UPDATE [3/20]: Fred Phelps has passed
ORIGINAL: I talked to Fred Phelps just once in my career. The Anti-Defamation League in 2000 had released a report suggesting that he and his church weren’t just homophobic — they were anti-Semitic, too. As a young reporter for a daily newspaper the next town over from his home base in Topeka, Kansas, I was given the duty of calling him for a reaction.
“HAW HAW HAW!” he screamed in laughter. “I welcome anything those God-hating, Christ-rejecting pervert Jews have to say about me.”
That was Fred: Evil and despicably quotable all at once. He took such glee in his pronouncements that I giggled, inadvertently, despite my hatred of what he said. And now, it seems, we won’t have him to kick around much longer: News reports on Sunday emerged suggesting that the vile old coot is on his deathbed. He won’t be missed.
He won’t be missed, because he stuck signs in the hands of children proclaiming that “God Hates Fags.” He won’t be missed, because he figured out the way to produce the most shock and outrage over his tactics was to send those children and those signs to the funerals of gay men and dead soldiers and the innocent relatives of high-profile politicians. And he particularly won’t be missed in my old Northeast Kansas stomping grounds, because his church stayed in practice by regularly picketing every innocuous event around.
Fred armed himself with two things — the First Amendment and an unsurpassed lack of decency — to become the most loathsome son of a bitch never to be jailed nor shot for his sins. And now he’s gonna die.
The debate among good liberal folks has quickly turned to how to react when Fred dies. Take the high road? Or use his death — and his funeral — to create a gay-rights frenzy, the likes of which have been little seen outside a big city pride parade?
It’s a tough choice, actually. Over the years, many who encountered the Phelps clan shifted from a stance of angry confrontation to attempts to ignore to (once his family started picketing military funerals) clever attempts to obstruct and neutralize his message. Nothing ever “worked” exactly — the Phelps clan kept it up, no matter the response. Thus, ambivalence.
“Asking people to fully ignore the man’s passing seems unsatisfying,” a friend of mine said, “but picketing his funeral also leaves me cold.
Normally, I’m a high-road guy. In this case, though, I have no expectation that that could come to pass. The man and his family — and Westboro Baptist Church is comprised almost entirely of his family — have done so much to exacerbate the pain of grieving families over the last few decades that, well, fair’s fair. I’m not even sure the pent-up rage could even be contained otherwise.
Just understand a couple of things:
• The Phelps clan will almost certainly glory in the spectacle of mass protests against their patriarch. That’s the thing about cults: They love to see their prophets made martyrs. It feels like confirmation, you know?
• The gay-rights movement is probably losing its most effective advocate. Seriously. When Fred started his protests back in the early 1990s, gay rights were still on the fringe of mainstream acceptance. AIDS was still destroying the gay community. This was before Bill Clinton signed “don’t ask don’t tell,” and before Congress passed the “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Fred took a relatively mainstream position — we don’t like gay sex, we don’t want gays to have legal protections — and put the ugliest possible human face on it. He so fully and loudly and hatefully occupied the right-most position on the spectrum of arguments that a lot of people who might’ve offered a more appealing public face against gay rights (in churches, especially) fled closer to the center in their rhetoric in order to avoid being associated with him. Fred pushed the conversation to the left from the right — extraordinary, because Fred’s viewpoints only represented Fred, and not that of any mainstream political movement — and thus probably sped up the acceptance of things like gay marriage and gays in the military by a decade or two.
Fred Phelps was thus, perhaps, greatest force for gay rights this country has ever known. Sometimes, a movement needs a Martin Luther King Jr. And sometimes it needs a Bull Connor. Fred was the latter. He will die defeated. That is something we can surely celebrate.
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