Nate Phelps, the 'counterbalance' for the Westboro Baptist Church, speaks at MU

Missourian/October 28, 2011

Columbia -- In 1976, Nate Phelps ran away from home.

At midnight on his 18th birthday, he stole away from his sleeping family members. After living in a home filled with physical and mental abuse, he left without a second thought to what the world might have in store for him.

"I was convinced what I was doing was going to end up putting me in hell," Phelps said.

If Phelps' last name seems familiar, it's because his family has received considerable media attention. In 2007, they were featured as the subject of a BBC documentary called "The Most Hated Family in America."

Nate Phelps' father, Fred Phelps, is the leader of Westboro Baptist Church, an organization well-known for its extreme anti-gay and lesbian rhetoric. The church is located in Topeka, Kan., but members — mostly family of Fred Phelps — picket funerals and other events all over the country.

Phelps, 53, is now a public speaker on religion and child abuse and an advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

On Friday afternoon, he spoke to a crowd of about 85 people at MU's Women's Center. The question-and-answer forum was originally meant to be held in the nearby LGBTQ Resource Center, but the event was moved because the number of people would possibly have violated fire code restrictions.

Phelps said after he left his father's house and his church, Fred Phelps cut off all ties of communication with him.

"When I first left, I tried to avoid anything to do with religion," Phelps said. "I thought I was fine. I thought I had survived, unscathed."

When psychological issues later arose, Phelps sought the help of a counselor. During counseling, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, something he attributes to the abusive environment he grew up in.

"I heard what he was preaching to us, but I also saw how he behaved. ... He was so willing to respond to other human beings cruelly," Phelps said. "If there was any sign of weakness, he would physically and verbally beat it out of us."

Phelps said his father believes homosexuality is a uniquely evil sin, but the hatred and protests were not solely for the gay community.

"Make no mistake about it, he doesn't reserve God's hatred just for the gay community," Phelps said. "He hates everyone."

Fred Phelps also found he could provoke strong reactions and media attention from protesting at events, Phelps said.

In 2008, a student reporter wrote a story about Nate Phelps' experiences in the church. After the story received much attention and an award, Phelps was called to speak to groups about his life.

He then realized becoming a LGBT advocate and speaking out against his father's teachings could help counterbalance the effects his father's church had on the gay community, Phelps said.

University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists and Agnostics and MU Organization Resource Group collaborated to bring Phelps to campus. He will also be speaking Saturday about his life at the organization's fall conference.

Dave Muscato, the group's vice president, said he hoped those attending the conference would gain a new perspective on religion and religious fanaticism from Nate Phelps' story.

"It (religion) can be beautiful and give people hope, but it can be jet fuel for hate when applied as written," Muscato said.

Now an atheist, Nate Phelps has been speaking at events, including gay pride parades and atheist conventions, around the U.S. for the past three years.

He is also in the process of publishing a book about his life that is "pretty much written," he said.

"It would be nice to say we all lived happily ever," Phelps said. "Someone said give me a child until he's 7, and I'll give you the man. You put thoughts in a child's head and they never go away."

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