The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: Joan Wagnon

Joan Wagnon was a participant or observer in the following events:

Topeka, Kansas, police chief Gerald Beavers resigns after a public outcry over his alleged “coddling” of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) and its pastor, Fred Phelps. The public is not pleased to learn that Beavers has issued a no-arrest order on the church’s behalf. Beavers is replaced by Dean Forster, who previously won a lawsuit filed against him by Phelps. (Southern Poverty Law Center 4/2001) Beavers is found to have assigned police details to the protesters to protect WBC members, and had repeatedly refused to pursue charges against WBC protesters who verbally or even physically assaulted passersby. However, within months, Forster will promise to never publicly mention Phelps or the WBC after weathering a blizzard of lawsuits and court complaints filed against him by the church. In 2001, Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon will say: “They have used their constitutional rights to bully this town into submission.… Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps. If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life.” (Southern Poverty Law Center 4/2001)

Darrell Lewis, the head of the planning department for Duluth, Minnesota, turns down an offer to serve as the director of the Topeka-Shawnee County Metropolitan Planning Agency because of what he calls the “atmosphere of oppression” in Topeka, Kansas. Lewis specifically cites the efforts of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), which loudly condemns homosexuality and other practices with which it disagrees. “Because of the public nature of the job, I think I would become a target of Fred Phelps,” he says, referring to the pastor of the WBC. “I can’t subject my children to that.” Lewis is openly gay, though he says he is quiet about his sexual orientation and denies being a “gay activist.” Lewis says he was ready to take the job until December 8, 1997, when he saw a Phelps protest during a visit to Topeka. He is also concerned with the city’s failure to pass an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation. “Frankly, in Minnesota it [homosexuality] is not much of an issue,” Lewis says. Phelps says if his church helped persuade Lewis not to come to Topeka, then he and his church have done the city a public service. The church is serving a larger purpose, he says, by helping persuade homosexuals not to come to Topeka. Gays “can’t think straight about anything,” Phelps says, and should not be allowed in important positions. Shawnee County Commission chairman Ted Ensley says he is stunned by Lewis’s decision. He did not know about Lewis’s sexual orientation and says it would not have been an issue in deciding whether to offer Lewis the position. Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon agrees with Ensley, saying: “It just doesn’t make any difference to me. His ideas and his credentials were wonderful. I don’t think his sexual orientation is anybody’s business but his own.” However, Commissioner Mike Meier says he is glad Lewis has decided not to take the position. Meier says he is opposed to homosexuality, and notes, “I’m not Fred Phelps, but I’m pretty damn straight.” (Anderson 12/14/1997; Hall and Anderson 12/14/1997) The WBC will stage protests in Duluth in response to Lewis’s decision. (Anderson 3/23/1998)


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