I’m pretty sure one of the hate-mongers offered me cookies while I was sitting in their living room, but I was too nervous to eat.
Across from me sat Shirley Phelps-Roper, attorney and de facto spokesperson for the Westboro Baptist Church. Her father, pastor Fred Phelps Sr., had founded the anti-gay empire, and Shirley was the face behind a good chunk of the group’s 52,000 protests. I’d only ever seen her depicted as angry—angry at a picket, angry on the news, angry on the radio.
Angry, but never alone. Shirley was constantly flanked by fellow church members or a few of her 11-kid brood. Today, her daughter Megan—“my right hand”, she called her—sat to her left.
In the next few years, Shirley would lose her father to death and Megan to the outside world. But at that moment in 2010, family was everything.
I’d just moved to Kansas City, and this was my first story in my first job as a reporter. I managed to pick a subject so universally despised by journalists everywhere: Those in Kansas City rolled their eyes at the Phelps family—sick of Shirley’s shit before ever even talking to her—and national reporters hosted an endless depth of outrage at their protests. Even years ago, I knew another Phelps story would be a tough sell.
But at least I wouldn’t screw it up. I neurotically decided to videotape and audio-record the whole conversation, the way some people set four alarms before a job interview. And I wouldn’t cry, even if she was mean. I’d desensitized myself to Angry Shirley by watching clip after YouTube clip of the hatriarch spewing homophobic vitriol in her interviews with news outlets.
I didn’t expect her to be any more pleasant with me. Because I was sitting on her couch next to a gay dude.
Scoops, a minor celebrity DJ on the Kansas City airwaves, had dressed up for the occasion in a spray-painted V-neck reading “Fuck me – I’m Famous”—but at the last minute, he’d covered it with a paisley button-down. Shirley also wore a homemade T-shirt, a hot pink number advertising “GodHatesFags.com.”
Shirley crossed her arms and leaned forward, and smiled. I braced myself for the worst.
He’d met Shirley and some of her children over the years while counter-protesting their protests, and for some reason—shock-value, for one—he seemed to bond with some of the Phelps girls. He’d struck up a sort of friendship with Shirley’s 24-year-old daughter, Megan, and they’d sometimes chat on the phone.
So on Easter of 2010, the lapsed Catholic Scoops called up Megan and asked if he could come visit. She asked her mom, and Shirley said yes. We’ll talk to anyone, she told me.
Scoops loved to film their relationship, and the ladies Phelps seemed to love being on camera. According to his footage, Easter at the Phelpses looks like any other day—except for the scattered signs declaring “FAG EASTER” above two copulating Playboy bunnies. Scoops sat in the kitchen, alternately bantering with Shirley about an upcoming protest and groaning with pleasure at Megan’s homemade apple crisp. (“You like it?” she tittered. “I totally made it yesterday!”) Scoops kicked off his Prada boots to bounce on their trampoline, and banged out a gay anthem on Fred Phelps’s piano. He even asked for and received his very own sign: God Hates Scoops, it says. He hung it on his bedroom wall.
Their paths continued to cross, like the night of the late-summer Lady Gaga concert. A phalanx of Westboro members were protesting the show, and Scoops, in a blond wing and zebra-striped bra, pranced up to Megan and kissed her on the cheek. (Her church friends later gave her crap for it, but she swore it was just an air kiss.)
“Being gay is about being fabulous,” Scoops told me. “And there’s nothing better than having a hot Phelps member as your fag hag.”
The perks of such a friendship were clear for a professional attention-monger like Scoops. The video of him smooching Megan racked up more than 200,000 views and 1,000 comments on YouTube.
But the day after the concert wasn’t as fabulous for his career. He slept through his shift—and because Scoops was already on his final straw, after having mauled the radio station’s truck on the overhang of a drive-thru, his boss refused to give him another chance.
Scoops needed guidance, and I needed a story. Maybe that’s why we’d both turned to Shirley.
Back in the comfort of the Phelpses living room, Scoops let it all out. “I’m so afraid of religion,” he confessed. “I went to Catholic school and I’m like, this is scary. But then again, what you guys do can be scary, too. You’re promoting hate.”
“No, hon,” Shirley said calmly. “We’re promoting obedience. Obey your God, that’s all.”
“Yeah but I’m gay!” Scoops whined. “I don’t know if I can be straight. How can I be straight? Look at me! I’m crossing my legs. I wear designer clothes.”
Shirley opened her mouth to answer, but Megan jumped in first. “Ready? Just don’t have sex at all!” she said. Shirley smiled at Megan like a proud mom.
The second they launched into rhetoric—battering Bible verses back and forth like co-hosts on a quiz show—Scoops clicked off his camera and waited until it was over. He’d lost interest in this part of Phelps friendship long ago.
“But maybe God brought me to you guys for a reason,” Scoops interrupted. Some the reasons he suggested: they’d go picketing together, that he’d go straight for Megan, that he’d be their greatest success story…
Shirley couldn’t resist his lighthearted provocation—I could tell this was a natural part of their banter. “Hon, eminent destruction,” she shouted. “You seek great things for yourself? Here’s what Jeremiah told Baruch.” Scoops tapped his crossed leg, and Shirley started wagging her finger.
“You remember who Jeremiah preached to? Doomed Judah. Historically speaking, they went into the captivity. Historically speaking. Jeremiah was warning them every step of the way, right up to the day that they came in and the king snuck out the—the...” Shirley motioned to Megan to supply the right word, but Megan stayed quiet. “Through the back door, so to speak.”
Scoops lurched forward and nearly choked on his gasp-laugh. Megan continued to smile, posture perfect, ankles crossed. Shirley didn’t get it. The sermon continued.
But both Shirley and Scoops soon dropped the whole gay thing. No one really believed that Scoops was a candidate for conversion. As I listened to their repartee, though, I realized that maybe Scoops did truly believe they were brought together for a reason. It wasn’t religion, and wasn’t just press.
He wanted a path. Like Shirley. Like Megan.
Scoops proceeded to have a meltdown. He gushed about the unfairness of being fired and the directionless-ness of his career. While he talked, Shirley kicked into nurturing mom mode. She leaned forward, engaged and patient. This I hadn’t expected.
“I don’t even know what to believe in life anymore,” Scoops was saying. “I’m lost. I’m out here with no family.”
“Why can you not get help from your family?” Shirley asked.
“I don’t ask for help from them.”
“You don’t ask your family for help?”
“They can only do so much.”
“What does the family look like?” Shirley asked, making big sweeping circular movements with her arms. The gay stuff I’d prepared myself for, but I never would have guessed that Shirley could harbor different ideas about what a family could look like. “Do you have any siblings?”
Scoops had divorced parents and a younger sister in college. Shirley suggested he go live with his mom.
“I’m not gonna move back in,” he said, indignant. “I’m 29 years old.”
Shirley turned to Megan and smiled. “How old are you, Miss Megan?”
“24,” she replied.
“She’s 24,” Shirley reassured Scoops. She still lives with her parents.”
“But you guys also live on on a compound.”
“No, hon, we live in this house!”
“Your whole family lives right here. You have a support system.”
Shirley leaned back and sighed. “Well,” she said quietly, “We didn’t get that off of a tree. I’m saying that this was a series of decisions that people were making.”
It felt weird to watch a gay man openly envy the Phelps family, but I also understood why. In this house, no choices had to be made. In this house, the only way you got fired is by leaving the fold.
“I don’t know what to do,” Scoops said again. “I’m lost and asking for your help.”
“If I was you, I would go try to find another job,” Shirley said.
“Well, I can’t get a radio job...”
“So go outside the box. What kind of other work can you do?”
Scoops huffed. “I’m not gonna just work at McDonald’s. I mean, I work in the media. That’s what I do.”
Shirley shook her head and crossed her arms. “Oh no, you did not say that.”
“Are you saying there are jobs beneath you?”
“No! When I went back to Jersey, I waited tables. I had no relation to media, and I hated it.”
“Ok, so do that!” Shirley said. She was getting exasperated.
“I wasn’t happy! You have to do something that you’re passionate about!”
Shirley raised her eyebrows. “Well, first you might wanna eat.”
God, I thought as the scene played out, she sounds like any good mom. So pragmatic. So patient. So kind. Shirley Phelps-Roper is publicly a monster, but she also gives gay guys career advice on her couch if they ask.
“And what does your sister say about all of this?” Shirley asked.
“She’s just like, come home, come home.”
At the first sign of someone on her side, Shirley lit up. “That’s right. See? She’s got a good clear thought. I like that sister! She’s just a young person!”
“Yeah but it’s easy to say that! I need to do what’s right for me. I had a purpose in life, just like you have a purpose.”
Entitlement is one of Shirley’s Bible-triggers. “No, hon. NO,” she yelled, pounding her fists on her knees. “See? That’s the lies you were told. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” said Shirley.
“I’m sorry, but that doesn’t pay the bills,” said Scoops.
Before Shirley could argue the merits of making money through God, I managed to ask my first question of the interview, to Megan: “Where do you work?” I squeaked.
“She works for me,” Shirley answered. “She’s my right hand at the law office.”
My second question in 45 minutes. “Are you studying law, Megan?”
“No,” Megan said. “I was going to—and then I, no.”
“But we convinced her otherwise,” Shirley said. “What’s the point, you understand? To do what for a nation whose destruction is imminent?”
At that moment, Shirley had everyone right where she wanted them. Her daughter was her polite disciple, and this driftless sinner on her couch was pestering her for direction. When Scoops asked one more time why life was so hard for him, Megan jumped in as if on cue. “‘If you obey me, I will bless you. If you disobey me, I’ll curse you,’” she recited. “It’s so simple.”
But I never forgot Megan. Two years ago, she gave up her family forever by leaving the church. Now Megan travels the country, meeting with groups she previously condemned. She’s sometimes a guest at gay weddings.
Megan has a blog with her younger sister, who left the church with her. They often write about how much they miss their family.
“I want them back,” Megan wrote, “so much that my whole body shakes with the sick sadness of the choice we were forced to make, so much that I retreat to sleep so I don’t have to feel that way. I want so badly to hear Mom happily call out for me, ‘Miss Meg!’”
And when her grandpa—Shirley’s father—died in March, she tweeted an apology.
“I’m so sorry for the harm he caused,” it said. “That we all caused. But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that, too.”
Mandy Oaklander is a journalist in New York City whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Hairpin, and Gawker. Follow her @mandyoaklander.