Former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper talks to Stylist.co.uk about being trolled in real life, how Twitter helped her leave the hate group, and why she’ll never take her freedom for granted.
Every day hundreds of women experience abuse online. No one is immune, whether you’re a politician or a pop star, a royal or a regular person. For many, the threats and harassment received on social media can be frightening, they can shake us, leaving us upset and angry, and in some cases, afraid.
But when Megan Phelps-Roper joined Twitter and started getting that abuse, she took it in her stride, because she’d already been receiving it – in person and for years.
Phelps-Roper grew up in Westboro Baptist Church, the right-wing organisation which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US. Founded in 1955, Westboro became infamous in the 2000s for picketing the funerals of soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Phelps-Roper, who is now 33 and has written about her experiences of being part of and then leaving the church in her memoir Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred To Hope, Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, was at the heart of those pickets. In fact, she first joined a picket line aged five, during the group’s first protests against gay people at Gage Park near her home and the church’s base in Topeka, Kansas. As she grew older, Phelps-Roper joined more pickets, including outside her high school every lunchtime.
All those protests attracted plenty of attention, with passers-by who were offended by the church’s signs, which often used homophobic slurs, shouting abuse and insults at members of Westboro.
When Phelps-Roper joined Twitter and continued using the kind of rhetoric found on Westboro’s picket signage, she perhaps unsurprisingly received abuse back in return. But, she tells Stylist, at the time she saw that as a positive thing.
“People were photoshopping my face on to porn stars’ bodies, and things like that, threatening rape as well as death, and all kinds of other terrible things,” she says. “But because I had been raised in that environment in real life, it really didn’t feel that different. You know, occasionally the way someone would word something would be particularly heinous, some of the rape threats, and I remember being repulsed in a way that wasn’t particularly normal for me. But for the most part it just felt like life, it felt this is just what happens to me.
“In large measure, I saw that as a good thing. I write in the book that there’s this passage where Jesus warns his followers that if you follow him then you will be hated by the world, and you should rejoice that you’re being hated and you are getting to ‘suffer affliction with the people of God’, is how it’s put.
“And so, in this milieu I was in, when I got on Twitter and was using that same provocative, hostile, confrontational language that I had always used on the picket line, in large part that was what I got back from people.”
But some of the people Phelps-Roper interacted with “took a gentler tone and a more empathetic approach” with her, “and that was something that I responded to instinctively, even though I’d been raised to be wary of the kindness of strangers”. It was this kindness that would eventually help her to leave the church in 2012.
Twitter’s brevity – at the time Phelps-Roper joined it still had a 140-character limit – meant that Phelps-Roper had to modify her behaviour; she stopped using insults, a subtle but meaningful change which would eventually translate onto the picket line, with her deciding not to hold signs featuring homophobic slurs. And Twitter also gave her an insight into people that she had never previously had.
“Instead of issuing condemnations and telling me to die in a fire – that was popular to say at the time – they were asking questions and it gave me permission to ask questions about them,” she says. “They wanted to know about my family and I was looking at tweets they were posting with their friends, and seeing pictures of their family and their pets, and I was seeing a side of people that I didn’t see in real life.
“I had grown up seeing people in school where I felt like I needed to keep them at arm’s length, or on the picket line, where there was a tonne of hostility and no time to build rapport with people.”
As Phelps-Roper engaged in conversations about religious doctrine with people, she began to realise that Westboro’s conviction that it was acting out of love was weak, and that people outside the church were not evil or misguided, as she had been taught.
“Because of the dynamics on the picket line all my life, I had these expectations of people,” she says. “It was all the things that I had learned about outsiders from the time I was tiny, that they were evil, that if they were being nice to me they were trying to seduce me away from the truth. The verse about being wary of kindness was ‘faithful are the words of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful’. So if it was kindness, it was really deceit because they were trying to hide their evil nature and get you off the path.
“[But] even with all of those fears I responded in a very human way to people on Twitter.”
The conversations tapped into Phelps-Roper’s love of people, and her curiosity about them, something which also led her to become “fast friends” with documentary maker Louis Theroux and his film crew during the filming of his first programme on Westboro Baptist Church. Their relationship has continued to this day, with Theroux calling Phelps-Roper an “extraordinary” person who campaigns in a “very thoughtful and informed and sensitive way for tolerance and understanding”.
But that tolerance and understanding that Phelps-Roper now advocates for through her public speaking wasn’t something that she experienced in the church and, despite her own largely positive experiences, it’s something she also thinks can sometimes be absent on Twitter; in fact, Phelps-Roper draws some surprising parallels between Westboro and the Twittersphere.
“It seems like more and more people are following the example [on Twitter] of this need to show your righteousness by pointing out other people’s unrighteousness,” she says. “It’s led to this race to the bottom where everything someone says, if it can be misconstrued it will be.
“Showing your own righteousness by pointing out someone’s unrighteousness, the race to the bottom, the transgressions getting smaller and smaller and smaller but still treated with the same level of intolerance and condemnation, all of that stuff, even as I say it I am talking about Twitter but I am thinking about Westboro.”
At Westboro, like on social media, members were judged for every little thing they did. In Unfollow, Phelps-Roper recounts how that escalated when a group of men who call themselves the elders took over the running of the church. Her mother, who had worked for the church for years, was sidelined and punished for tiny things, while Phelps-Roper’s sister Grace – one of her 10 siblings – was reprimanded for her friendship with a male member of the church.
Eventually, after months of contemplation and deepening dissatisfaction with the church, Phelps-Roper left Westboro, as did her sister Grace. Church members are not allowed any contact with ex-members, so Phelps-Roper and Grace couldn’t talk to anyone, even their mum, if they saw them by chance. Needing a space to breathe, the pair went to Deadwood, a small town in South Dakota. There, Phelps-Roper was really struck by how different life outside Westboro would be.
“Even though I was 27 when I left, I still was largely treated like a child, because I wasn’t married,” she says. “My parents, my mother specifically, knew where I was and what I was doing at all times. I still joke about getting excited about going to the grocery store without permission, which is true. It’s amazing, I can just decide to go and do something.
“In Deadwood, we’re in this completely empty tourist town in the middle of winter, and there’s nobody out there and I felt like a criminal walking down the street without getting somebody’s permission.
“We were staying at this inn, and I was kind of half asking permission to leave and asking if I had a curfew.
Now married with a child, the culture shock has mostly passed for Phelps-Roper. But she’ll always value the kindness from strangers, the online community she found, and the world outside Westboro.
“It makes me still appreciate the freedom that I have,” she says. “I don’t take it for granted, I really, really appreciate it and it’s wonderful.
Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred To Hope, Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper is out now (Quercus, £14.99).
Images: Megan Phelps-Roper / Michelle Wray / Quercus