NATE PHELPS

Interviewed 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 household?

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.

You spoke 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.

Can you tell us about your mother? What was your relationship like with her?

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 married.


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 doing?

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 Jesuit Society?

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 is evil.


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 on.

Do you 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".

Gay marriage 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.

This 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 his race.

What 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.

 

Where 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.

 

If you 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.