Thursday 19 February 2009

Signs of hate

In any competition to find the most loathsome family in America, the Phelps family who run Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, would be hard to beat. They regularly picket the funerals of gay victims of hate crimes wielding signs that read 'God Hates Fags', and in 2006 turned up at the memorial for victims of a mining disaster, which they claimed was divine vengeance for America's tolerance of homosexuality, bearing placards declaring 'Thank God For Dead Miners'.

But as Paul says: 'Loathsome (and nutty) as they are, I don't remember ever reading about Westboro members physically assaulting anyone or calling for their death.' Yet, like Geert Wilders, and unlike some apologists for terrorism, they have been banned from entering Britain. To quote Paul again: the UK, where people can march down the street carrying banners supporting terrorist organizatons like Hamas, where they can throw bollards at police and shout 'wipe out Israel', you would think there would be room for a small bunch of nutjobs waving placards reading 'God hates Fags'.

It's a difficult one, though. The Westboro placards don't explicitly advocate violence, in the way that (say) 'Behead those who insult Islam' clearly does (the Phelps family prefer to ask the Almighty to do the killing for them). But if I were gay I might feel more than a little threatened by religious loons chanting 'Homosexuality = Death' or 'Fags Die - God Laughs' (two further examples of their subtle sloganising). 

There are certainly stronger grounds for excluding the Westboro Baptists than there were for banning Wilders. But Jacqui Smith needs to make much clearer the rationale for banning or not banning people: the present situation is a confused mess.

Strange as it may seem, the Phelps family and their hangers-on were planning to travel to Britain to picket a play being presented at a sixth-form college in Basingstoke.' The Laramie Project' tells the story of gay student Matthew Shephard who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Apparently the drama has been used to teach personal, social and health education and citizenship in schools.

As is always the case with such protests, the hostility of these truly nasty fundamentalists has only served to give additional publicity to the production, and to draw further attention to the awfulness of hate crime - which I'm sure isn't what they intended.

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