So Fred Phelps is dead. Ever since Nate Phelps, his estranged son, broke the news of his imminent demise, there’s been an outpouring of viciousness from our community, delighting in his death. Honestly, it’s a little bit sickening.
The WBC made a name for themselves by picketing funerals, first of Matthew Shepard and any other LGBT people they could find, latterly of fallen US troops and LBGT(friendly) celebrities. They have caused untold distress to grieving families since at least 1998. Now one of their own — their figurehead, no less — is dead, the temptation to give them a little bit of tit-for-tat is almost overwhelming.
But before we paint ‘God Hates Freds’ placards and open the bubbly to celebrate his death, let’s think what his legacy will be. Fred Phelps is an icon of hatred and warped religiosity: he shone a light into the darkest corners of the homophobic heart and made many ordinary people change their minds about LGBT equality. They saw themselves reflected in the sickening actions of the WBC, and they didn’t like it. It’s no coincidence the equality movement has progressed in leaps and bounds ever since the WBC first came to prominence.
For that, Fred, I thank you.
If we now indulge in exactly the kind of behaviour which first put the WBC on the map and sparked a nation’s abhorrence, what are we saying about ourselves, our community, to the public at large? The equality movement has been fighting for tolerance and acceptance for decades: well tolerance works both ways. How the members of the WBC think and live, and the things they do, make me sick to my stomach. I know they are wrong, I know even if there is a God that He finds their actions as despicable as the rest of us do. The WBC have broken many scriptures in their single-minded drive to attack the LGBT community — their members are divorced, were born out of wedlock, and their women try to exert authority over men, to name but a few — which makes them hypocrites as well as monsters. Yet they are as entitled to think as they do as I am entitled to think they’re all batshit crazy, and the worst sort of people.
We also need to look at what other information Nate Phelps shared with us — Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church. Reading between the lines of Nate’s statement and WBC’s own response to inquiries into the matter, there was a coup in the church last summer. A number of male ‘elders’ booted Fred out, and Shirley has been muzzled. Given the majority of the church are members of Fred’s extended family, if they want to survive beyond his death, they need to get away from the Phelps family. I predict right now we’ll see a number of changes in the church in the coming year as they try to distance themselves from the legacy of their most outspoken members. Let’s not let them do that. Let us always remember exactly what they did.
Let’s also remember the real reasons why they did what they did to begin with. WBC had an agenda to make the news, to cause controversy, to be front and centre any way they could. They are trolls, they thrive on attention. But more than that, the majority of them are lawyers, and they’ve made an awful lot of hay with the sun of indignation shining on them. They have been involved in lawsuits at every level, up to and including the US Supreme Court, and more often than not, they’ve won. Not only have they brought untold misery to grieving families, they’ve made a mint off them, too.
If we cave to temptation and give the Phelps family a taste of their own medicine, we’ll be playing right into their hands. We’ll be proving ourselves as nasty and as small-minded as they are themselves: and you can bet your ass they’re ready for it, and will turn it to their advantage every way they can. We simply cannot do what they do, and still expect the world to side with us against them. We cannot let ourselves be as hypocritical as they are.
As things stand, Fred Phelps’ legacy is a positive one for LGBT folk. He made homophobia look bad in the days when it was still the norm. He showed religious hatred for exactly what it is. He is the figurehead for all the things ordinary people don’t want to be. Let’s not make him sympathetic in his final hour. Let’s allow him to slip away into that dark night, unloved, unmourned, and unmoved. What Fred wanted, more than anything, was attention. Let’s not give it to him.