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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Theall

My Run-In With Rev. Phelps and Westboro

The following is excerpted from Chapter 19 / Teaching the Cat to Sit:

Westboro protests in front of Sacred Heart of Jesus school.

Westboro protests in front of Sacred Heart of Jesus school.

In an act of bravery and perhaps lunacy, I agree to be interviewed by the Boulder Weekly about Sacred Heart of Jesus School’s decision to expel all children who have gay parents. Our four-year old son was in the Teddy Bear pre-school class at Sacred Heart and had been baptized there. I expect that no one will see the article, and yet I’m also terrified my staunchly religious parents back in Texas will somehow get wind of it. Regardless, Reverend Phelps and the Westboro Church use the mounting publicity to descend on Boulder to try to make their point.

The phone starts ringing and it doesn’t stop for most of the day. I pace the house until Jill tells me I should go for a drive. I’m in my car for two minutes with the top down when my phone vibrates and I see my mom’s number.

“Your father is about to have a heart attack,” my mom says on the other end of the line. God, did she see it? There’s no way she saw it. I zip through downtown Boulder in my Mini Cooper convertible with the top down, hunting for a parking space.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my mother says. “Your father’s email got hacked into, and it sent messages to everyone he knows saying he’s been mugged in France and needs money wired to him in order to get home. Don’t send him any when you get it. He’s not in France. He’s right here.”

“Wow, so sorry,” I say, relieved that my parents are victims of computer hackers instead of me. “I’ve seen that email before. It’s a fairly common hoax.”

“He’s about to throw his computer out the window. He’s called those Geek Squad people to see if they can restore all his contacts. It’s just mean spirited, that’s all. We’re old. We don’t need this kind of nonsense.” She pauses. “What do they even get out of it? There’s no place listed to send the money.”

“I honestly don’t know.” I round the corner and almost run over a police barricade. “God hates fags!” someone yells, and I cup my hand around the phone and start fumbling for the button to raise the top on my convertible.

“What’s that, sweetie?”

“I said, ‘I need gas.’ I’ll call you later. Love you.”

A police officer motions for me to move my car, so I back up and park along the curb. A helicopter thumps overhead like a heartbeat. When a SWAT team jumps out of an armored truck with their riot gear—shields, gas masks, and guns—I realize I have entered some kind of war zone.

A woman sings: “God bless America, the pervert home.” She is red-faced with anger and dragging a child Connor’s age behind her. His sign reads: GOD HATES FAG ENABLERS. A man approaches my window and yells, “Dyke lover! Die!” I flinch inside my car, his words flung at me like spit. I know these protesters are from Westboro Baptist Church. I’ve seen them on television, usually picketing at the funerals of American soldiers. Now they walk down our streets.

What does it say when a notorious hate group agrees with Sacred Heart’s policy? I sit and watch them for a moment, terrified because I used my name in the interview that came out today. I think about those boys in high school who used to run by my house screaming, “Michelle Theall has a dick.” They are the kind of people who would be happy Matthew Shepard was left to die tied to a fence post in Wyoming.

A stabbing sensation pricks at my fingertips and toes, making my arms and legs jump as a reflex. It feels like someone is jabbing me with sewing needles. I remind myself that even if they know my name, they do not know what I look like. An officer motions to me and removes a barricade so I can inch through, back up, and turn around to go in the other direction.

I drive to a favorite coffee shop of mine, the Laughing Goat, and order a soy mocha. The barista works on my order and I wait by the back wall next to Styrofoam cup sculptures flattened and framed and selling for $200. My cell phone rings with the number of an editor I know named Geoff, who works at a magazine in Denver called 5280. I pick up because I want to tell someone about the craziness that’s been unleashed here.

When I describe the protest I just drove through he says, “I know. I just saw coverage of it on the news. It must be absolutely nuts over there. And I saw the interview you gave to the Boulder Weekly.”

I nod and know he can’t hear it.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been going on and I wondered if you would be willing to tell your story. Not an interview and not just about this incident. But the story of growing up gay and Catholic and the challenges associated with that.”

“I—um.” The espresso machine exhales a blast of steam.

“You could really speak to a lot of people in a very personal way. You might even save some kids from giving up.”

The barista yells, “Order up!” I pick up my drink and drop it as my hands touch the paper cup. I expect my palms to be blistered from the unbearable scalding heat of the coffee. It’s not the barista’s fault. The coffee was the right temperature, but my sensory problems have been growing. My MS is acting up like an angry child. I kneel on the ground with napkins and sop up the puddles. The man next to me in line bends to the floor and takes my empty, sticky cup to the trash.

I pick up my phone, which I have left on the counter. “Geoff ?” He’s no longer there. The barista offers me a new soy mocha, and I thank him.

On my way back to the house, I take a route that I hope will avoid Westboro. But the protest has spilled out onto the streets and I get stuck again. As the crowds build around my car, I try to make myself small. But then I notice that most of the people around me are counterprotesters. They wear tie-dyed T-shirts and hold peace signs, and they are predominantly high school and middle school students. A boy in a green hoodie and a baseball cap holds a sign saying: GOD ACCEPTS YOU. Next to him, a girl who looks like she might be this year’s homecoming queen, shouts, “Spread the love!”

The student presence grows until I cannot move my car. The kids sing and put their arms around one another. They ignore a protester yelling at them, “You are going to hell, Boulder,” and another screaming, “You hate God.” I notice that the SWAT team that I thought was assembled to protect Boulder citizens from Westboro is actually escorting Westboro through the crowds to ensure their safety in a town where they are not welcome.

Before the protest dies down, almost 1,800 kids march. They live in a post-Columbine world with an African-American president in a country where hate took down the World Trade Center. They believe in a future of inclusion and they are willing to stand up for it. They aren’t afraid, and I feel like I will be less afraid because I have them on my side. I honk in solidarity. Kids pump their fists in the air, and I give them the peace sign and a thumbs-up.

I pick up the phone, and I call Geoff at 5280 Magazine. I tell him I am considering the article, but I need to do one thing first.

Teaching the Cat to Sit, by Michelle Theall, is a memoir about growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible Belt, interwoven with the author’s fight years later to have her son accepted into Sacred Heart of Jesus school and parish in Boulder, Colorado.

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