Written by Patrick Amarant.
This article originally published in WORDLY ‘Time’ edition (2014) and Querelle 2015.
Trigger Warnings: #Homophobia #Queerphobia #Violence #Murder #HateCrimes
Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19th, 2014. He was an infamous figure; attending funerals across America simply to tell the friends and family of the deceased that their loved ones were going to Hell.
Considering this legacy it’s hard to imagine that Phelps was once well regarded in the African-American community for being a civil rights lawyer who would accept racial discrimination cases that no other lawyer cared to take. It was only following his permanent disbarring in 1979 that Phelps focused on his second career as a preacher.
Phelps and his family lived a half-mile from Gage Park, then a popular cruising area for men seeking homosexual encounters. According to Phelps, he had witnessed a man attempting to lure his five-year-old grandson into the park. All attempts to rally local government to put an end to the homosexual activity was met with no response, and so in 1991 Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church took it upon themselves to aggressively rally against the queer lifestyle.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Phelps gained national recognition. On October 12, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, an openly gay man, died as a result of severe head injuries. Six days previously he had been tied to a fence and violently beaten into a coma. His murder was recognised as a hate crime and made news across the country, as did the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed his funeral. It was the first of many such demonstrations.
When Phelps’ time came the world largely reacted the opposite way: There seemed to be a staunch and unspoken agreement that nobody was to take any joy from his death in the way that he had taken such a perverse glee in the deaths of others. Phelps invoked, in response to his bile, the basic good in humanity.
Phelps and his followers did more to damage their message than they did to reinforce it. Arguably they only succeeded in showing humanity at its worst, and those who responded would often show humanity at its best. Following Shepard’s funeral and Phelps’ stated intention to further picket outside the court case of the accused, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard’s, organised a peaceful counter-protest. Phelps and his congregation were surrounded by a dozen people; each wore long white sheets elevated above their shoulders in the appearance of wings. The angels stood silently and smiled towards the gathered crowd.
In an advanced press release, Romaine Patterson stated:
“We bring forth a message—from God, if you will: love, respect, and compassion for everyone is why we are here today. I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled. There doesn’t need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world. Loving one another doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our beliefs; it simply means that we choose to be compassionate and respectful of others.”
This was the first in a series of Angel Action counter-protests. To this day Angel Action volunteers will follow the Westboro Baptist Church to funerals and surround the protestors. Instead of picketers, the attendants of funerals will only see angels when saying goodbye.
All inquiries directed towards the Phelps’ family and church about the burial and potential funeral were met with the simple and terse response: “We do not worship the dead.”
I don’t think funerals are an attempt at worshiping the dead, they simply allow us to say goodbye to the ones who have left us. Eulogies allow us to tell the story of their lives and how much they meant to us. A funeral is an epilogue, where remaining plot threads can be tied up. A eulogy can act as an afterword wherein the things that remained unsaid can finally be expressed. And then when all is said and done we close the book and put it away. Part of it will stay with us, we will remember certain chapters and lines of dialogue, but the story itself is over. What is life if not a set of interconnected stories in which we are each our own protagonist? When we die, it is stories that we leave behind, through them we are remembered. Maybe that is a kind of afterlife. Maybe if a story is good enough it can live forever.
It is worth mentioning that Phelps and his followers never claimed to hate queer people, and only assured us that God did. In fact, most people who have attempted to talk to the congregation have reported that their responses have been cordial, sometimes even kind, in return. It’s all too easy to write Phelps and his church off as the villains. In truth, people are generally too complicated for that. These people see themselves as a last stand against casual sin and blasphemy, and they are offering us the chance to redeem ourselves. In a sense, they are trying to be kind.
All too often when a person first realises that they are queer, they begin to view their story as a tragedy. Yet in the face of irrational hatred and cruelty of people like Phelps it becomes easier to allow yourself a plot-twist. You can have a villain and then, by simple virtue of your own existence, begin to believe that you are a hero. It may sound grandiose and self-centred, but it can help you to survive.
Phelps’ final days remain shrouded in secrecy. I’d like to think that at some point he had questioned his beliefs or felt regret for his actions, but we will never know. I take no satisfaction in considering that Phelps now may be in Hell, nor do I have any theories on the existence of a literal Hell. I do, however, have a theory that in life, hell is at least a state of mind. You do not need to remain in that personal hell forever. Anyone consumed by such virulent bitterness and cruelty as Phelps was must be in a hell of their own making. I can only hope that he found peace in the end.
Whatever you thought of him, Fred Phelps was to some a father, a grandfather and maybe even a friend. I am sure he was loved and that he will be mourned. I too have lost people that I loved, and I have only sympathy for those that he left behind.
On the March 23rd, 2014, four short days after the death of Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside a Lorde concert, Lorde being an advocate of queer rights. They arrived to see a gathering of people across the road and a banner that simply stated “Sorry for Your Loss.” I think that is the best way to end the story of Fred Phelps; not in acts of hatred or cruelty, but in a muted act of kindness.