News (USA)

6 Westboro extremists showed up to cheer the death of a teen. Hundreds chased them away.

Twitter documented the scene at the protest.
Twitter documented the scene at the protest. Photo: Screenshot

Until the Westboro Baptist church imploded a few years ago following the death of its founder and scathing revelations from former members, it was the most viciously anti-LGBTQ+ organization in the nation. Members traveled across the country to protest outside of funerals and crime scenes with vile signs, cheering on the deaths of LGBTQ+ people and allies.

This week, the group attempted to stage a comeback by cheering on the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager beaten in an Oklahoma school bathroom. While six members of the cult showed up to spew vulgar claims of Biblical justice, over 400 people showed up to block them from view. The church’s protest lasted approximately 15 minutes before they fled.

Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student of Choctaw descent, died on February 8, a day after a violent altercation with three other students in a bathroom at Owasso High School West. An official cause of death has yet to be determined, pending a toxicology report. Nex’s mother, Sue Benedict, has indicated that Nex had been bullied because of his gender identity.

Westboro came into the national spotlight in 1998, when it picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student who was tortured near Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998, then tied to a fence and left to die. Locals shielded grievers by making costumes of angels and using their wings to block the protestors from view.

The church’s motto was “God hates f*gs;” they openly celebrated AIDS as retribution for gay sex and blamed every national tragedy on America’s “acceptance” of LGBTQ+ people. After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, congregants held signs that said, “Thank God for 9/11,” while others burned upside-down U.S. flags.

Founder Fred Phelps was removed as pastor and ex-communicated in 2014 after he reportedly softened his stance on LGBTQ+ people. Phelps’ granddaughter, Rachel Hockenbarger, said his failing health led church elders to remove him as minister, but his pleasant overture toward LGBTQ+ activists got him ex-communicated shortly before he died.

She claimed that Phelps approached the folks at the Equality House across the street and told them, “You’re good people.” The house, which sits across the street from the church, was purchased by an LGBTQ+ ally and painted in rainbow colors to quietly protest the group’s homophobia.

Hockenbarger, like many younger members of the Phelps family, left the church and denounced their hateful rhetoric. Members who leave the church are shunned by family afterward.

“He had told the people across the street at the rainbow house that they were good people,” Hockenbarger says. “I do think it happened. I didn’t see it, but it’s been talked about with [church members].”

Before Phelps’ died in 2014, his son, Nathan Phelps, posted on social media that his father was near death. The younger Phelps had also left the church by then, and the family had cut off communication with him.

“I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he wrote. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.”

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