Watch: Former ‘God Hates Fags’ protester explains what finally broke her indoctrination

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

A former member of the Westboro Baptist Church has opened up about leaving the notorious hate group.

The church, based in Topeka, Kansas, is notorious for its opposition to “fags” and “fag-enablers”, picketing anything even vaguely related to LGBT equality as part of its quest to spread a message of hatred.

Megan Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the notorious hate church’s unofficial spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper, was born into the church and brought up being taught to follow the church’s horrific teachings – but left the Kansas-based cult in 2012.

The young former church member spoke out about her experience in a moving TED talk, released today.
In her talk, Ms Phelps-Roper explained that interacting with opponents of the Church on Twitter were key in helping her overcome her beliefs.

She said: “Initially, the people I encountered on the platform were just as hostile as I expected… but in the midst of that digital brawl, a strange pattern developed.

“Someone would arrive at my profile with the usual rage and scorn, and I would respond with a custom mix of Bible verses, pop culture references and smiley faces.

“They would be understandably confused and caught off guard, but then a conversation would ensue. And it was civil — full of genuine curiosity on both sides. How had the other come to such outrageous conclusions about the world?”

Watch: Former ‘God Hates Fags’ protester explains what finally broke her indoctrination

She added: “Sometimes the conversation even bled into real life. People I’d sparred with on Twitter would come out to the picket line to see me when I protested in their city.

“A man named David was one such person. He ran a blog called Jewlicious, and after several months of heated but friendly arguments online, he came out to see me at a picket in New Orleans. He brought me a Middle Eastern dessert from Jerusalem, where he lives, and I brought him kosher chocolate and held a God hates Jews sign.

“There was no confusion about our positions, but the line between friend and foe was becoming blurred. We’d started to see each other as human beings, and it changed the way we spoke to one another.

“It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me. My friends on Twitter took the time to understand Westboro’s doctrines, and in doing so, they were able to find inconsistencies I’d missed my entire life.

“Why did we advocate the death penalty for gays when Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?’ How could we claim to love our neighbour while at the same time praying for God to destroy them?

“The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe.

“These realizations were life-altering. Once I saw that we were not the ultimate arbiters of divine truth but flawed human beings, I couldn’t pretend otherwise.

“I couldn’t justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy. These shifts in my perspective contributed to a larger erosion of trust in my church, and eventually, it made it impossible for me to stay.”

She added: “I spent my first year away from home adrift with my younger sister, who had chosen to leave with me. We walked into an abyss, but we were shocked to find the light and a way forward in the same communities we’d targeted for so long.

“It was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw. I realized that now I needed to learn. I needed to listen.

“I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided.

“We want good things —justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp.

“We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema.

“We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line. This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go.

“My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence.

“I know that some might not have the time or the energy or the patience for extensive engagement, but as difficult as it can be, reaching out to someone we disagree with is an option that is available to all of us. And I sincerely believe that we can do hard things, not just for them but for us and our future. Escalating disgust and intractable conflict are not what we want for ourselves, or our country or our next generation.”

The church earlier this year made a last ditch attempt at using Pokémon Go to spread anti-LGBT messages.

The WBC travelled to Orlando last year, with the intention of protesting as many funerals as possible with ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.

However, hundreds of local residents thwarted the group’s attempts – turning up ahead of Westboro and forming a human chain around the memorial locations.