|Nathan (Nate) Phelps lectures at Ottawa City Hall on August 27 during Capital Pride|
Shepard died five days later, and four days after that, on Oct. 16 in St. Mark’s Church in Casper, Wyoming, the Rev. Anne Kitch spoke at Matthew’s funeral.
"We come here today to mourn Matt," Kitch said. "We come here today to offer our broken hearts. We come here today in the name of love."
But parading outside before the world media were the anti-gay American pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) followers, waving signs with such slogans as "Matt Shepard rots in hell," "AIDS kills fags dead" and "God hates fags."
"That was evil!" says Nate Phelps, the 52-year-old son of Fred Phelps, who left his family 34 years ago. "It’s an evil thing when a human being laughs at you during such a tender, painful moment in your life. They say sticks and stones can break your bones, but the reality is words do the most damage. It’s longest-lasting and often cannot be undone. When someone like my father deliberately steps in to injure someone else, that’s a pretty good definition of evil."
I’m not going to waste ink recapping the evils of the WBC – that’s what Google is for. But Nate Phelps – who has 12 siblings, of which nine (and their own sons and daughters) remain with the WBC – worked up the courage to leave his family the very day he turned 18.
"Growing up at home was a war zone," says Phelps. "[My dad] was always on the warpath about something, either with the kids or mother or someone out there in the world. He was always involved in battle. It’s still a mystery to me why he’s this way. What I know of his childhood is he was a fairly balanced, popular, mainstream kid. But a revival meeting in Mississippi seems to mark the turning point."
|Phelps has embraced Canada|
"My sister tried to leave at 17 but there was just no thinking of leaving," Nate recalls. "I’d been at odds with my dad all my life and it escalated in my teens. When I was 16 it became clear [to me] that I was going to leave. I had to find a vehicle. So when I was 17 [in 1976] I bought a Rambler Classic for $300 from a security guard at my high school. I had to hide it, so I kept moving it around."
The second the clock struck midnight on his 18th birthday, Nate drove off in his Rambler with a box of his personal possessions, and "my first three nights [away] I slept in a gas station washroom."
Over the next 25 years Nate owned and ran a series of printing shops in California with his brother Mark, who also left the family. Nate married and had three children before divorcing and moving to Vancouver this past decade. Then last summer he moved in with his new partner in Calgary, a Canadian woman he met on the Internet.
But it was in Vancouver in October 2008 that Nate met UBC journalism student Trevor Melanson when Trevor climbed into his cab in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
"As I drove him to the airport he talked about his activities as a journalism student," Nate writes in the introduction to his website (www.natephelps.com).
"Suddenly he was explaining to me about a program on the BBC about a small, radical church in Topeka, Kansas. The look of stunned confusion on his face, when I told him that was my family, will stay with me for a long time. That chance meeting turned into an award-winning article on the UBC newspaper website called ‘Running from hell.’"
So Nate Phelps decided it was time to speak out publicly against his father. He decided he’d go wherever people invited him. On June 4 last year Nate Phelps addressed a gay rally for the first time in his life during Pittsburgh’s Pride week, and this August 27 he will give yet another public speech, this one at Ottawa City Hall during that city's Capital Pride week gay celebrations.
"This is all a work in progress for me," Nate Phelps explains. "I’m just now getting to know how historically difficult it’s been for the gay community in our society."
Proudly, Nate Phelps adds, "My daughter campaigned against [the ultimately successful anti-gay marriage] Proposition 8 in California [in 2008] and I reminded her that history is on our side. This will change."
But not for Fred Phelps who knows well of his son’s public campaign to discredit him.
"I’m anxious sometimes," says Nate. "After 33 years some days I still feel vulnerable. It’s still hard to hear my family say what they say about gays and Jews and me, but it’s not enough to make me pull back."
Saturday, August 27 at 7:30 pm at Ottawa City Hall (110 Laurier Ave)
$5 (Free for Centre for Inquiry Canada members)