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Friday, August 20, 1999

God Hates Fags No More!
An Interview with Benjamin Phelps

by Clinton Fein

If you expect the domain name www.godhatesfags.com to transmit a barrage of virulent hate against homosexuals, clutch your purses and dig in your stilettos. The domain is now a haven of hope, love and light for gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual and transgendered persons of faith

Seems like God had a trick or two up his sleeve. Or decided to teach the irreverent Reverend, Fred Phelps, a cyberlesson. Ownership of the controversial web site "www.godhatesfags.com", that Wired News' Steve Silberman once dubbed the "most despised URL on the Net," was transferred to The God Loves Fags Organization - registered owners of the site "www.godlovesfags.com", a site that characterizes itself as "a positive, affirming site that could serve as a resource to gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual and transgendered persons of faith."

"It was stolen " said Benjamin Phelps, the site's creator. "They hacked into my email address and stole my domain." And he's going all the way to the F.B.I. "He hacked into my email address and password and changed all the information"

The original site maintained by Benjamin Phelps, grandson of the virulently homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps, was bounced off one ISP after another for its "hateful" rhetoric and vicious attacks that include audio files that refer to Elizabeth Taylor as a "world-famous Jew whore", or on the"100,000 living fags slobberin' around 45,000 dead fags" AIDS quilt. Eventually it ended up being hosted by junk emailer Cyber Promotions, company of the notorious spammer, Sanford Wallace.

The site caused a sea of controversy and stirred a free-speech debate that embroiled First Amendment advocates, gay activists and Network Solutions, Inc. (also known as InterNIC) who until recently had a monopoly on the assignment of top-level domain names. The worldwide nonprofit ICANN is now assigned to oversee the migration of the Internet domain management system from monopoly to open competition.

When the controversy first arose, Network Solutions claimed to approach the assignment of domain names in the same manner as the FCC, which essentially barred use of George Carlin's seven dirty words. Of course the site itself inspired parodies which sprung up left, right and center.

Fred Phelps, Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who has alienated even the most fundamentally religious, is best known for his distasteful picketing of gay pride events and high profile funerals ranging from investigative journalist Randy Shilts to Virginia Blythe Clinton, the President's mother as well as Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man who was beaten to death in a Wyoming last year.

The "godlovesfags.com" site claims to be "a non-denominational, non-discriminatory web site... to monitor the actions of those who spew hate in the name of God." Although a link of the homepage refers readers to information about the transfer, little is revealed about how the transfer occurred or who specifically was responsible for making the request. Kris Haight, the registered owner of both domains now, told CNN that he didn't know who originated the hack and that he simply gave the OK for the re-routing after receiving anonymous message.

The site appears to be hosted by Mindsprung who refer to themselves as an "eleet people gathering together to form a sub-internet community, in which there will be no holds barred in what we say or do. MindSprung will be where the eleet people of the internet go to find nirvana, self-worth, and re-vitalize, then once again they can face the dark side of internet and fight for peace, and tranquillity. MindSprung will rule the internet community and bring peace and tranquillity to all."

Christina Zulandi, a Senior PR specialist for Network Solutions, Inc told annoy.com that a security team is currently investigating the incident since there are a number of security issues involved. The current system allows a third party to request an administrative modification to a domain name, but the request has to be authenticated by an email to the current administrators listed. Only by intercepting an email message, is it possible to reply to Network Solutions, which then facilitates the transfer. According to Zulandi another two levels of security include password-protected encryption and also PGP, where all communications are encrypted. It is unclear at this time which level Phelps used.

Network Solutions is currently unaware of any formal complaint filed by Phelps or their family attorneys and was unable to comment on whether or not a crime had been committed, since the incident is still under investigation. "If criminal behavior has occurred, Network Solutions will take the appropriate action" Zulandi told annoy.com.

The bigger question is whether a fraudulent transfer was made over interstate phone lines, and if so, how Network Solutions will respond to possible federal involvement and the requisite privacy issues that will undoubtedly arise. "We of course, cooperate with the authorities to the maximum extent of the law. As you must realize, if we don't, our records can be subpoenaed and therefore there is no longer an issue of customer privacy because the 'crime' becomes an elevated issue beyond our control," said Zulandi in an email response to annoy.com's question.

I caught up with Benjamin Phelps by calling his notorious grandfather for his number. "There's some jackass on the phone asking for Fred Phelps", said a male voice dripping with disdain, as he handed the phone to Phelps' daughter and family attorney, Shirley Phelps-Roper. "I'm trying to reach Ben," I said.

My conversation with Ben Phelps went on longer than I intended. While I originally wanted information pertaining specifically to the hacking incident, I was intrigued by the articulate, seemingly coherent voice on the other line, pleasant and polite in contrast to the voice I had encountered earlier. What I discovered as we spoke, is that just as Ralph Reed did for Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, Ben Phelps is the most dangerous interface of the Phelps message, cloaking a passionate hatred in nicety, statistics and a calm and astute command of language and vocabulary.

What follows is a frightening and fascinating insight into the circular logic that fuels the Phelps message and demonstrates that it's not the sins of parents that are visited upon the child, but rather their poisonous rhetoric.

CLINTON FEIN: The site is currently registered to Kris Haight. Do you know him?

BENJAMIN PHELPS: He's just a criminal. We're calling the F.B.I. We have a bunch of proof and information. It's the same guy who runs godlovesfags.com I know someone hacked into my email account and then he changed all the information.

FEIN: What is your feeling regarding the content up there now. Have you looked at the content that is now on your web site?

PHELPS: No I haven't.

FEIN: Is there a reason for that that?

PHELPS: I just got home.

FEIN: When did you hear about this?

PHELPS: I heard about it early this morning. I did try to look at it early this morning and the name servers had not been updated yet, so I did not see the change. He got a whole bunch of media attention, but he shot himself in the foot. He's got information up about when and where we're picketing. I wonder if he thinks it's worth it - to commit a crime.

FEIN: Has this kind of thing ever happened to you before?

PHELPS: It happened one time about two years ago - that someone hacked into my email and made changes to Network Solutions then InternIc we just worked it out to fix it.

FEIN: The interesting part, legalities aside, are you more offended by the act of redirecting the domain name or by the content that is now in its place.

PHELPS: Am I more offended...well, I don't know... I really wasn't offended by either one. Because I always expect things like this to happen.

FEIN: You always expect things like this to happen?

PHELPS: Of course. People are trying to break into that web site 24 hours a day, you know, constantly. And, when so many people are trying all the time, someone is going to break in every once in a while even though its only happened twice what in the, last what three years? That's pretty good. So I'm certainly not surprised. And I don't know why I would waste time being offended when I know it going to be fixed. Shortly.

FEIN: Are you going to press charges?

PHELPS: Well its...we're going to contact the FBI but as far as what they do I really couldn't care less. As long as he doesn't do it again.

FEIN: So you just want to give them a warning?

PHELPS: I want to? Well its not really up to me to press charges. All I can do is...I mean he committed a crime and I'm going to give any information that I have to the FBI to prove that he committed a crime. And then its up to them what they want to do.

FEIN: You sound like a pretty smart, nice guy. What is it about the site that you think provokes...I mean I can see why people are offended by it.

PHELPS: Uh huh. What is it that makes people mad about us? That we say God hates fags. That's what makes them mad. People don't like the idea of God hating people. And other people don't like the idea that anyone would dare suggest that sodomy is a sin. That right there, those three words is what makes them mad.

FEIN: Do you think it's worth all the trouble you've gone through as a result of these ideas?

PHELPS: Yes definitely. Because we're supposed to. As Christians we are supposed to preach what the Bible says. And it's not a burden. That's what we're supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be preaching.

FEIN: Have you yourself ever met any or know any gay people?

PHELPS: Oh of course. You can't be doing this kind of preaching without coming across a whole bunch of homosexuals.

FEIN: How do you respond to psychological theory that's tossed around and assertions that people who hate homosexuals are harboring some dept-rooted homosexual inclinations themselves?

PHELPS: How do I respond to that? I think that it's kind of silly. People always run to that when they don't like what they're hearing. That means that every single person in the whole Bible including God would be a repressed homosexual. I mean if you're going to say that anyone who says anything to suggest it is a repressed homosexual, it means everyone in the Bible is a repressed homosexual?

FEIN: I'm just asking you questions. I don't know one way or the other. I have my own opinions obviously. All I'm saying is there is a pretty widespread theory that people who are virulently homophobic have some unresolved sexual issues themselves.

PHELPS: Well like I said, I think it's a bunch of silliness. I don't understand why people would say anything like that. Because someone believes the Bible and preaches it...I mean it just doesn't make sense to me.

FEIN: The reason I ask this is because...Reverend Fred Phelps is your grandfather right?

PHELPS: Yes, uh huh.

FEIN: Some people listen to him and say that his interpretation of the Bible is fundamentally flawed.

PHELPS: I'm sure they do.

FEIN: And so I guess everyone has different interpretations about what the Bible is and what the Bible says, so what do you think inspires you? Aside from growing up listening to and being exposed to the interpretations of your grandfather, do you think you had a choice to go any other route? Have you explored other options or interpretations?

PHELPS: Oh yeah. I've studied a lot of things. And all of them fall short of what the truth is. So that's the real Bible and I know what it says. And I know it says thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind it's an abomination. And I know that God said that. And I know that if anyone says anything different than that then they don't believe in God.

FEIN: Some people might say that that is an example of taking the Bible very literally.

PHELPS: Well how do you take it?

FEIN: Well, if ones to take it to a logical extreme and really take the Bible literally, the "lying down" part becomes subject to interpretation. So does it mean that it's okay for two guys to have sex together standing up?

PHELPS: Well that's pretty silly. Because you know that that word in Hebrew means, "to have sex with." So I mean you can play all these different kinds of games, but when you look at what it really means - when you look at the original language - it says...I mean its very clear.

FEIN: How do you respond to other versions, or should I say interpretations that say that there is no other explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible, aside from that one constantly used verse from Leviticus?

PHELPS: Well that's not true! [Laughs] I have never ... I've never even heard anything that outrageous. I mean there's two in Leviticus, there's one in genesis about Sodom and Gomorrah...

FEIN: Well there' s some...

PHELPS: Hold on...Have you ever read Romans I? I mean you can't tell me that after reading Romans I that nobody talks about homosexuality other than Leviticus.

FEIN: [I haven't read Romans I] Well some say that, for instance, in the Old Testament the distinctions and the language used to express what resulted in the demise of Sodom and Gomorrah was based on "inhospitality".

PHELPS: Inhospitality! It is...I think it is very inhospitable to surround a house and threat to anally rape two men. So if that's your definition of inhospitality, then yes, the sin of Sodom was inhospitality.

FEIN: Again. I'm just throwing at you some of the interpretations I have heard...some of the arguments that have been made.

PHELPS: You know I've heard all these. I've heard every single one of these arguments. Except for that one about Leviticus is the only time Bible ever talks about homosexuality. Because that's just not true.

FEIN: [Stumped] Uh...other question I have for you. I know that there was the incident with Matthew Shepard...

PHELPS: Uh huh...

FEIN: And I understand there are a lot of people who have issues with gay people for whatever reasons and that's fine. How do you respond to the criticisms that some of the language or some of the animosity that is demonstrated on your site might in some way...and I'm not saying it is responsible at all, but to just consider the possibility that it may be responsible in some way - for inciting other people to harm hurt or in some instances kill other people. How do you defend that?

PHELPS: Well I think its kind of a lame argument to blame somebody else for a crime that a different person committed. I mean the argument holds no water. Everyone's responsible for their own actions. You can't blame one person for what another person did. If we did that...I mean I'm sure every single person on this entire world has said something where you can trace it back to that person and say well if you wouldn't have said that, this person over here wouldn't have done this. You can get caught up trying to blame other people.

FEIN: Some would say that is what your grandfather does. Is blame people a lot.

PHELPS: Uh huh...

FEIN: Some would argue your point exactly, but turn it around and say your grandfather is someone who blames other people a lot.

PHELPS: Oh really. Such as?

FEIN: Well such as gays for AIDS for instance...that gays are responsible for the spread of AIDS

PHELPS: Well I mean...that argument...when you have...your first argument was one person causes another person to do something and now you're saying that one person causes a disease. So those are two completely different issues. First of all. And, I mean if you look at the history, even especially at the beginning, when it first started in America, only homosexuals had it. Then it spread to other parts of the population, and still, if you go to the CDC - if you go to their web site - still to this day over half the people in this country who have AIDS are homosexual - and they only make up one percent of the population. Fifty thousand more people than ought to have AIDS.

FEIN: Some people have looked at those statistics and use it to support the theory that HIV was a manufactured virus that was deliberately unleashed on an unpopular and targeted segment of the population. What do you think of that theory?

PHELPS: I think that's not true. I think they deliberately transmitted it to other parts of the population.

FEIN: Why would they do that?

PHELPS: To remove the stigma. They don't want to be the only people that have it.

FEIN: Except that then your theory could only hold true, possibly, if there weren't Africa. In the beginning of the epidemic, and still to this day, AIDS in Africa is predominantly a heterosexual phenomenon.

PHELPS: Well I'm talking about...well yeah...it's true I'm talking about the United States. I think that we...when we talk about it, we're talking about it the United States. That they spread it in the United States. We think that it's a judgement from God on the entire world for our departure from what the Bible says.

FEIN: Okay! Back to the hacking. What do the lesson to be learnt from this incident is? If there is one.

PHELPS: That fags are lawless. That's the lesson. If they don't like what you say they break the law to try and get you to shut up.

FEIN: So you think, ultimately, that this is a free speech issue?

PHELPS: Them shutting me down. Do I think that's a free speech issue? No, I think it's a crime. Free speech stops when other people's rights start. He doesn't have the right...he can't hide behind free speech, and take something that I paid for and claim it...he stole it. He stole it from me. He stole that domain name. It's a crime. And he did it over interstate phone lines, which is another crime.

FEIN: If there was message for him...if you could give him a message, what would it be?

PHELPS: I would say thank you so much for proving our point that fags are lawless.

FEIN: Ben Phelps, thanks for your time.

PHELPS: Where are you calling from?

FEIN: San Francisco.

PHELPS: San Francisco? Well, you have a nice evening.


 
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