This post comes with a trigger warning. Discussing a hate group and their leader, I had to chronicle what they’ve done. For those of you who come to my blog seeking writing advice, short fiction, and memoir entries, an article on Fred Phelps might seem off topic. I’ve met the man on two occasions, and as a commentator on trolls, cyber bullies, and internet culture, I felt compelled to weigh in.
(Thanks to Achilles Sangster for providing many of the photos featured throughout, check out his blog here)
Fred Phelps: An Ironic Legacy
In America, 17 States now allow same-sex marriage. The constitutionality of gay marriage bans are being challenged. Media pundits, who once built followings on anti-gay rhetoric, are losing their sponsorship. Efforts to deny service to gay people under the guise of “preserving religious freedom” are being vetoed left and right.
There are many heroes in this new era of civil rights: plaintiffs who brought unjust laws to the supreme court, students who formed GLBT groups, actors, musicians, and sports figures who outed themselves. Still, few have swayed the court of public opinion as much as one man.
Reverend Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, the group responsible for the infamous God Hates Fags demonstrations.
13 years after my first encounter with Fred Phelps, so much has changed. 2 years ago, my home state of Minnesota shot down a gay marriage ban. Last fall, our first same sex marriage ceremonies happened.
We made this progress, despite the best efforts of people like Phelps, or perhaps because of them.
An Accidental Hero
Fred Phelps died Wednesday night. For reasons that have not been made public, he’d been excommunicated from his flock. The most vocal advocate of the traditional family, went through his final days without his own at his side.
If you’re looking for a mocking eulogy over the corpse of an American Monster, you’re going to find something different here. I intend to recognize his greatest accomplishment as the accidental champion of the gay rights movement.
If you need to reread that last sentence, it’s okay, I’ll wait.
America’s biggest hate speech advocate was also a hero to the people he disparaged. As the old Gotham proverb goes: he wasn’t the hero they deserved, but he was the hero they needed. Exploiting tragedy, Fred Phelps made bigots feel disgusted. He lionized the left into action, while the far right fled to the center to distance themselves from him. After the Phelps family press tour came to your town, bigotry went into the closet.
Patriots didn’t want to align themselves with people who stepped on the American flag. Christians didn’t want to be associated with people who protested funerals, who mocked hate crime victims, adding insult to the injuries of grieving families.
Fred Phelps proved that free speech worked, by forcing everyone on the edge the conversation to finally have it.
More than any passage in the bible, Fred Phelps believed there was no such thing as bad publicity. Building his brand by marching on cemetery land, his family handed picket signs to children who weren’t old enough to read them. They dressed infants in t-shirts with their web address, before their tiny hands could even reach a keyboard let alone type it in.
For every sin Phelps condemned, he committed a thousand more in marketing. Showing up to picket events that were so far off his message, newscasters struggled to identify where he was coming from.
Recording a parody of We are the World called God Hates the World, they picketed Michael Jackson’s funeral.
As I type this, the Westboro Baptist Church are planning to picket Lorde’s concert in Kansas, for no other reason than to leech off of her popularity.
While Christ preached treating others as you would like to be treated, Phelps preferred name calling instead. He valued shock value. In a 1996 press release to announce the Church’s protest of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he compared Jews to Nazis, with no mind for the irony.
Loving God with his words, Phelps loved ink with his actions. Lobbing so much hate at the press, in the hopes that some of it would stick.
The Westboro Baptist Church didn’t understand their target customers. In an exchange after their overjoyed reaction to 9/11, they told me they’re not trying to save the world, they’re just trying to tell it that it’s condemned. They weren’t concerned about winning hearts and minds, just building brand awareness. They were a firm with nothing to sell but smear campaigns against their competitors. Their key demographic was themselves.
They upped the ante higher than their stakeholders were willing to go, then shamed them for not matching their investment.
When a Woodbury high school student got kicked out of class for wearing a STRAIGHT PRIDE t-shirt. The Westboro Baptist Church came to his defense. A group of my friends forged press passes to approach Fred Phelps and have a conversation.
When I told Phelps that the student didn’t want his support, he told me the boy was going to hell for his cowardice. It didn’t matter if you shared Phelps’s ideology, the only way to get a cabin on his ark was to marry into his family.
When gay issues weren’t in the news, the Westboro Baptist Church rode the coat tails of tragedy to get their message on TV. They trolled the media for screen time. Their logic was that all suffering was a sign of God’s wrath, and God was only mad about one thing: the gays. Thus every event was fair game to tack themselves onto.
Showing up at the sites of mass shootings, they made Columbine a cause for celebration, they made Virginia Tech a family vacation. They went to Tucson to commend the shooting of a congresswoman. They went to Sandy Hook to rejoice in the death of children.
They picketed ground zero in New York City. They made signs promoting the snipers in DC. They treated the Boston Marathon bombing as a time for merriment, while the 24 hour news cycle struggled to decipher exactly what they meant.
When the news ran low on terrorism, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals for tornado, flood, and earthquake victims.
They weren’t cynical in their belief that natural disasters were products of God’s wrath. In phone conversations I had with members, they took each of these events as signs of the end times. The rising tides had nothing to do with climate change, oh no, it was proof that the church had been right all along. Regarding the coming rapture, their tone was hopeful, like children on Christmas Eve, shaking their presents.
The Best in People
For all Fred Phelps efforts to condemn gays, America, and the world, something else happened. He brought out the best in his opposition.
After the September 11th attacks, a student stood outside the Phelps compound with a sign that read NOT TODAY FRED. Two days later, he had a legion of supporters behind him.
At the height of the Iraq war, when the headlines were full of death tolls, the Westboro Baptist Church crashed military funerals. This incurred the wrath of the The Patriot Guard Riders. Bikers set up barricades, clogging the streets with mile long motorcades.
The Westboro Baptist Church might not have been interested in making converts, but wherever they went people started changing.
Locking arms, communities came together to show what loving thy neighbor really looked like.
Walking a Mile with Fred Phelps
When Phelps came to Woodbury high school in 2001, his driver let him off on the wrong side of the street. Mobbed by counter demonstrators, he gravitated to a familiar face: me. We’d met the day before, while he was protesting a Lutheran church, for no better reason than it happened to be on the way.
We found ourselves arguing over why the Columbine shootings happened.
He believed that it was because, “From kindergarden on they taught them that it was okay to be gay.”
I believed that the shooters had been bullied by people echoing much of Phelps’s sentiment.
We didn’t see eye to eye, but we spoke at a reasonable tone.
When the police told him he couldn’t cross the street without going to the light half a mile up the road, he chose to walk with my friend and myself.
Shivering in his cowboy hat and Starter jacket, he was underdressed.
I made the tired joke, “In Minnesota, we have two seasons: winter and construction.”
He laughed. There was something calming about him. There were traces of a southern gentleman. Years after being disbarred, he still spoke in casual legal terms. It was endearing, even charming. It almost made me forget who he was and why he was there.
The battery for our camera died. Still, we stood beside him for the entire demonstration, asking variations of the same question, “Why not honor your faith in some other way?”
Phelps’s response, “All the other churches have that angle covered. We’re the only ones still preaching this part of God’s message.”
Before stepping into the van, he shook my hand. He kept repeating his web address. As if I’d ever forget.
In high school, I had a friend who was pushed down a flight of stairs. He’d been targeted by a bully for being openly gay. A witness saw him go into shock, convulsing in a pool of his own blood. I had another friend who was jumped by attackers with crowbars on his way home. He said there was nowhere to go but to take his beating. My closest gay friend, someone I’d known since kindergarden, dropped out of high school after the harassment became too much to bear. He committed suicide several years later. At his wake, his parents didn’t know what to say. They talked about how much he loved his iPod.
Now here I was staring at someone who thought all of that pain was part of God’s plan, and all I wanted to do was change his mind.
God Hates Globes
The next time the Westboro Baptist Church visited Minnesota, they came to protest the Episcopalians nominating their first openly gay bishop. Rather than forge press passes to interview the Westboro Baptists, we decided to join them. We stayed up all night preparing signs based on a literal reading of the bible. We set out to follow the same principles as the Westboro Baptists, just not the same passages.
While their position was that God viewed homosexuality as an abomination, ours was that the earth was flat based on our biblical interpretation. Personally I think our argument had more validity; we found 30 more passages to support our position than the ones they cited.
When the Westboro Baptists arrived at the convention center, we elected not to stand on the side of the counter demonstrators, but to mix ourselves in with the Phelps clan. After all, we’d studied their methods. While they stood on American flags, we stood on deflated globes. Their signs called the Episcopalians sodomites, while ours declared OUR MAP DOESN’T SPIN.
Children waved signs that read GOD BLEW UP THE SHUTTLE, we waved signs that read COLUMBUS WAS WRONG.
They shouted, “God hates fags!” at the counter demonstrators.
We shouted, “It’s hip to be square!”
God Hates Globes got more laughs by far.
Round Earth Theory
A few years later, the Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to come to Duluth to put a plaque next to the ten commandment monument. In one of the church’s early adventures with Photoshop, they’d created a 3D mock-up of their plaque and tried to pass it off as real. Their plaque was designed to commemorate the death of gay student Matthew Shepard, for “violating God’s law.”
We decided to build our own plaque to commemorate the death of Galileo Galilei, for the crime of promoting round earth theory.
My father, a centrist conservative, drove us up to Duluth to make our delivery.
On the day of the demonstration, the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t show, so we went on without them, setting our creation next to the ten commandments.
Later I called the Phelps family hotline. The voice on the other end told me a story about how her daughter had said the publicity surrounding the monument was a monument onto itself, which is why they felt no need to make the trip.
I said, “You couldn’t afford to make the monument, could you?”
She said, “No, we did. Didn’t you see it on our web site?”
“I saw a marble pattern on a poorly rendered wire frame.”
She hung up.
Years later, they announced plans to picket a graduation ceremony for a Minnesota high school with a GLBT group. On our website, we declared that God Hates Globes would be right behind them. When the school got wind of our plans, we were asked not to attend. They said they wanted to make the event about the students.
We showed up, but we left our signs at home. We figured, several hundred dollars worth of giant CONGRATULATIONS balloons would blot the Westboro Baptists out. They didn’t come. This was when the first rumors of Fred Phelps’s health condition started to spread.
An Ironic Legacy
With Fred Phelps’s death, I can’t help but feel like the world lost something. He gave us a villain to fight against, a cause that spurred the soft spoken into action. Rather than inspiring support, his methods sent likeminded literalists in another direction.
There’s no need to mock the man’s cause by picketing at his funeral. Phelps has devoted his entire life to undermining it, whether he realized or not. Rather than celebrate a man’s death, let’s take time to appreciate the world he’s leaving behind; a better place, despite, and perhaps because of, his best efforts.
5 years ago I made a short documentary on God Hates Globes. It puts the events mentioned above into perspective. Check it out. (for people having problems viewing it on Vimeo I put up a YouTube Version)