TOPEKA, Kan. — Location, location, location. It’s what often sells a house or determines the success of a business, and it’s the case for the house that was painted in rainbow colors this week on S.W. Orleans Street in Topeka.
Dubbed the “Equality House,” it’s right across the street from the home of the cult-like homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, the group notorious for picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers and for its signs proclaiming, “God hates fags.”
Aaron Jackson, 31, co-founder of the charity Planting Peace, which supports rainforest conservation, de-worming projects and orphanages around the world, wanted to do something to help the “thousands and thousands” of kids who commit suicide because of bullying over LGBT issues, he told me.
After hearing about 9-year-old Josef Miles staging a counter protest last year with a sign, “God hates no one,” Jackson looked up the location of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I was ‘walking’ down the street [on Google Earth] and saw a for sale sign,” he told me. “Oh man, I want this house and how great would it be to paint it in the colors of the gay pride flag.” That house was no longer available, but a real estate agent located another property that was across the street from Westboro; Planting Peace bought it for around $81,000 — sight unseen.
Jackson moved from his home in Florida to Topeka several months ago, but had to wait until this week for weather warm enough to paint the house. He also had to find a painter for the job, and no one in Topeka would take it on.
“I think they’re too spooked,” he says.
Kansas City, Mo. contractor Mike McKessor, a military veteran, told the Topeka Capitol-Journal why he agreed to the job: “I don’t like them [Westboro] messing with veterans.”
The house still needs two more coats of paint, but it’s already attracted international attention. Jackson did a radio interview Thursday morning with a Canadian radio station; also on the line was church leader Margie Phelps, he said.
“They asked her about the rainbow house and she said, you mean ‘the sodomite house,’” Jackson said.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro founder Fred Phelps and a frequent spokesperson for the group, told Kansas City’s Fox 4 she “loves” the paint job. “What he does is he keeps the eyes of the whole earth on this message. Now everyday all people are thinking about is God will not have same-sex marriage,” she said.
Since the “rainbow” house is in an area zoned for residential use, it will not be used for offices but will provide a place for volunteers to live, Jackson explained. He hopes to start an anti-bullying program and is seeking seed money.
Meanwhile, the house is causing traffic jams in Topeka, Jackson said. He calls the response “incredible” and remains amazed at the number of people showing up. “Thousands of people have stopped by, people from out of state, and they’re taking pictures.”
While we were on the phone, someone dropped off groceries — Jackson said it looked like a hundred dollars’ worth — as a donation to the cause.
As a native Midwesterner, I’m proud of the welcome Jackson’s received. After all, he explained why he’s doing this. “I want to show where there’s hate, there can also be love.”
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.