Terrie Johnson was 52 years old and ready to die.
She’d known since fourth grade that she was gay, but to the conservative, Southern Baptist community in which she’d been raised, Johnson’s feelings were wrong. She lived much of her adult life in public, speaking on behalf of her church to Christian communities around the country, but she was hiding in plain sight. She’d married a man, had children—choices she doesn’t regret—but she was living a lie. Finally, she reached a point where she could no longer continue the charade. She made a plan to commit suicide. Instead, she came out of the closet.
Not all of Johnson’s family members were supportive of her revelation. Most of them weren’t. But her son, Brad, had her back. His mother’s story reminded him of someone else who had escaped an extreme religious upbringing, one far more dire: Nate Phelps, the son of “Fag”-hating Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps. As a Kansas native, Brad had long been familiar with—and fascinated by—the hateful antics of the Topeka-based church. He’d heard about Nate, one of four of the 13 Phelps children who defected from the church, and who was speaking about his new life of LGBT activism. He wanted to tell Nate’s story and, in the process, he thought Nate’s journey could help his mother.
When the Johnsons reached out to Nate Phelps, they weren’t sure whether they’d even receive a response. Now, a little over a year later, they’re more than halfway through filming Not My Father’s Son, a documentary about the abuse that Nate and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father and how Nate finally escaped it. This week, the team created a Kickstarter campaign, with a trailer for the film and a short appeal from Terrie, clad in suspenders and a purple paisley bowtie, for donations.
“We’ve been doing this on our own time and our own dime,” Brad Johnson told The Daily Beast. “Now we’re tapped out.”
Nate Phelps ran away from home on his 18th birthday, but he’s only been speaking publicly about his abusive childhood for four years. In that time, he’s received countless emails, phone calls and letters from people who’ve been inspired by his story to deal with their own issues, be it religious abuse, LGBT equality or physical violence. After a four-hour breakfast with Brad and Terrie Johnson in Lawrence last year, Nate knew the mother-son duo were the right people to help him touch even more lives.
“They had the right frame of mind. They go to the heart of the matter, that’s why I picked them,” Nate told The Daily Beast. “My trademark is, if I can reach people’s hearts then maybe I can change their minds.”
So far, Nate is the only Phelps family member featured in the film, but he expects one of his brothers and a few of the nieces and nephews who’ve also left the church to get involved. Those that still remain involved in Westboro, however, will not be included. “We made a point of saying there is enough” coverage of the church already, Nate said. But that doesn’t mean the family Nate left behind isn’t keeping tabs on him.
Nate said he received an email Thursday night from his youngest brother, Tim, who was believed to be one of the men in line to take control of the church when Fred Phelps passed away this past March. According to Nate, the two brothers haven’t spoken in over a year, which led Nate to suspect that the church got wind of the Kickstarter.
“He called me, ‘an advocate for proud sinners,’ and wrote, ‘to get through some of my days I’m required to patiently dismantle your hypocritical fantasy world,’” Nate said of the email from his brother. “I always lead with the assumption that somehow it’s going to be different this time, but after a few emails I realize it’s not going anywhere. There is no reasoning with them, it’s just the same rhetoric they use in public. So I just let it go.”
Both Nate and the Johnsons hope to not only finish the film, but to distribute it to middle schools, high schools and universities throughout the country where they can reach young people who may be suffering from hatred or abuse in one form or another.
“No child should have to live through what Nate lived through,” Terrie said. “And no person should ever hate themselves to the point of being ready to die, like I was.”
In the meantime, by pursuing the project, Brad Johnson has already achieved his initial goal: providing help and support to his mother.
“Nate is good for my soul,” Terrie said. “To be with him and see the hate he has overcome to be the man that he is today, it gives me so much hope.”