It feels like Fred Phelps has always been, and always will be, anti-gay hatred personified.
But he hasn’t always been there. Back in the 90s, when we were still reeling from the AIDS crisis and struggling with painfully slow gains for LGBTI equality, Phelps was not a public figure.
Then an event occurred that was so graphic and raw, that it tore not only at the heart of the LGBT community, but caught the attention of the mass population in a way that hundreds of thousands of deaths of gay men from AIDS had not.
A young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and found crucified on a Wyoming fence.
The shock and horror of Matthew’s demise was magnified by what, or more to the point, who, came next: Fred Phelps.
Phelps and his Westboro Church were opportunistic. The high profile of the Shepard case was the perfect chance for them to grab the notoriety they craved. While the nation reeled in shock, they picketed Matthew’s funeral and proclaimed the young victim would burn in hell. We had not seen such bold insensitivity from homophobes before and it offended not only those who disagreed with it, but also those who shared its sentiments.
The Phelps clan’s appearance at the funeral began a very long and notorious career of protesting at as many visible AIDS victim and LGBTI funerals as they could find. They also targeted pride events and celebrations. They became the lightning rod of hatred towards gay people.
When, after time, they felt they were not getting enough attention for that hatred from an apathetic American public, they morphed their protests to include fallen American service people. They could barely rationalize this activity and were clearly seeking to incite by picking targets of people whom the public revered.
Now, Fred Phelps is dying. Many will celebrate, and many will make comments about picketing his funeral in an eye-for-an-eye retaliation. I will not be among them.
I do not respect Phelps, nor do I forgive the pain he inflicted, but I value him. I value what he contributed to the struggle for LGBTI equality. I am grateful that because of his presence, millions woke up to understand homophobia better and to confront it.
His activity had a dramatic and unintended consequence. He and his family became the mirror many Americans had to face about their own attitudes about LGBTI people. They did not like what they saw. Others who did not harbor such negativity themselves were made aware that such oppression existed.
My blogger friend Ono Kono was one. She wrote: ‘Two decades ago, I was unaware of the struggle of LGBT people. Back then, I was a busy working mom, juggling career and family. I cared about others, but I was asleep when it came to their plight…
‘I thank you Phelps clan for opening my heart to love, in spite of your hatred for my LGBT brothers and sisters. I saw the cruelty in your eyes, echoed by the pain in others who watched you.
‘I don’t know what brought you down your path to hatred. I can only say, I thank you for being so open about it, but only because you helped me wake up to the horrid truth that people who hate still exist.’
Phelps and his Westboro Church believe what many who are homophobic out of ‘religious’ principles espouse. Their anti-gay stance is based on a poorly thought out, superficial reading of the colloquially translated Bible. ‘The Bible says that being gay is a sin’ is the popular notion.
The Bible does not actually say that. What it actually represents is specific writings from ancient times, addressing situations in those times and places that have nothing to do with modern LGBTI people. In order to make it apply to our current life, its proponents have to take passages out of historical or cultural context and demand only a calculated, literal understanding of them.
Phelps has been their undoing.
His consistent message has been that God does not only hate gay people, but also wishes us dead – stoned, specifically. The Westboro Church has simply expressed the extreme but logical extension of the ‘Christian Principles’ other anti-gay people also support.
Phelps showed the homophobic Christians what their ‘principles’ looked like. They did not like what they saw. They saw hatred, but did not feel like haters. It forced many to take a more educated look at scripture and they found their original, uneducated comprehension was lacking.
They found many ancient mandates did not apply to modern life, and they found the passages they had ascribed to gay people both did not apply, nor did they feel the ramifications reflected the bigger core principles of love they valued.
Phelps became the example no self-respecting Christian wanted to become. Many actively readdressed their values and public tolerance of LGBTI rights began to surge.
One of my blogs about my family got on the Phelps’s radar about a year ago.
It inspired this tweet from Fred’s daughter: ‘Fag marriage is not about ideology or who’s “nice”. It’s about obeying God as a nation!’
My sincere response to her was: ‘Thanks Margie. Your family has done more to propel gay rights forward than mine ever could. Congrats.’
That is my requiem to Fred Phelps. He was a man with a mission. His failure to succeed is our triumph.
He achieved the most epic fail in modern history. Not only did he not inspire a single person to his point of view, he drove millions away in revulsion. For everything he lost in personal credibility and respect, he helped fortify the well-being of those he sought to destroy.
His contribution is iconic for that very reason. It is a lesson that today’s fundamentalist Christians who seek to discriminate under the banner of ‘religious freedom’ need to absorb. My hope is that at the death of Phelps, they take a sober look at his legacy, and seek not to emulate it.
He is their current and present wake up call.