By Meghan Chavalier
Nate Phelps is
the estranged son of Pastor Fred Phelps, a name the gay community
knows well, but after reading a recent speech Nate gave in Atlanta,
Georgia I've come to realize that Nate is nothing like his father.
I have written many articles about the Phelps' family but didn't know
about Nate until Brother Richard sent me his speech. I didn't realize
that there were members of the Phelps' family that were not a part
of their pickets, and didn't agree with Fred Phelps religious beliefs.
When I contacted Nate via email he wrote me the same day, and agreed
to do this interview for our website.
What was life like growing up in the Phelps
My earliest memories were generally good in spite
of an undercurrent of fear that was always there. From the age of
awareness my childhood was marked by the constant tension and violence
that existed in our home. That coupled with the sense of isolation
that my father fostered, in large part due to his religious beliefs,
kept our focus inward. With very few exceptions, we relied on our
siblings for companionship and friendship.
of physical abuse in your speech. Do you hope that by speaking out
you may help others that may be in the same situation?
The primary focus I had when I began talking about the violence in
our home was to get the information out there so people would understand
better the dynamics at play in that situation. I realize this sounds
like a cliche, but since I gave that speech in Atlanta, I have literally
been overwhelmed by the number of people who have written. Over and
over they tearfully recount the violence and long term fear they have
suffered as a result of fundamentalist ideology. Because of this response,
I got together with Richard Haynes at Atheist/Nexus and began a support
site called "Life After Christian Fundamentalism". Here
people are able to come and find understanding and support as they
deal with their own religious based abuse.
Is there any moment, you can recall, in your childhood where
you could say you were happy?
There are several. I recall getting up while it was still dark and
finding my mother asleep on a couch in my father's law office (she
generally didn't sleep upstairs with him). She would get up and make
us both coffee (I think I started drinking coffee when I was 8) and
the two of us would just sit and chat. While I can't say with certainty,
I believe what good there is in me came from my mother. She was a
tiny, gently, kind woman. There were times growing up, playing with
my siblings, that were good. I had the ability to put aside the violence
when I was away from my father and find some level of happiness in
the world around me in my youth.
you tell us about your mother? What was your relationship like with
I know very little of my mother's past. She had several brothers and
sisters. She had a lot of Indian blood in her and looked it with her
high cheek bones, small stature, skin tone and long dark hair. She
could sing like an angel. When she met my father she was actually
singing gospel songs on the radio. But she was also as much a victim
of my father as any of her children. I understand that she was a victim
of violence in her own childhood with an alcoholic father, so she
already had the potential for that victim mentality by the time she
How do you react when you see the Westboro Baptist Church
picketing at dead soldiers and gay people's funerals?
It's complicated. I am stongly opposed to any willful hurting of another
person. I feel great sympathy for my nieces and nephews. I feel strong
anger toward my siblings who have embraced the hateful ideology of
my father. And I always feel like there's this huge part of the picture
that the world doesn't see...and needs to.
Why do you think they continue to picket? Do you think it's
for notoriety or do you think they really believe in what they are
I think they get permission to do it from my father's argument that
this tiny church is the final "voice in the wilderness"
put here to warn the world of it's impending doom. I think the energy,
the drive, the source of all that malevolence comes from within my
father. I also think there is a large dose of unacknowledged excitement
at all the attention they get that helps drive my siblings and their
familes. And yes, I think they really believe in what they are doing.
As much as a person who has never really had a choice about what they
believe can believe something.
You say your father has his own version of Calvinism which
is virtually synonymous with "Reformed Protestantism". The
whole Protestant Reformation was a protest against the Catholic Church.
Does your father have any anti-Catholic beliefs like his Protestant
forefathers, such as their feelings about Catholic Orders like the
My father has anti-everyone beliefs. As far as the Catholic church
goes...As I recall, he rejects their claim that they are the sole
heirs and lineage of Peter, "The Rock" on which the church
is built. The sacrements suggest a work-based salvation. The notion
of nuns being married to Christ is ridiculous. Infant baptism violates
the notion of salvation being marked by god working in a man's heart.
The papal bulls violate the notion that the bible is the complete,
sole, inerrent word of god. He finished speaking to us at the end
of The Revelation. Then there's the more current issue of sex abuse
that he loves to point to as the final proof that the Catholic church
Why do you think he protests dead soldiers? Is it just for
shock factor to get attention?
He got some attention in the early 90's when he began his campaign
against the gay community. When media attention faltered in the late
90's he started looking for new, and more outrageous, ways of getting
media attention. Remember, the foundation of their whole campaign
is the argument that they are charged with reaching every human on
earth with their message of god's wrath and damnation. In true Machiavellian
fashion, the end justifies my father's extreme means.
Most people in the gay community would find it hard to believe
that one of Fred Phelp's children would ever consider interviewing
for an LGBT website. How do you personally feel about the gay community?
As you might guess, I was raised, and learned great disdain and disgust
for the gay community. I recall, not long after leaving home on my
18th birthday, that I would visit a popular gay gathering spot in
Kansas City (I think it was called Liberty Circle) with a few of my
friends at the time. We would drive through and shout obscenities
and harass the men gathered up there. As I grew, I came to recognize
the inconsistencies with my beliefs that everyone has a right to live
their lives free of prejudice and injustice, and my attitude toward
gays. Today, I see the struggle of the gay community the same as the
struggle of the black community in the 60's. We have, as a society,
blinded ourselves to the very real prejudices we carry against gays.
We justify it, just as we did slavery, with passages and doctrines
espoused from the bible. It is a stain on our society that we haven't
moved past this injustice yet.
I recently wrote to my daughter Hayley and another friend of mine
in California after Prop 8 passed. Hayley had been actively campaigning
against the Proposition and was crestfallen by the outcome. My point
to both of them was that the last time Californians voted on this
issue, several years prior, the vote against gay marriage was supported
by some 65% of the state's population. Prop 8 passed with something
like 52% support. The trend is in the right direction and it is just
a matter of time before the tide finally turns and the gay community
will reach a level of equality in America. The battle was lost with
Prop 8, but the war will be won.
Many people in the gay community feel like outsiders looking
in. Can you relate to those feelings?
I wouldn't deign to compare my feelings of isolation from the community
with the struggle of gays. However, I can certainly empathize at some
level. Interestingly, my time here in Canada has provided a more current
insight into feelings of isolation. I will discuss that more further
speak to any members of your family?
I spent nearly 30 years of my adult life living near and working with
my older brother Mark who also left. I've had some occassional contact
with my younger sister Dortha who also escaped that system. Beyond
that, I've had virtually no contact with any of my family since I
left for the final time in 1980. One interesting contact happened
in the mid 90's. I happened upon a radio talk show late one night
where my father was being interviewed. I called in to talk to the
host, thinking it was a rerun of an earlier program. It was live and
he offered to put me on as a caller. My father freaked out, started
calling me names when I challenged him on some of his dogma, and handed
the phone over to my sister, abandoning the call. He never was real
good at debating his theology. His style has always been to cram it
down your throat. If you don't like it, that's just tough.
How many years did it take you to finally come to grips with
your past, and start to move forward with your life?
That's a misconception. It's still a work in progress. I don't know
if I'll ever come to grips, but moving forward is the only option
I'm willing to consider.
In your speech you spoke about Angela. For those who haven't
read the speech, who is Angela and what has it meant having her come
into your life?
This raises one of the more complicated issues of my life. Trying
to understand the intricate, interwoven cause and effect issues in
my life is exhausting and complicated. It is something I doubt I will
ever fully come to terms with. That said, I found my relationship
and marriage of some 24 years unraveling in early 2005. I want to
avoid getting into the details of that issue, but to summarize it,
I reached a point of crisis where I felt like I didn't have anyone
or anything to fall back on...no foundation of support in my life.
I had spent my entire life being who I needed to be for everyone else
and had nowhere to turn to get recharged, get my glass refilled.
In that environment, I met Angela. She became my rock. With my life
crumbling around me I had her to cling to. In December of 2005 I walked
away from my marriage and moved to Canada to be with her. I was broken
and Angela continues to put herself between me and the world as I
continue to heal. It is easy for the world to stereotype Angela and
I, but I believe I would not be here today had I not met her.
It seems that there is a constant struggle in the world between
good and evil brought on by religious fanatics. Do you think people
use the Bible as a way to scare people into submission?
I think, more often, scared people use the Bible as a way to scare
people. Certainly there are examples of deliberate manipulation, but
generally people delude themselves about god first then cast that
delusion upon others.
You live in Canada. What differences do you find between living
in Canada and living in the United States Of America?
I love this question. There is an entire book in the answer. I am
constantly fascinated by the profound differences that can exist on
either side of an imaginary line. Probably the most profound I've
observed is the attitude about the use of military might. I realize
that Canada's attitude is shaped, in part, by the fact they have such
a powerful military neighbor, but the Canadian people are genuine
in their belief that might should be used in the service to others,
not as a way to gain more power. Another big difference is in this
whole area of freedom of speech. Canada has gone the way of England
in recognizing the need to limit speech when it ventures into areas
of hate. The phrase I hear a lot here is "with rights come responsibilities".
is legal in Canada. Why do you think the United States is so far behind
other countries when it comes to legalizing gay marriage?
It's probably simplistic to say this, but I think it goes back to
religion. Canada has gone the way of mother England in diminishing
the role and impact that religion has in public policy. America still
clings to the idea that their religious ideology MUST be reflected
in the rules of the body politic.
year we elected our first African American President Barack Obama.
Do you think this is a sign that the United States is finally letting
go of it's prejudiced past?
I think it's a good sign. I know that I voted Democrat for the first
time in my life, not so much because Obama is black, but because of
the financial irresponsibility of the Republican leadership in America.
I am cautiously optimistic about Obama, but could care less about
projects are you currently working on that you would like to share
with our readers?
When I came to Canada I began writing about my life with Fred Phelps.
I've been sitting on it for the last year or so, but have recently
begun to organize it into a cohesive story. I'm hopeful that I will
find a publisher in the near future.
do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I'm not good at seeing out 5 or 10 years down the road. I know what
I long for right now is some resolution to the anxiety and fear that
I live with daily. I also am determined to be in a position where
I am with Angela, but still closely connected to my children.
could sum up your life in one sentence what would it be?
Scarred, but stubbornly hopeful.
What advice would you give our readers that they can carry
with them in life?
This quote by Christopher Hitchens would answer that best:
"To "choose" dogma and faith over doubt and experiment
Is to throw out the ripening vintage and reach greedily for the Kool-Aid."
Well said. Thank
you so much for letting me interview you. I think you have shed light
on some topics that the gay community may have never had answers to.
Thank you for your support, your kindness, and your ability to bring
a sense of strength to those who may not know where to find it.