Fred Phelps, an American Pastor who headed the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas died at the age of 84 on March 19, 2014. While some individuals leave behind legacies of their good deeds and loving memories, the only thing Phelps left behind was a family and church founded on the principle of hate.
A frequent eyesore at various events ranging from military funerals and gay pride gatherings to mainstream events that captured the attention of our pop-culture obsessed society, Fred Phelps and his clan believed it was their sacred duty to warn others of God’s anger over the growing acceptance of not only modernity in general but also issues like gay rights and abortion. From slogans and signs such as ‘God Hates Fags’ to ‘Thank God for IEDs,’ Phelps has caused many controversies both during his lifetime and after his death.
The first response many individuals had when hearing that Phelps was close to death or that he had actually died was: “Are people going to picket his funereal?” or “Should members of the [Insert Varying Communities the Westboro Baptist Church Pissed Off Here] show him the same amount of respect as he did in life to us and the multitude of funerals he and his family were frequent at?” While many individuals are stating that they should forgive and forget his hate, the matter that not only the church he founded but also the rhetoric and legacy of hate he created still exists is troubling. While there is still room for debate about the symbolic power rising above it all it is worrisome that he’ll exist even more so now in death than he ever did in life.
While any such protest at Phelps’ funeral is impossible because the Westboro Baptist Church is not having one for Phelps (coincidence?), the problem still remains that it is far too easy to reduce that Phelps was most likely a homosexual and his repressed sexuality caused him to utilize religion as a force of hate to embody the worst parts of humanity in public forums. More importantly, it is too easy to dismiss Phelps and his independent church as a bunch of loons. However, it is not easy but rather very difficult to clean up the mess that Phelps has caused since he famously picketed Matthew Shepard, the gay student who at 21 years old was tortured, murdered and strung up on a Wyoming field fence in 1998.
The complex legal, religious, and social mess that the Westboro Baptist Church has created goes all the way from their tiny, secluded area in Topeka, Kansas all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. In the case Synder v. Phelps, the Court held that even speech deemed outrageous could not be liable for a tort of emotional distress (a.k.a. the plaintiff was forced to return a settlement won in a previous court case where the Westboro Baptist Church was held liable for causing emotional distress towards their family after their son was killed in Iraq).
While I do not know many individuals who are willing to marry into the Phelps family (they're famous for not marrying people with beliefs that do not match their own, their utter demise seems to be imminent not because of Phelps’ death but because the legacy of hate that he created being slowly beaten back by the tide of modernity that greets the remaining Phelps family members each time they unpack their signs to protest yet another event.
Should we rise above his death and not protest? Did Phelps awaken a new, more radical class of LGBT activists who have dedicated their lives to turning back the hateful tide he has caused? Or did Phelps help further the divide between the LGBT and religious community by embodying everything that hurt and grief-stricken closeted and open LGBT members dislike about religion as a whole? If Fred Phelps never existed, would some other nameless figure have taken his place?
While I do not think we’ll ever know the answers to the multitude of questions behind Phelps’ existence, I say if people want to dance on his proverbial grave we should let them polish their tap shoes. However, the problem is that although Phelps may be gone to whatever version of heaven or hell one believes in, his family and his church live on and will be at the next funeral or event with their signs higher than ever.
Phelps didn't just live a life filled with hate but he also embodied the very reasoning why so many communities cannot cross that proverbial bridge to work together to see past their differences and maybe never will. In the case of Phelps, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words really do hurt.
Although this video may be doctored, I think it is the perfect ending to a violent and conflict ridden recent history of anti-gay crimes both in Russia, abroad, and here at home in the United States. Often painted as the enemy of gay-rights, Russian LGBT activists have been sacrificing their lives to further the cause of gay rights in a country where people who, like Phelps, can do more than just hold up signs stating that you are going to hell but rather pass laws that make it nearly impossible for you to exist in the first place. While were here in the United States often paint Russian individuals with a broad stroke of anti-gay sentiments, especially prior to and after the Sochi Winter Olympics, I find it comical that a "Russian News Caster" reporting on the death of Phelps, an American who at his very core hated LGBT individuals, is incapable to not only read the news story but also the various types of signs that Phelps created without laughing. Homophobia is a traded commodity and it knows no boundaries and it is time that we start realizing the the outsourcing of homophobia doesn't begin abroad but rather right here at home.