Nate Phelps is one of 13 children of controversial pastor Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for picketing the funerals of slain soldiers and high-profile victims (including the local funerals of Fred Rogers and Catherine Baker Knoll). The WBC espouses anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual beliefs, often displaying "God Hates Fags" signs. Nate Phelps, now 51 and living in Calgary, Canada, left his family at the age of 18, and recently started speaking out against its tactics and the brutal abuse -- physical and emotional -- that his father inflicted upon his family. He spoke at last week's Advocacy Rally to kick off Pride Week.
Why are you speaking at more LGBT events?
To me, that group is probably the most negatively affected of all by what my family is doing. If I can be a counter to what my family is doing, absolutely I will.
Do you ever secretly hope that the biker group that counter-protests your family will kick their asses?
[The WBC] is putting these kids in harm's way. ... I hate to say this because I really don't want it to happen, but I think something profound has to happen to convince them, or to open a few of their eyes that this really is not a good idea.
At what point during your childhood did you start realizing your family's beliefs weren't something you agreed with?
When you're a child, what your parents present to you as a world is the world. As an adult, you can hear any idea, and you can weigh it and consider it in relation to other things you've heard. As a child, you don't have that. It is what it is. But you also, as a child, have a certain sense of what's right and wrong. ... My father was so extremely different [from] me in personality and character that I would sit and watch him, and I would think, "This doesn't make any sense. This is evil."
Walk me through the minutes after midnight on your 18th birthday.
When it struck [midnight], I was standing downstairs in a myriad of emotions and I just screamed. I literally yelled at the top of my lungs at the bottom of the stairs with my father right upstairs. Then, of course, now I'm freaked out that he's going to come down raging. I took off running and jumped in the car and drove off. I literally had no plan.
I had some friends whose father ran a gas station next door to [my] high school, and I told them I was planning on leaving, and they said, "If you've got no place to go, you can sleep in the bathroom." My older brother's mother-in-law ended up letting me move in with her and I lived in her attic, got a job and was trying to move forward.
But you went back four years later. Why?
It's an interesting question. When we were growing up there, we were taught that if you leave, you are no longer protected. ... For all of the ones that left at some point and were gone for a time, something would happen in their lives and they'd interpret that as God punishing them and they'd go scurrying back. ... I was isolated there in Kansas City, still trying to have a relationship with my family, and suddenly Shirley and Margie are calling saying, "The old man has changed. He's not violent any more. If you come back, we'll put you through college, through law school." They convinced me things were different enough that it'd work.
I got back there and almost immediately realized it was a mistake. ... There was all this infighting because I wasn't toeing the line. ... I just refused to do it. Eventually, a family meeting was called. I refused to attend, and it ended with them saying I had to leave. That was the end of it then.
Does your family see themselves how the world sees them?
I think they do, through their own prism. They see it as a positive thing. That the world hates them, that the world reacts the way they do to them, is evidence to them that they're on the right track. We're taught as little kids that you better be in opposition to the world, that's what God says. So they use that as proof they're on the right track.
Do you think your father's sincere in his beliefs?
I do. He's always preached that homosexuality is the ultimate sin. You can't come back from that kind of thinking. It's also a front-burner issue in society, so I think that's the lynchpin to the whole thing. For instance ... they really believe Obama's the anti-Christ, and when he was inaugurated ... that started the 42-month clock. At the end of that 42 months, or at July 2012, the end times are going to come. It's all part of this belief system he has that we're in the final days. And it'll be very interesting to see what happens to them in 2012.
Will there ever be a point that the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps family will be recognized as something other than a hate group? Will they ever change their message, or is this how they're going to go down?
I think that what will happen is that between the death of my father and some of my siblings will -- and this will happen over time -- that they'll just fade away. You may see some offshoots of it but I just don't think the energy will be there once my father dies. He's the battery, the wellspring of this rage against the world