2014, the church continues to remain focused on the hatred he cultivated.

Typified by its slogan, “God Hates Fags,” the Westboro group is best known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs, and hate speech which is usually directed against LGBT people, Jews and politicians. The hateful rhetoric can often be seen in the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests, like this one. The group began its “picketing ministry,” meaning their practice of holding controversial protests to raise awareness of the church and its beliefs, in 1991 in a nearby park in Topeka, alleging it was a den of anonymous homosexual activity. Soon their protests had spread throughout the city, and within three years the church was traveling across the country.

The group claims to claim to have picketed more than 40,000 times, and claims to conduct an average of six protests in different locations every day. Many of the targets of the group’s protests seem to be chosen at random. Examples of places where the group has picketed include Kansas City Chiefs football games, the Indianapolis 500, Broadway musicals, the headquarters of Twitter, President Obama’s daughters’ schools, Comic-Con, public appearances by Bob Dole, and Justin Bieber concerts.

But it was in 1998 that Westboro came into the national spotlight, when they were featured on national news programs for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man from Wyoming who was beaten to death by two men because of his homosexuality. Since that time the Westboro group, also sometimes referred to as “Phelpses,” have made a point of picketing at funerals for the publicity and notoriety in generates. They have conducted protests at: the funerals of three students who were killed in a house fire at the University of Wisconsin; the funerals of the victims of the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia; the funeral of former Mormon Church president Gordon B. Hinckley in Utah; the Arizona funeral of Christina Green, a 9-year-old victim of the 2011 Tucson shooting in which Representative Gabrielle Giffords was also shot; the Sandy Hook School shooting victims’ funerals in Newtown, Connecticut, and; recording artist Michael Jackson’s funeral in California.  And as if protesting the funerals of tragic deaths of gay individuals and celebrities were not extreme enough, the group expanded to include protesting at the funerals of American military members killed in the service of their country.

I guess I can sum up my thoughts and impressions of the protestors I watched and the group they represent by saying that they enabled me to find the only thing on which I can say that I side with the Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan, the white supremacy hate group which has been known to use terrorism aimed at groups or individuals whom they oppose, recently felt the need to repudiate the Westboro Baptist Church and its beliefs and activities.  The Klan even participated in a counter-protest when the Westboro group held a protest at Arlington National Cemetery.  Exactly how evil does your organization have to be to have the Ku Klux Klan say, “Ummm … yeah … they’re too extreme and evil for us.”

Gravesite of Leonard Matlovich

Gravesite of Leonard Matlovich

On this bike ride I stopped by the gravesite of Sergeant Leonard Matlovich.  A vietnam era veteran, Matlovich was eligible to be buried in the cemetery most people identify with veterans, Arlington National Cemetery.  But he chose Historic Congressional Cemetery instead.  Located at 1801 E Street (MAP) in Southeast D.C., he discovered the cemetery on one of his frequent walks near his then Capitol Hill home.

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was the first gay service member to purposely out himself as a homosexual in an attempt to fight their ban on gays serving openly in the military.  He did so by hand-delivering a letter to his Langley Air Force Base commanding officer in March of 1975.  His challenge became public knowledge a couple of months later, on Memorial Day, through an article on the front page of The New York Times, and in a story that evening on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  During his fight to stay in the military, his case became a cause célèbre within the gay community, and resulted in numerous articles in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, television interviews, and a made-for-television movie.  Matlovich also appeared in his Air Force uniform on the cover of Time magazine above the headline “I Am a Homosexual.”

Despite his exemplary military record, tours of duty in Vietnam, and high performance evaluations, Matlovich was subsequently given a “General,” or Less than Honorable, discharge in 1975 by the U.S. Air Force.  He continued his fight after being separated and won a much-publicized case against the Air Force in 1979, which ordered him reinstated into the Air Force and promoted. The Air Force offered Matlovich a financial settlement instead, which he accepted, and his discharge was upgraded to “Honorable.”

After being discharged, he moved from Virginia to D.C., then to San Francisco, and then Guerneville, California. After then moving to Europe for a few months, he returned briefly to D.C., before moving back to San Francisco again.  He remained active in the gay rights movement throughout the rest of his life.  On June 22, 1988, less than a month before his 45th birthday, Matlovich died in Los Angeles of complications from HIV/AIDS.

Matlovich personally designed his internationally known tombstone, incorporating the same kind of reflective black granite that was used in the construction of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  It is inset with his famous quote, which reads, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”  The headstone also incorporates pink triangles in reference to the emblem used to mark gays in Nazi concentration camps.  What the headstone does not include, however, is his name.  That is because he meant to be a memorial to all gay veterans.  His last name inscribed at the foot of a granite grave border is the only indication that the grave is his.

Matlovich chose historic Congressional Cemetery because he loved its variety of individual stones versus Arlington’s hundreds of thousands of identical markers. He also was amazed to learn that Peter Doyle, Walt Whitman’s great love, is buried there.  He also couldn’t resist the last laugh of being buried in the same row with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s gravesite, and Hoover’s associate director, longtime best friend, heir, and some believe romantic partner Clyde Tolson.  Hoover was staunchly anti-gay, although speculation and rumors had circulated beginning approximately 30 years before his death that Hoover was homosexual.  Tolson’s grave, marked by a pink granite stone, is just five plots to the right of Matlovich’s, and the Hoover family plot is a few yards further down.

In a tribute no one anticipated, a growing number of other out gays, including veterans and couples, have since chosen to be buried in the same once obscure graveyard such as gay rights pioneers Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, and others.  Members of American Veterans for Equal Rights have purchased eight nearby adjoining plots to create a LGBT veterans memorial. And at his graveside every Veterans Day, there’s a gay veterans memorial service.  His gravesite has also been the scene of protests, vigils and ceremonies for LGBT rights activists, and even a same-sex wedding.

His gravesite and the surrounding vicinity within the cemetery, and the activities that have taken place there, would certainly be pleasing to Matlovich, who once said, “I believe that we must be the same activists in our deaths that we were in our lives.”

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