“That’s a joke, right?” asked a Second Avenue passerby, referring to the people holding signs that read “Thank God for Sept. 11,” “God Hates Fags,” and “NYUFF Fags” across the street from Anthology Film Archives. No joke. The posters were the handiwork of Kansas-based extremist minister Reverend Fred Phelps. He and members of his Westboro Baptist Church descended on New York over the weekend to target the “sodomite ways” of several organizations. They include HBO, because of “its new fag propaganda movie The Laramie Project,” according to Phelps’s Web site, Godhatesfags.com, and the Anthology-housed New York Underground Film Festival, labeled a “fag film fest” in a Westboro press release.
At 5 p.m., the Phelps pack arrived on schedule for their latest publicity stunt and moved behind police barricades opposite the Anthology on 2nd Street. There, they confronted a crowd of some 50 NYUFF supporters, many armed with mini-DV cameras and chants of their own (“Let’s see your ass!” “Let’s see Fred’s vagina!”). As the 15 or so parishioners carried their posters proudly, NYUFF director (and Voice contributor) Ed Halter shouted across the street, “More! More signs! Is that the best that you got?” The religious picketers retaliated with a chorus of “God Hates America” (sung to the tune of “God Bless America”) and even more signs: “AIDS Cures Fags” and “Giuliani Fag Enabler.” In one of the most heated exchanges, one woman broke from the ranks of the Underground camp and screamed at the Phelps clan face to face; later revealed to be Halter’s mother, she was quickly ushered away by police.
Wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, the 72-year-old Phelps admitted that he wasn’t familiar with any of the festival films, but chose to add the NYUFF to his protest rounds because “it’s a fag propaganda mill. It’s a fag-recruiting depot. And we picket fag propaganda mills.” Phelps’s wife, Margie, added, “The other reason why we’re here is because these intolerant liars aren’t running that movie about Fred.” A documentary on Phelps by Steve Drain, called Fred the Movie, was submitted to the NYUFF and rejected.
As the crowds grew on Second Avenue, Ed Halter enthused about the Phelps publicity coup. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to the festival. It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “Everyone wants a fundamentalist minister to protest them. It legitimizes you.” Then Halter, smiling, turned to the NYUFF publicist and asked, “Is there any TV here?”