I have to admit that when I first read the news that Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps died at 84, I was elated. He was scum and inflicted pain on others. My first instinct was to organize pickets at his funeral (there was none as it turned out) with signs reading “God Hates Bigots” or “Thank God for Dead Haters” to return the favor for his church’s disgusting activities since 1998. Few people can induce cheers from a death; Osama bin Laden is a recent example.Then after my internal celebration cooled down I asked myself why should we stoop to his level as much as it would clearly give us a sense of satisfaction and vindication?
Phelps’ death does provide us with the comfort that he will never be part of a tasteless protest at funerals and other events (he hasn’t personally since 2007) though his vile, extremist daughter will be sure to carry on the tradition. He’s gone now, and hardly anyone I know shed a tear.But cheering his death and demonstrating visibly would not make us much better than him, if you think about it. The LGBT community and its allies can rejoice in the fact that we have made historic strides in the overall quest for equality; progress is seen almost every day in the U.S. if not the world. Part of this advancement can be attributed to the fact we are less likely to be viewed as some abstract, bizarre subgroup of society but everyday folks: teachers, farmers, police officers, lawyers, dentists, physicians, co-workers, neighbors, friends and family members.
Acting in the same way as Fred Phelps and his obnoxious followers (mostly family members) will not help further our cause and win over those people who are slow to come around. While such release of emotion may be cathartic, it’s best to internalize it and let it be. Hating is hating, and hate is never good.But we can at least find solace in reflecting upon how Phelps had been an unwitting ally during our struggle. Sure he wants us all dead (that’s going to happen anyway) and preaches that God is a vengeful God. And his hateful language on his garish signs does not make for pleasant viewing. Look past the idiocy and think of how he helped us in ways he never imagined.
When 21 year-old college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyo. in 1998, there was a chilling sadness among gays and lesbians as well as other sensible citizens. Another brutal attack on a gay man. Another killing just because of who he was. We’ve seen them before and we expected more to come. There were, and still are, too many homophobes out to destroy us.The Shepard murder gained national attention because of this evil and heartless act committed by two losers, yet the horrific incident would have faded as other news, such as the Clinton impeachment, crowded out another gay bashing. But enter Fred Phelps and his rag-tag brood of haters with signs picketing Shepard’s funeral and applauding his death. They read: “Fags are Nature Freaks,” “Matt in Hell” and “God Hates Fags.”
People noticed this incredible display of insensitivity and hate and paused for a minute. Who can this group be that could celebrate the vicious slaying of this waifish college student? Who can add even more trauma and heartache to his grieving family?The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. led by Pastor Fred Phelps managed to extend the news coverage of the Shepard murder by the hate-filled picketing. People saw this crazy band of people as extremists, and decent-minded people, regardless of their stance on homosexuality, were sympathetic towards the Shepard family.
The compassion remained but it did not significantly change how people perceive gays and lesbians in America. They saw Phelps and his church as outliers and moved on. Then Phelps, et al, made the biggest mistake of all and ultimately caused a shift in people’s views towards the LGBT community.Westboro started to picket the funerals of American soldiers who were killed in the war in Iraq. They carried signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” among others. The families and friends of these servicemen were outraged by the taunting. As Phelps continued this practice repeatedly and winning a legal battle in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 over the right to free speech, more and more Americans had become furious over this brand of heinous extremism.
Phelps did not stop there. They picketed hundreds of other funerals and events declaring God’s retribution for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and their gratitude for AIDS. They even celebrated the deaths of the children in the Newtown, Conn. massacre. How low is that?The country continued to despise Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps’ hatred of gay people affected the masses whereby the enemy of my enemy was becoming their friend: gays.
A few years ago, Judy Shepard, who successfully crusaded to pass Federal hate crimes legislation that was named after her son, was asked about Phelps. “Oh, we love Freddy,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” She accurately pointed out that “Freddy” elevated Matthew and hate crimes in general to more prominence than would have otherwise. Phelps’ extremism caused mainstream America to despise him, and as a result, they became more empathetic to the plight of LGBT folks.As for her reaction to Phelps’ demise, Judy issued the following statement: “Regarding the passing of Fred Phelps, [husband] Dennis and I know how solemn these moments are for anyone who loses a loved one. Out of respect for all people and our desire to erase hate, we’ve decided not to comment further.”
As many of us should, Judy took the high road.