So long to America’s poster boy for hate
— March 25, 2014
What’s the proper way to act when someone evil dies?
I’m not talking about a person who did a few evil things in his lifetime. No, it was an entire life and career devoted to the hatred of others, under the cloak of religion.
“Evil” isn’t a word I use often to describe a fellow human being, because I think most people have some good in them. But in the case of Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., the word fits.
So does “despicable.” I still can’t believe anyone is so sick he would protest against gays and lesbians at the funeral of a young gay man who had been beaten to death, but I saw it with my own eyes. Phelps stood across the street from a Casper church where Dennis and Judy Shepard were gathered with family and friends to say a final goodbye to their son, Matthew.
It was October 1998, when Phelps and some of his congregation — mostly members of his family — made their first noxious appearance in Wyoming. They were behind a taped-off barrier, holding signs that proclaimed “God Hates Fags” and “Matthew in Hell.”
Phelps looked like he was having a good time. He argued with people deeply offended by his actions, and for a short while managed to turn the media spotlight on himself instead of Matthew Shepard and the vicious way he was killed, just because he was a homosexual.
Some people in the crowd formed a line between the mourners entering the church and Phelps’ unbelievably cruel circus. A young man started singing “Amazing Grace,” others joined in, and soon no one was paying attention to the reverend anymore. When the service started, Phelps packed up and left for Kansas, where everyone hoped he would stay.
The next time I saw Phelps was in Laramie the next spring during his anti-gay protest outside the courthouse, where one of Shepard’s two killers was on trial. The protesters held the same signs they lofted at the funeral. Phelps and his followers spewed the same garbage whenever they opened their mouths.
I joined a few reporters gathered near the rope barrier, and Phelps came over to be interviewed. At least that’s what we thought would happen. Instead, Phelps headed straight toward a female reporter from Laramie, a friend of mine, and began berating her for no reason.
“Why aren’t you at home where you belong, taking care of your husband?” he asked, practically shouting at her.
There was some back-and-forth conversation between Phelps and the reporter, who explained she didn’t have a husband and let him know his beliefs about women and their role in society were old and twisted. But every time she spoke, he loudly interrupted. Eventually he tired of annoying my friend, and walked away.
But that day something beautiful happened, when students dressed as angels walked toward the courthouse. They stood in front of the barrier, spread their wings and blocked Phelps’ sordid spectacle. They all had smiles on their faces, and it was a heavenly sight to behold. Again, Phelps had been shut down by people unwilling to watch him preach his hatred. He could still exercise his right to free speech, but suddenly no one was listening.
Phelps went on to outrage people in other towns, trying to stir things up at funerals for gays and lesbians. Then he switched tactics and started showing up at funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, which outraged anyone with even an ounce of compassion. He explained that while the military was his target, the protests were aimed at gays, because he needed to make people realize God is punishing America for its growing acceptance of homosexuals and other sins, like abortion.
Given the shocking nature of his protests, it’s surprising Phelps managed to live to the ripe old age of 84. People grieving for their loved ones are in deep pain, and the reverend was lucky no one ever retaliated in a society where everyone seems to carry a gun. I’ve been told by several reporters who covered Phelps over the years that the reverend always made sure his protests were well publicized in advance, at least partly because it ensured him protection by local police.
Phelps must have had his fill of Wyoming, because to my knowledge he never came back, though he occasionally sent members of his family to picket in Casper, presumably to make sure the city didn’t forget him.
My impression of Phelps after seeing him twice? He was a bully and a coward, driven by his desire to inflict psychological pain on others as he promoted himself. Like many, I don’t revel in his demise, but I’m glad he’s gone and not spreading his hate anymore. In a way, he was a devilish showman, but he wasn’t playing a role; he believed what he said. In my mind, that made him evil personified.
There was much talk about a protest at Phelps’ funeral, but then the family announced there will not be a funeral service, ending that possibility and robbing victims of Phelps’ wickedness a chance to give members of his family a taste of their own medicine.
I’ve talked to several people in Wyoming about Phelps’ death, and their reaction has ranged from joy to the idea we should never stoop to the level of the Westboro Baptist Church’s leader, because if we do, we’re no better than he was.
It’s essentially the same conflict people had in their opinions about Phelps while he was alive. On one side were those who believed his hateful message must be countered with a strong, visible showing. The other thought the best strategy was to ignore him, so he’ll go away or, better yet, not come here at all.
I’ve never been a fan of the ignore-him tactic, because we can’t simply have someone come into our community, say and do hateful things to hurt gays who live here, and pretend it didn’t happen. When an evil force approaches, it needs to know it’s not welcome.
But what’s the best way to do that? What happened when Phelps protested in Casper and Laramie was the perfect model if Wyoming communities are faced with someone of his ilk in the future: Make a strong stand in defense of fellow citizens without getting into a debate. Talking to such people raises them to our level, and effectively says they have a legitimate viewpoint. No, they don’t.
Both cities used different means, but they peacefully blocked Phelps and took him out of the game. They showed the world what he is: a bitter old man who doesn’t like the way his country is changing, because it leaves him powerless. And that’s what Phelps was when he died — excommunicated from his own church, shunned by at least four of his 13 children, helplessly watching as state after state recognizes same-sex marriage, and known solely because his funeral protests were so vengeful and heartless. He became America’s poster boy for hate.
In his protests, Phelps condemned Matthew Shepard to hell, as if he were God. I won’t speculate where the reverend is now, but I know he’s not coming back to torment anyone else. We can all take solace in that, especially his victims.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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