If I told you I had lunch in a Subway with three sisters who told me I was going to rot in hell, or if I said I’d enjoyed a delicious vegetarian meal with a paedophile, would you say I was a weirdo?
Well, I’m not a weirdo actually. It’s just you judging me.
But having lunch with American homosexual haters - who told me I was going to hell for not hating gays - and eating a meal with a child abuser was not about getting cosy with people who inhabit the darker corners of society. This project, called Outsiders, is about prejudice and how we judge others.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: this is no light-hearted photo feature.
While there are quirky profiles, like a British trainspotter, a Czech treasure hunter and a pot-loving protestor, Outsiders examines major issues in society while attempting to encourage the reader to evaluate their own preconceptions and judgements of others.
I spent a day with the Phelps’ family at their home in Topeka, Kansas, where I was welcomed with open arms. You could not wish to meet a more wholesome church-going American family. The fact that they spend their lives condemning, amongst other things, homosexuality in quite a distasteful way kind of took the gloss off a perfect day.
Shirley Phelps, her daughter Megan and the rest of the family are perhaps best known for picketing the funerals of dead American soldiers, stating that the deaths is God’s punishment for America’s supporting of gay rights and various other liberal attitudes.
Megan, a feisty 22-year-old when I interviewed her, is one of the key profiles in Outsiders. You look at her sitting with her sisters in a Subway restaurant and presume she is a lovely, happy American. And in most ways she is.
I spent a day with the Phelps’ family at their home in Topeka, Kansas, where I was welcomed with open arms. You could not wish to meet a more wholesome church-going American family.
But there is a religious belief in her and most of her family which is so strong and all-consuming that it strangles any kind of reasoned thinking out of the conversation. Their point is that it is our reasoning about what God’s message is which is incorrect. When you have two points of view not just poles apart but universally opposite, there is no middle ground for compromise.
Megan said: “People who see our signs they say, ‘oh they’re just hateful, oh they’re just ignorant’. These are stupid people, unintelligent, uneducated. That’s not what we are. We are intelligent, hard-working people.
“The problem isn’t the messages on the signs or the fact that we’re using the signs. The problem is they hate the message itself. The problem is that this message is so unpalatable to the unregenerate man. It’s the message itself, not how we go about preaching it.
“Look at that sign over there. It says, ‘Mourn For Your Sins’. They don’t mourn for their sins, they’re proud of them. They love their sins. So how can you say those words in a way that will not make them so mad that they want to kill you?
“When you see an event like 9/11 or when these kids go to these schools and shoot a bunch of people and kill a bunch of people, when you see all these events fall out day by day you look at it from a scriptural standpoint and you see good to be drawn from 9/11.
“I said before, this day is a blessing and a curse. A blessing if you obey the Commandments and a curse if you won’t. I’m ashamed to be an American. I’m ashamed to be an American because this nation hates God, hates his judgements, is proud and hypocritical and they’re in a lot of trouble.”
Like all the profiles in Outsiders, Megan’s is presented in direct-quotes to give an unbiased account of what she has to say.
It took two years of travelling across three continents to compile Outsiders, a series of profiles of the weird and wonderful which make up the human race. Others interviewed include war veterans, a cerebral palsy suffered seeking sexual fulfilment, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers and a homeless man who lived at Gatwick Airport.
I first met Carl, a Reiki Master from Manchester, on a flight to Istanbul. He was one of the few accidental inclusions in the project. Weeks later at his home he told me while we were talking that there was a Japanese Samurai and and an African Zulu Warrior behind him, adding: “I always place protection around myself and the room, I cleanse it before they come. And then I call him, the Christ energy, because I have the Christ energy working with me as well, Jesus Christ.”
Carl makes snooker tables for a living. His story was amazing.
Others interviewed include war veterans, a cerebral palsy suffered seeking sexual fulfilment, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers and a homeless man who lived at Gatwick Airport.
Ian, a protestor camping in Parliament Square, London, had a philosophical view to life. Preferring to be known only as Friend, he told me matter-of-factly: ‘I am here in the middle of London to be as annoying as I possibly can so that the many-headed beast of the apocalypse can swallow me and I can choke the fucker.’
Sex religion and racism feature heavily. There’s an interview with Yvonne Ridley, the heavy-drinking Geordie journalist who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. She is now a convert to Islam and offers a refreshing view on the life of a Muslim in a time when the use of the word in Britain today often has negative connotations.
BNP chairman Nick Griffin is also featured. Generally considered a racist, I felt his inclusion was important as there is a long-running distorted representation of him and his party in the British press which is hugely unfair.
Griffin said: “In some areas, even new areas we go into, the phrase that comes back repeatedly over the years, is people treating you like liberators walking down the street and they say, ‘where have you been?’. There’s tremendous enthusiasm in some places. In others there’s a guarded respect. And in others it’s, ‘you’re not the National Front are you?’, which is the most common thing. So there’s nothing wrong with the BNP in ordinary people’s eyes, it’s just the concern of what’s behind or in the past and have things really changed.”
While I vigorously oppose all forms or racism, I don’t believe the best way to tackle it is to misrepresent groups like the BNP.
I have similar feelings about paedophiles. The press has whipped up hysteria about this subject to such levels that it cannot be discussed in any meaningful way. Newspaper headlines like ‘Pervert paedophile lives near school’ are commonplace - but where is the discussion about how to deal with paedophiles, house them and ensure they do not reoffend?
Do you even know if paedophilia is a disease or a condition? My interview with Frans - actually one of four paedophiles I interviewed in Holland - covers the topic to a depth I have never seen in print before. His intelligence and knowledge of the subject is hugely incisive and educational.
Frans stated quite clearly early on in the interview: “The most important thing is to make the differentiation between feelings and acts. Paedophile and paedosexual. It’s a very great difference. If you don’t accept this difference we cannot talk in a reasonable way. The public does not make this difference. They say all paedophiles are all the same. They say every paedophile is paedosexual. That is not true. There are lots of people with paedophile feelings who do not act on it.”
People often ask me, ‘how did you persuade a paedophile to be interviewed?’. My answer is that the paedophile was easier to get an interview with than George Galloway, who cancelled on me three times.
Galloway’s place in the book was replaced by a transsexual dominatrix. I’m sure he would approve.
Selected quotes from Outsiders:
Treasure hunter: ‘They came at us with spears crying ‘argghhhhh!’
Converted Geordie Muslim: ‘People see a Muslim woman and you can see all the word association flashing through their minds: Bin Laden, terrorism.’
Homeless man: ‘My Thai wife paid someone to push me off a third story balcony.’
British soldier: ‘I was on fire but I couldn’t see much, the flash had burned my eyes. Just thought I’m going to die.’
Westboro Baptist Church member: ‘If you’re going to dedicate your life to serving yourself, and your lust, God hates you. That’s what the Bible says.’
Paedophile: ‘I don’t regret the relationships, only the sexual part of it.’
Israeli teenager: ‘Some of my friends in Israel, they don’t see the Palestinians as humans.’
Outsiders is available now from Amazon. Also available on Kindle. www.gazcook.com
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