American Culture

Fred Phelps is dead: the LGBT community owes him a debt of gratitude

An evil man has departed the Earth, but not before inadvertently making it a better place.

Without Contraries is no progression. – Blake

Fred Phelps, founder of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, is dead.

Over the past several years Phelps distinguished himself as one of the most vile people in America, which is no small feat given the high profiles our society has accorded Hall of Fame hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

As he has lingered on his deathbed in recent days, we’ve had a chance to ponder this moment and discuss what the proper response might be. My own pot shot – “may his funeral be well attended” – paled compared to some of the (justified, it must be admitted) rage against the man’s legacy. At the same time, we saw altogether more noble comments from people like Facebook’s First Citizen, George Takei, who reminded us that hate is conquered not by more hate, but by love.

In the end, I find myself considering the possibility that Phelps may go down as one of the single most important figures in the battle for marriage equality in America. I’ve always been a student of popular culture and media, and history provides us eons of epic storytelling that teach all kinds of occasionally counterintuitive lessons. Like this one, which never occurred to Phelps.

Smart historians are like the folks who wrote the Passion cycle plays, the most successful Hollywood writers and directors, and even professional wrestling creative teams: they understand that great stories need villains. It’s rare to find a hero – whether real world or literary – who wasn’t opposed by an equally menacing black hat. Jesus doesn’t work nearly so well without Satan. Batman was nothing without The Joker. Sherlock Holmes was vexed by Moriarty. Mr. Glass realized that he and David Dunn needed each other. And with WrestleMania XXX nearly upon us, we have to note that WWE’s breakthrough success owed as much to Andre the Giant as it did to Hulk Hogan.

Think about the Civil Right movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero for the ages, but a nation grappling with upheaval and change was perhaps almost as compelled by the heels: George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor and the cracker thugs wielding clubs and firehoses on peaceful demonstrators in places like Birmingham and Selma – all as the cameras rolled. Those people likely did nearly as much teaching about right and wrong as King did thanks to the fact that the human brain thrives on contrast: we can see justice more clearly when it’s standing next to injustice.

The thing that Fred never quite grasped is that nothing united a community quite like a visit from his people. The progressives were energized. The moderates couldn’t help moving left, even if it was ostensibly only to ease away from him. And conservatives spent a few days waging war with their own cognitive dissonance. Nothing an organizer or campaigner or advocate could do to raise awareness and promote social justice for gays could touch the benefit they got from being targeted by the Westboro Baptist Church.

One day, and hopefully one day soon, equal rights for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation will be a dead issue. We’ll look back and wonder what the hell the fuss was about. And we’ll have a long list of icons, heroes in the struggle. Some will be political activists, some media figures, some simply normal people who paid the ultimate price for being different. We’ll note the battles that were fought along the way.

We’ll also remember the bad guys, and few will merit a longer chapter than Fred Phelps. I can only hope that before he died, he came to understand that not only did he fail, his efforts ironically benefited the “gay agenda.” His willingness to be a caricature, a stock central casting, over-the-top comic book villain, helped a society in transition more clearly understand the inhumanity of homophobic hate politics.

As weird as it may sound, we owe Fred Phelps a debt of gratitude. That day of full equality will arrive sooner and more certainly than it ever could have without him.

17 replies »

  1. I would have liked this piece much better if you hadn’t politicized the second paragraph Sam. Hate doesn’t have any particular political affiliation. It’s a voice of unreason unto itself.

    • I didn’t politicize anything. I mentioned two specific people who have made their names on a campaign of divisiveness and hate, and I didn’t mention a political party anywhere. Coulter, for instance, is a creature of pure spite and Limbaugh’s track record on questions of social justice is too well established to need reviewing. They’re not the only hatemongers in the world and no, hatemongering is not restricted to any political party.

      In the end, and unfortunately, these kinds of issues are inherently political, and it ain’t my fault. When political power is used to legislate against people’s rights, that’s politicizing, and that’s what we have seen all too much of in our history.

      Finally, if that second graf is politicizing, it’s no more so than the one later on which mentions two icons of the other party from the ’60s.

      • I guess I feel like I ought to elaborate just a tad. I’m NOT arguing that the issue isn’t political, nor, I suppose, do I disagree with you in the least when you suggest that it shouldn’t be. Frankly, we need more love, less hate, and as little in the way of partisan lines drawn on the question as possible. Instead, I’m arguing that whether we like it or not it IS a politicized issue. One party has circled the wagons around various iterations of the “traditional marriage” issue and the other has made equality a big plank of their platform. Once upon a time that same party was doing all it could to keep blacks down while some time earlier it was the first party that freed the slaves. And so on. I’m rather proudly not a member of either of those parties.

        There is little in life that ISN’T political, that I can see. Hell, sports are political. Look at the NCAA’s plantation business model. Look at the nickname of the football team in Washington. Look at the question among insiders as to whether Michael Sam will be a “distraction.” I rarely go out of my way to avoid these politicizations because it feels dishonest to me. I guess I feel like it is what it is, so let’s acknowledge it and discuss it honestly.

  2. I don’t listen to Coulter or Limbaugh so I don’t know exactly what they spew Sam but I suspect it is several orders of magnitude less hateful than “God Hates Fags.” My point is that mentioning them distracted me from your message which I agree with wholeheartedly by the way.

    Maybe I’m just being sensitive. There’s a meme going around recently about Fred Phelps being a democrat and running for state senate and governor of Kansas, all of which are true but have nothing to do with his inherent evilness. Yet small minds grab crap like that and hold it up as proof positive that one party or the other are Satan’s spawn.

    Let us lay partisanship aside and simply agree that asshats are asshats and old Freddy Boy was their king!

    • I don’t listen to Coulter or Limbaugh so I don’t know exactly what they spew Sam but I suspect it is several orders of magnitude less hateful than “God Hates Fags.” My point is that mentioning them distracted me from your message which I agree with wholeheartedly by the way.

      Well, if the issue is tone rather than the underlying message that some people don’t deserve rights, then that’s true for Limbaugh. Coulter, though, is basically Phelps in an expensive dress. If she’s less odious, it ain’t by much.

      Maybe I’m just being sensitive. There’s a meme going around recently about Fred Phelps being a democrat and running for state senate and governor of Kansas, all of which are true but have nothing to do with his inherent evilness. Yet small minds grab crap like that and hold it up as proof positive that one party or the other are Satan’s spawn.

      Yeah, I saw those stories, too. And no, the issue here isn’t that one party is evil and the other is populated by angels. By “political” I don’t necessarily mean partisan, either. If you look at politics the way I do, the critical issues cut back and forth against party lines in ways that make it just about impossible to affiliate with either of the big ones. As bad as I hate what has become of the GOP, all one has to do is spend an afternoon reading what I wrote here on politics (before I retired) to understand that I’d take a stick to most members of the Democratic Party, too, given half a chance.

      Let us lay partisanship aside and simply agree that asshats are asshats and old Freddy Boy was their king!

      No doubt. And it is with a certain glee that I think about the ways he inadvertently advanced the cause of those he hated so badly.

      • Yes message received and agreed with about the pervasive influence of politics on every facet of our lives. My greatest fear I suppose is that the micron thin veneer of civility which we afford one another in the USA can be peeled back in a heartbeat to expose the ugly brutish creature that exists in all of us.

        The millions of neighbors and family around the world who at this moment are fighting and killing each other over competing ideologies are in no way intrinsically different from you or I. They just one day, for whatever real or imagined slight, decided to stop being reasonable with one another.

        As critical thinkers I truly believe it’s our job to stop that shit. Sorry if I stabbed your windmill blade with my lance 8^)

  3. Having come face to face with the face of evil with the initials of FP, I’m afraid I am not forgiving or noble. He was a hateful person and having he and his minions scream at you made your soul shrink in fear. I’m glad he’s dead. I hope his God is a Lesbian when he meets her.

  4. Upon re-reading your piece Sam I find myself agreeing with you 100%. The best thing about Fred Phelps is how much awareness he raised for LGBT issues. He is probably among the top 10 reasons so many states are now legalizing alternative marriage. Little did the old bastard know how his actions would lead to the exact opposite of his intent, the promotion of gay equality. There’s a wonderful justice in that!

    • The even more wonderful thing is that his more socially acceptable colleagues out there continue to do his work in counterproductive ways they don’t recognize, either.