"Evil!" "Filthy!" "Abomination!"
Twenty protesters -- all white and predominantly male -- chanted in
front of San Francisco's City Hall as the sun set one Friday evening last
month. They waved placards with slogans: "Sodomy: It's To Die For," "Bride
Of Satan" and "Matt In Hell" (this accompanied by a drawing of Matthew Shepard, the slain
Wyoming student, in flames).
Who were these protesters and why were they here?
The minister of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. -- the Rev. Fred
Phelps -- had traversed the prairie with several congregation members to
spearhead a demonstration designed to make even the most devoted ACLU member's hair stand on end.
"Got AIDS yet, you faggots?" "Where's your best man, the gerbil?" "God will
punish you for your wickedness! He'll send another earthquake!"
Unlike the conservative Christians who "hate the sin not the sinner,"
Phelps, a tall, gaunt man with long gray hair, has made a career out of
his hatred for homosexuals -- his cardboard sign conveyed the same message
as his Web site: "God Hates Fags," that features a photo of slain Matthew Shepard, animated with flames, which screams if you click on it. Phelps travels with his crew in two minivans; some of his supporters even bring along their children.
Phelps and cohorts' fundamentalist rage has since made a splash at the Shepard murder trial, but on this day their anomie was focused on 191 gay and
lesbian couples who filed past into City Hall to participate in San
Francisco's third annual Domestic Partners Commitment Ceremony. Like the
protesters, several same-sex couples had journeyed across the nation to
express their feelings on the issue of homosexual marriage. But unlike the
protesters, they had come to declare their love.
By creating a giant ritual similar to the mass marriages of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Mayor Willie Brown has conveyed his and San Francisco's
support for same-sex unions. Although anti-gay legislation has gained
ground in other parts of the country (27 states have passed
measures that define marriage as an exclusively heterosexual contract),
Brown has sent a message with his commitment ceremonies, which returned after a hiatus last year. This year the event made special note that California will debate a similar measure in spring 2000, when the anti-gay "Knight Initiative" arrives on the ballot.
"We love you!" a lesbian told her tormentors on the steps of City Hall. "Why do you hate us?"
"I don't hate you," a stout Christian woman replied. "I love faggots
so much I'm willing to tell them about Jesus Christ!"
"Open your hearts!" the lesbian begged them. "Reach out across this
chasm of hatred." She tossed the fundamentalists a bouquet of daffodils.
A young man in sunglasses instantly tore it to shreds, yelling: "This
is what I think of your sick love!" Torn petals fluttered to the sidewalk.
"I praise God!" bellowed another man, through his bullhorn. "I praise
God that your mommies didn't abort all of you, so that we can share the
grace of God with you today."
"You're telling me about grace?!" gasped a gay man. "You're the most
graceless creature I've ever seen!"
As the two sides launched their verbal battle, 30 police stood by watchfully, having enclosed the protesters inside a metal barricade. Nearby, a gay-friendly contingent of Unitarian Universalists sequestered in a similar cage held signs proclaiming, "Hate is not a family value" and "God loves gay people."
As if to make up for the unpleasantness outside, a giddy pre-ceremony party
unfolded with special good will inside City Hall. Couples and their guests
mingled, admiring each other's tuxedos and corsages and exchanging comments
about the seven-layer rainbow wedding cake. Food and drink flowed freely,
courtesy of a number of local catering companies who donated their services.
Lesbian activist Del Martin declared, "We should never accept second-class
citizenship status." Mayor Brown exchanged witticisms with gay comedian Tom
Ammiano, the president of the Board of Supervisors, as the majority of the
other supervisors looked on, waiting to officiate. As same-sex hands were
held, the rotunda echoed with 382 promises of "I do," followed by the
formal civic decree: "I now pronounce you domestic partners."
Although domestic partnership contracts grant health and retirement benefits to
employees of the city and to companies doing business with the city, they
carry few if any legal benefits outside areas that honor this vow. But when the Knight Initiative appears in California next year, it's going to face a fierce foe here.
When the newly partnered gay and lesbian couples exited City Hall,
Phelps and his crew greeted them with ridicule: "Prance off into the
sunset, you AIDS-infested sodomites! All you have now is a worthless piece
of paper that will burn with you on Judgment Day! You'll never have a holy
But if California votes to support gay marriage in next spring's
"Definition of Marriage" battle, "never" might be "soon."