Residents of Topeka, Kans., accustomed to seeing daily placards with such coarse slogans as GOD HATES FAGS and GOT AIDS YET?, have learned to put up with the family responsible for those signs in the same way some people endure living next to screeching railroad tracks. Now they're enduring the typically grating campaign of a young member of the clan who is trying to unseat the first openly gay member of the city council.
Thanks to the Phelps family, this small, gossipy city can perhaps lay claim to being the homophobia capital of the U.S. Since 1991, the Rev. Fred Phelps, 75, has led his family in campaigns against everyone from "sodomites" and "fag enablers" to victims of 9/11. More recently the Phelpses initiated a referendum on the March 1 ballot that would prohibit laws protecting gay rights. The family is also supporting one of Fred's 53 grandchildren, Jael Phelps, 20, a prim nursing student who once picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral, in her run against city councilwoman Tiffany Muller, 26, who co-sponsored a law late last year that shields gays from discrimination in city hiring. Since there are two other contenders in the race, Jael is given little chance of winning. But the referendum could succeed even though most Topekans, including those who signed the referendum petition, say they oppose the Phelpses' tactics. "A lot of people don't outwardly agree with what Phelps is doing, but behind the scenes they do," says Republican state representative Lana Gordon. --By Eric Roston