COLUMN: Farewell, Fred Phelps: Anti-gay crusader's death reminds us of how far we've come
FILE - In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate during funeral services for Dr. George Tiller at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the group's protests were protected by the First Amendment. The father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued after they picketed his son's 2006 funeral service.(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Fred Phelps, who represents the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., protests Bob Dole's position on homosexuality outside of the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Wednesday Aug. 14, 1996. Phelps says Dole has taken a liberal view on homosexual issues. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
This file photo shows Fred Phelps Sr. displays one of his many infamous protest signs. Phelps, the fiery founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, a small Kansas church, who drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, on America's tolerance for gay people, has died the family said Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal)
Pastor Fred Phelps, of Topeka, Kan., looks to the sky as he wields placards protesting homosexuality outside the Albany County Courthouse in Laramie, Wyo., early Monday, April 5, 1999, where one of the defendants in the beating murder of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, will stand trial. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Sam Garrett, a student at George Washington University pickets against the Westboro Baptist Church in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Director Kevin Smith faces off with protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church while arriving at the premiere of his movie "Red State" during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
A coal mine supporter holds a sign near the entrance of the Upper Big Branch Mine, Friday, April 9, 2010, in Montcoal, W. Va. The supporter and a group of others were waiting the expected arrival of Westboro Baptist Church members who were rumored to protest near the mine. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
Audrey Low, 10, of Reston, Va., holds a sing as she watches from across the street as members of the Westboro Baptist Church dance on American Flags at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The Rev. Fred Phelps has died, and it makes me the tiniest bit nostalgic. We’ve lost a First Amendment crusader and important voice for gay rights.
Not that he would see it that way.
Phelps was the Topeka, Kan., preacher who first came to national attention for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard with signs reading “God Hates Fags.” His anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church later picketed military funerals and fought for its right to protest all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The church was a constant presence at my alma mater, the University of Kansas.
These days, Westboro (which consists almost entirely of Phelps’s relatives) can seem like just another freak show. We’re used to seeing fringe movements embrace their 15 minutes of fame – be it Obama “birthers” or Sept. 11 “truthers.” But in the late ’90s and early 2000s, such strident rhetoric was startling.
For some onlookers, the protests were threatening and horrific. They couldn’t help but take the hate personally. For others, including myself, the demonstrations were blackly funny. The Westboro signs, featuring outrageous slogans and stick figures engaged in unspeakable acts, had a camp quality. And in a state where LGBT people were routinely discriminated against (even today, Kansas offers no legal protection for gays and lesbians), the Westboro protesters at least had the courage to state their hatred openly.
As a journalist and gay man, I found something to admire there. The First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect popular opinions, after all. It was added to our Constitution to protect dissent – including dissent of the most extreme sort.
Phelps’s frothing was useful, too. Many gay-rights groups (including the one I helped with at KU) raised money from his protests. People who might not have thought much about gay-rights issues were forced to when confronted by a Westboro demonstration. Great masses of people came together to stage counter-protests at funerals and other high-profile events.
Who knows how many people he spurred to activism? Who knows how many people reached out to their gay friends and relatives, wanting to show that they weren’t like that?
In speaking freely and forcefully, Phelps encouraged other people do the same. And given the quality of the respective arguments, gay people and their supporters had nothing to fear.
At a certain point, of course, vigorous arguments turn into enraged shouting. And the Westboro picketers were pioneers in the art of outrage. They shook their fists and took offense at the slightest provocation. They could justify protesting nearly anything – funerals, concerts, films – as long as it got them media attention.
This was why I could never take Phelps and his flock seriously.
They were useful as a prompt, as a starting point for discussions, but worthless as sparring partners.
And it’s why Westboro’s rhetoric grew more ridiculous as gay marriage spread from state to state. The protesters had nothing to argue about, only bedrock principles they took as a given.
Once society acknowledged that gay people had a right to exist, the extension of rights like marriage followed naturally. Phelps and his congregation didn’t just lose the public debate; they became utterly irrelevant.
In the years since, more genial forms of homophobia have prevailed. This spring saw a spate of “religious liberty” bills pop up in state legislatures. These would-be laws proposed allowing individuals, businesses and government employees to discriminate against gay people.
Public backlash was swift, and the bills were derailed. But their spread shows that the real opponents of LGBT rights don’t carry signs and shout scripture at you from a street corner.
Rest in peace, Fred Phelps. You hated me, yes, but at least I knew where you stood.