Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. passed away late last night, following reports of his rapidly declining health this past weekend. Phelps' son Timothy confirmed the death to WIBW in Topeka this morning. The 84-year-old patriarch was best known for his virulently anti-gay beliefs, perhaps best embodied by his small congregation’s iconic “God Hates Fags” signs. He devoted his life to expressing hatred for the gay community. How should Phelps be eulogized?
One of my first run-ins with the Phelps family took place in Washington, D.C., during 2009’s National Equality March. Somewhere along the route, I came across a large cluster of same-sex couples embracing and taking selfies. Rising above the center of the action was a small cluster of protesters hoisting colorful signs covered in vitriolic slogans. I watched as couple after couple smooched in front of their smartphones, just beneath the “Death Penalty for Gays” sign. In the age of social media, the kissing-in-front-of-Westboro photo-op is catnip; the triumphant love-conquers-hate status update.
Passers-by raise middle fingers, hurl insults, or simply ignore the clownish crusaders behind the protest barrier. If you look closely, you will often see the hurt and anger in many people’s faces give way to laughter and relief. It is cathartic. In shouting down the Phelpses, you’re also shouting down every bigoted family member, childhood bully, and homophobic co-worker you’ve ever encountered. But as catharsis goes, it doesn’t last very long.
The whole thing is borderline campy. Phelps’ devotees sing hilariously awful renditions of Lady Gaga songs that wouldn’t feel totally out of place at certain low-end drag shows. They don’t just stick to somber events, either, threatening to picket everything from Taylor Swift concerts to Super Bowls. Signs feature President Barack Obama as the Antichrist, complete with cartoonish horns. One particularly grotesque poster I saw depicted two male stick figures copulating in a pool of blood atop a wedding cake. (Perhaps Westboro should release a line of wedding cake toppers.) One could make a case for Phelps being remembered as one of the longest-running satirical comedy acts in recent memory.
But Westboro’s bombastic vitriol makes room for more casual or calculated anti-gay individuals to claim tolerance, love, and mercy. A quick comparison with Phelps can make even the most vicious anti-gay activists look like saints. By twisting the meaning of love and acceptance through carefully worded statements, homophobes are able to do a lot more damage to the LGBTQ community than a group like Westboro will ever do. Arizona Rep. Steve Montenegro said as much last month, when he co-sponsored that state’s now-vetoed anti-gay segregation bill:
Please, I will accept you because you are a child of God. I love you because you are a child of God. But please don't ask me to go against my religious beliefs.
In an era where “religious liberty” is used as a justification for anti-gay legislation, Westboro instead speaks with a clear voice. And while their slogans and songs are patently offensive, their actions often end up inspiring others to be more tolerant.
Phelps inspired hundreds of counterprotests. After the horrific Newtown shootings, a group of bikers deployed to Connecticut to thwart the Westboro contingent. When Westboro showed up to protest openly gay University of Missouri football player Mike Sam, students there formed a massive human chain to show their support for their classmate. But what happens after those counterprotesters pose, tweet, pack up, and go home? A Westboro counterprotest, warm and fuzzy as it may feel, is about as potent as slapping a “support the troops” bumper magnet on your car and calling it a day. After all, it’s a hell of a lot easier to grapple with some crazies ripping up flags than it is to question your own church’s pastor.
Some have suggested picketing Phelps’ funeral, much as his church protested at the funerals of fallen soldiers and victims of mass atrocities. But protesting his funeral—regardless of how reviled or evil he may seem—would be improper. (Not to mention expensive: Who wants to fly to Kansas for a funeral?) Instead, cheer for the unity Phelps helped provoke, and the displays of goodwill and acceptance he helped foment. Share your Westboro experiences and your make-out selfies. But let Fred Phelps Sr. exit this life quietly as the lonely, bitter, hateful man he became.
If you’re truly bent on sticking it to Westboro’s fallen founder, focus instead on the mundane battles for LGBTQ equality taking place in church congregations and courthouses across the country. While these events may lack the spectacle that Phelps commanded, they will surely change more hearts and minds. What better way to commemorate the life of America’s most famous anti-gay bigot?