The Real Rowan County

On the drive down to Morehead, Kentucky this past Sunday night, I figured I had two things to fear: First, the Westboro Baptist Church, who were picketing on the lawn of the Rowan County Courthouse, where “adulterer” Kim Davis works. Second, everyone else, because my assumption was that the way the news has portrayed this eastern Kentucky town in the last few months – populated mostly by zealots and homophobes, people who are just like Kim Davis – was accurate.

I arrived in Rowan County in the dark, after watching the most beautiful, fluorescent sunset I’ve ever seen in my life burn the moisture out of the ground and pull the night up from the east, and in that kind of rural dark it’s hard to sense what anything is really like. I can tell you that it smelled like earth and burning wood, and that in the morning, clouds of mist were still hanging low over the ground. The whole town of Morehead is tucked into Daniel Boone National Forest, in the low parts of the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s accordingly scenic, with a rolling horizon of green and red for a backdrop.

Otherwise, it’s a pretty average town. It’s tiny and well-maintained, with nice houses on big pieces of land (at least by the standards of a Chicagoan). It’s the kind of city that has one of each kind of restaurant, as far as I could tell – a Mexican place, a Chinese place, a pizza place, a 24-hour diner, a combination bookstore and cafe, and, I think, one Starbucks. That Starbucks is on the relatively sizeable campus of Morehead State University, the Westboro Baptist Church’s second target of the day.

One standout about the general scenery in Morehead is that its government buildings seem particularly new, including the courthouse where Kim Davis performs, or refuses to perform, her duties as Rowan County Clerk. The courthouse lawn was where the WBC was holding their protest against Davis, and it was covered with a layer of frost – the county got its first freeze of the year that night, and I showed up without a jacket, of course.


This is where I met Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the notorious Fred Phelps, a man who left a mark on my own queer adolescence. I came to knowledge about my own sexuality at the precise same time that I came to knowledge about the Westboro Baptist Church, after the tragic beating death of Matthew Shepard, when the WBC picketed his funeral and claimed he was burning in hell.


It was fearsome at the time, but over the last 16 years, the Phelps family has been aging and dying and their numbers have dwindled. Only four people showed up on the lawn of the Rowan County Courthouse to walk back and forth on Morehead’s Main Street with signs and sing parodies of Neil Diamond, Sam Smith, Sia, and Queen about fags and adulterers. There were more media and more cops than there were WBC members at the courthouse.

I felt a flash of hurt after I introduced myself to Shirley Phelps-Roper, while she was  buckling herself into a belt made of pride flags, a mockery of various aspects of my own identities: American, queer, genderqueer. It hurt to see the trans pride flag, a symbol around which I find community, trampled. But it’s the WBC, and they don’t care who they hurt. That’s the point.

I asked Phelps-Roper why the WBC was picketing someone who seems like a natural ally. The problem, she explained, is two-fold. The WBC considers Kim Davis an adulterer because she has divorced and remarried repeatedly. To the Phelps family, adultery is as great a sin as homosexuality, so Davis has no place telling gays that they’re morally wrong. In fact, it’s Davis’s fault that homosexuality has (apparently) become rampant in America: “All this sin of Sodom is enabled by these Christians – so-called Christians – when their sin is out on the front of the street,” Phelps-Roper told me. And if Davis is unrepentantly sinful, what right does she have to tell anyone else they can’t sin?

The WBC also objects to the fact that Davis took an oath and swore on the Bible that she would uphold the law of the land as a part of her duties, and then disobeyed the government to which she made that oath. Phelps-Roper was particularly offended that Davis would take for granted her “cushy job, high-dollar salary, and fluffy digs,” noting that the $80,000 Davis makes per year goes a long way in eastern Kentucky.


So what can Davis do, according to the WBC? Get divorced, never get married again, and stop evangelizing on the public’s time. If Davis objects to same-sex marriage, Phelps-Roper said, she can wait until her day’s work is done, then “Get her rickety butt out to this corner with some signs that say, ‘God will not have same-sex marriage,’ and such. She can get some made, she can do it like we do, and she can do it on her own time, on her own nickel, and otherwise shut your mouth and be thankful.”

Before you start nodding in agreement and feeling funny about yourself, consider the fact that Phelps-Roper also told me that after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the Phelps family was leaping (literally) for joy:

And why? Because the WBC  is looking for the apocalypse, and gay marriage “harbinges” the coming destruction of America, per their reading of the Bible. And yes, they believe that they’re doing the very best they can to live God’s word and be saved. Phelps-Roper said that the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera and the activation of the Cascadian subduction zone – the giant fault line along the Pacific coast –are exciting possibilities to the Westboro Baptist Church. A sinful America will be destroyed by God’s wrath. She called this a “‘yay!’ moment.”


After 16 years of reading about their message of hate and fear and anger, which in that time has not changed by a single word, I had one big, personal question. “Does this make you happy?” I asked her.

“I can’t think of anything that gives me more joy, because I’m confident in this. I am absolutely confident.” Phelps-Roper told me that she has at times felt unconfident in other areas of her life sometimes, especially as a mother, but not so with her evangelizing. “I can’t think of anything that is more joyful. We did a God Hates the Media tour in New York, where we walked for 12 miles, hitting all the spots, and I had my music box on my waist, and I thought at one point, ‘It just doesn’t get any better than this. It just doesn’t get any better than this.’”

When people say things that are hateful, it doesn’t reflect the depths of who they are – it reflects a moment of fear or anger. Beneath a few layers of aggression, you’ll usually find a hurt individual. But not Phelps-Roper. Take that for what you will.


The Reverend Randy Smith, a local evangelical pastor who’s been leading rallies in support of Kim Davis, showed up to the courthouse toward the end of the WBC’s protest. He wanted to make sure he put a face to Morehead’s Christian community and stated his and the community’s absolute opposition to Westboro’s presence.


“The thing is, I can guarantee you there’s not a one of them that doesn’t have a past,” Smith said, referencing the WBC’s signs. “There’s no love in what they’re doing. And they certainly don’t represent the God of the Bible. And they don’t represent Christians. And they are truly a disgrace to all of us who try to live a life that represents the glory of God’s son.”

“I apologize to the people, for the way they may see Christians,” Smith said. “This is not representative of Christians.”

When the WBC moved down Main Street to Morehead State University,  freshman named Nick Bauer was staging a one-man counter-protest on the opposite corner of the street, echoing Reverend Smith’s position on the WBC. He was holding a sign that read, “Jesus doesn’t act like this.”

“A lot of things they believe – it’s not biblical. I was saved, and I don’t like people slandering the God who saved me. I figured I’d do something,” Bauer told me. He also said that while any conflict is unfortunate, it was a good thing that it happened in a supportive community like Morehead, where “it’s not going to get blown out of proportion.”


That’s because, as Reverend Smith told me, the protests in front of the Rowan County Courthouse were marked by extraordinary civility and respect. “Both sides have protested in peace, we’ve been out here, we’ve taken each other water on the hot days, we’ve communed back and forth.” When pro-Davis supporters were bussed in from Operation Save America and started using hateful language, Smith asked them to leave. He said that he’s heard talk about healing, but that to him, it didn’t seem like there was anything to heal.

“Morehead should be very unique. It should be an example for other cities, both large and small, to follow. That you can protest, and you can oppose one another, and you can be feet from one another opposing each other, but yet do it in a peaceful way and in a way that would represent the community,” he said.

Smith’s assessment was confirmed across the board. I spoke with April Miller, one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU case against Kim Davis, on a lawn of the MSU campus. And she agreed. “Our protests between the Rowan County Rights Coalition and Kim Davis supporters started out and continued to be very, very respectful of each other,” she said of the protesters who live in the Morehead community. “I have not seen bad protesting.”

Professor Bernadette Barton, whose work focuses on the LGBT community in the Bible Belt, acknowledged that their particular corner of Kentucky is different than most. “Morehead is among the more progressive of Kentucky towns. So on the one hand it’s surprising that this is all happening here, but on the other hand it’s not,” she explained. “In the other counties where people aren’t issuing licenses, nobody’s challenging it, so it’s slipping under the radar. So here, there was a strong enough gay group, an activist community, that they could challenge [Davis’s] unwillingness to issue marriage licenses.”


Meanwhile, MSU’s student government had responded to the WBC’s presence by declaring Monday “Much More Love” Day  and setting up a fundraiser for the Student Hardship Assistance Resource Exchange (SHARE). A few days earlier, MSU President Wayne D. Andrews sent out an e-mail in response to the news that Westboro would be on campus, saying, “The Bell Tower in the center of our campus displays one word on each of its four faces – WISDOM, JUSTICE, SERVICE and finally LOVE. Today we come together to embrace the universal truth that love binds us all together.”


Members of the Rowan County Rights Coalition, which formed in response to Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses, were on hand at the fundraiser offering free hugs. They told me they were moving forward to take on other projects now that the courthouse is issuing licenses again – notably Friendsgiving, a Thanksgiving event for LGBT community members and anyone who can’t return home for the holidays. When I asked RCRC member Steven Fife what he thought about the WBC being on campus, he said, “Largely we came to ignore them. It gave us an idea so that we can raise funds for SHARE and so we can let people know that the Rowan County Rights Coalition is here to help with anything they need, but really, Westboro thrives on attention, so we’re not going to give it to them.”

Despite the conflict with Davis, Steven and fellow RCRC members Nashia Fife and Mallorie Gross had nothing but glowing things to say about Morehead and Rowan County. When I asked if Morehead was a supportive place to live, Fife immediately responded, “Morehead’s always been supportive.” She continued: “It’s a great place to live. A great place to raise children, a great place to go to school – Steven and I both went to school here, I got my bachelor’s and my master’s from Morehead State.”

Gross added, “I love the small-town feel.”

Other people in town agreed.  MSU faculty member Shana Savard-Hogge said, “Morehead’s great! Especially here on campus, everyone’s really inclusive, really diverse. Non-judgmental.”

You get the sense that this is the real Morehead, the real Rowan County. It’s a small eastern Kentucky town, but it bucks what Professor Barton called the “lurid stereotypes” about a rural community most famous now for a row involving fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Gay community members feel like they can live here in peace and have a supportive community, and when people disagree, they disagree in conversation with each other, not in conflict.


I admit that I brought my own stereotypes and preconceptions down south with me, both about rural Kentucky and about the Westboro Baptist Church. I feared I’d stick out like a sore thumb, that I’d be preached to or admonished. The thing is, even though the news media has been extensively covering Morehead for the last three or four months, and although they’ve been covering the WBC for over a decade, you never get an impression of what interacting with these people is actually like.

Phelps-Roper, for instance, was surprisingly easy to talk to. While I was shooting photos, another WBC member complimented my all-black outfit and chuckled when I pointed out that his brightly-colored walking shoes must be much more comfortable than my black loafers. It’s uncanny, seeing someone on the news, being told that they hate you, feeling like they’re worth your fear, and then having a perfectly pleasant, chit-chatty conversation with them once you’re actually in the same physical space.

And then there’s Morehead and its community. Morehead is just a normal, nice, very small school town in a beautiful part of the country. But it’s been characterized by the image of only one of its residents –  Kim Davis – whose religious beliefs, and all that they compel her to do, from denying same-sex marriage licenses to growing her hair long and covering herself to her wrists and ankles, have made Morehead a caricature of rural fundamentalism.

I got the sense that people in Morehead would like to be left to finish the conversation they’ve been having about how religion and homosexuality are going to leave peaceably together in the community – without interruptions, either from hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, or from the media.

Miller, the plaintiff in the ACLU case, shared her concerns about how Morehead has been portrayed, inasmuch as the more extreme fundamentalists in town have gotten a lot more coverage than, well, everyone else. “The media attention has not brought out our story of what Morehead is, and how accepting of a community it can be,” she told me. Part of the reason Steven Fife resents the Davis debacle is the kind of attention that Morehead is getting from the press. “[Davis] broke one of the cardinal rules in eastern Kentucky – you don’t air your dirty laundry. She drug us into the national media in not a good way.”


Over coffee at that combination cafe-bookstore, I told Professor Barton about the fears and preconceptions that I brought down from Chicago with me, and that I felt guilty, because everyone had been so welcoming, helpful, and kind.

She pointed out that they weren’t totally unfounded, though. The beliefs that Davis holds – fundamentalist and narrow-minded – are certainly prominent in the Bible Belt. The attitudes of the “55-59%” that call themselves fundamentalist trickle down through the region, influencing it in subtler ways. LGBT people in Rowan County, then, “may have their own progressive ideas, but they will be interacting regularly with people who don’t. They have different political and social values than their parents,” Professor Barton told me.

It’s a different way of being gay than it is for people in large, urban areas. I noted that if a young gay person in Chicago told me that their parents had kicked them out of the house, I could think of probably five big, well-funded resources for them on the north side of Chicago alone. In rural Kentucky, that’s not the case. That means that being out is quieter for rural Kentuckians than it is for the LGBT community in large cities. Miller had told me that before the legal battle with Kim Davis, “It was like, be who you are and do your thing, but just don’t disrupt anybody else.”

So what’s the trade-off? Professor Barton said that there are a lot of LGBT people who just want to be in rural areas. “What’s good about living here, even if you have to deal with a homophobic family or a homophobic community – well, a lot of folks just like being in the country,” she told me. “They don’t like crowded places, so they don’t want to be in a big urban area. They’re connected in the community, so they like knowing people when they go to the store. And then some people who grow up in the country, they’ll move a little ways. Like they’ll move to Lexington or they’ll move to Louisville, but they’ll stay in Kentucky and they’ll stay just a few hours from family.”

And I see that value, because that fluorescent sunset made my heart feel like it had been grabbed by the sky. I saw horses dozing in wide-open fields, I smelled the soil, I watched a purple-washed town wind their day down. And talking to the residents of Morehead, even those who disagree with me, I thought, I could live here.

In many ways, Morehead is precisely the supportive and respectful community that Randy Smith said it was. And in many ways, Morehead is allowing its LGBT community members to embody that end result of the gay rights struggle that we’ve been aiming for for such a long time: To live where you want to live because you want to, not to be forced by necessity or pressure to live somewhere else. If the goal is that your sexuality shouldn’t have to be the frame for all of your choices because it does not constitute the totality of who you are, then the real Morehead that exists past the image the media crafted for it is facilitating the goal tremendously.

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