Hate crimes and the religious right

On October 12, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, two men beat Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, to a bloody pulp and left him hanging on a fence to die.

On October 12, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, two men beat Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, to a bloody pulp and left him hanging on a fence to die. Almost as shocking as the murder itself were the subsequent actions of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.

Members of the “church” — in reality a right-wing extremist hate group led by “pastor” Fred Phelps — picketed Shepard’s funeral, as well as the trial of his killers, carrying signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Matthew Shepard rots in Hell,” and “AIDS cures homosexuality.”

The Laramie Project is a play, later made into a movie, that explores Shepard’s murder and Laramie’s response. It’s scheduled to run in Vancouver from November 26 to December 6, and Phelps is calling on his followers to travel to Canada to picket the performance.

It’s not the first time Phelps has tried to picket in Canada, or as he calls us, “the sperm bank of Satan.” His internet hate site godhatesfags.com has a sister site, godhatescanada.com, in which you can read that “Canada’s wholesale acceptance of fag ‘marriage’ is just the latest in its long and rich history of accepting and promoting sexual perversion.”

In 1999, Phelps and a group of followers planned to picket the Supreme Court of Canada, which they vilify for including sexual orientation in the Charter of Rights. The protest was called off after their hotel cancelled their reservations for security reasons.

Phelps is clearly a nut-case, and his followers (as seen on You Tube) are a sad-looking lot. Hatred consumes their lives. Their rhetoric is so extreme as to spoof itself — people who view their propaganda videos have been fooled into thinking they were a send-up of right-wing “Christian” hate groups.

If Phelps were to take a closer look at Canada, he might find it more to his liking than he expects. The god that loves Phelps and his wacko followers must heartily approve of our country’s violent undercurrent of anti-gay hatred.

Last week a lesbian couple in Oshawa, Ontario, were assaulted as they dropped their son off at elementary school. Another parent, a 43-year-old man described as “6’4 or 6’5 and 250 pounds” approached, calling the couple “fucking dyke lesbians,” spat in one woman’s face, and then beat them both savagely in front of their son and dozens of other kids.

In September, four men attacked a gay couple on Davie Street, in Vancouver. One of the victims, Jordan Smith, was left with a fractured jaw. A 20-year-old Vancouver man is charged with assault causing bodily harm, as well as with hate crime. In October, a gay man was beaten up outside a bar in Hamilton. A 20-year-old man is facing charges. In 2006, the Ontario Court of Appeal awarded Robert Schisler $600,000 after he was beaten in a hate attack by Toronto police.

These and a host of other incidents show that at least some of Canada shares Phelps’ god’s hatred of homosexuals. But Phelps himself is hardly a major force in shaping Canadian public opinion. From what stinking well of hatred are these gay-bashers drinking?

There is no shortage of anti-gay propagandists in Canada. Some are homegrown, but the most powerful and outspoken are US based. Focus on the Family Canada is a branch of the American organization of the same name. Though it presents as a religious group, FOF is in fact the powerful right-wing political organization that was behind anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion propositions during the recent US election.

The group uses its tax-free status as an alleged charitable organization to promote its right-wing views. Though it tries to steer clear of the more bizarre expressions of hate expressed by Phelps and his ilk, its radio broadcasts are clearly intended to promote the views that homosexuality is a sin, that a proper family has a man at the head and a subservient woman in the home, and that a woman’s duty is to bear children whether she wants them or not.

This is not to suggest that every gay-basher in Canada thinks he’s a Christian, or is under the influence of Focus on the Family or Phelps. Some are said to be repressed homosexuals, some no doubt draw their inspiration from secular hate-mongering sources. But Focus on the Family and its ilk are part of the network of intolerance, and share the responsibility when that intolerance flashes into hate crime.

From that group’s intolerance to Phelps’ hate-mongering to gay-bashing on the streets of Canadian cities is a matter of a few steps. If Canada is serious about putting a stop to hate crimes, there are a couple of fairly obvious counter-steps we could be taking.

First, if Phelps or any of his followers show up in Vancouver with their infamous God Hates Fags signs, they should be arrested and charged with hate speech. The right to freedom of speech in Canada does not include the right to promote hatred.

Second, we need to identify right-wing political groups like Focus on the Family for what they are, and not let them continue to portray themselves as religious or charitable organizations. Groups whose primary function is to spread intolerance do not deserve the tax-exempt status of churches, nor their patina of respectability.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.