Hate Swallows: Reflections on the Passing of Fred Phelps

By the time you read this, Fred Phelps will be dead.

Fred Phelps, who more than anyone in the last two decades has come to symbolize the most viscerally evil edge of Christian heterosexism — and who made a name for himself by picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in combat with “God Hates Fags” signs (since naturally, the only reason the soldiers died was because the U.S. is too tolerant of homosexuality) — is no longer among the living. He has cursed his last lesbian couple, picketed his last funeral, fired off his last hate-saturated fax, filled with utterly out-of-context and maniacally pasted-together Bible verses, all intended to prove his point about the hostile homophobia of the Creator.

Well, if there be a Creator, it is probably safe to say that Fred Phelps is even now learning the hard way (at least one can dream), just how incredibly, indelibly wrong he was while tethered to this mortal coil. Would that his demise might soften the hearts of his church, or rather his family (same thing), which continues to pour forth the bilious codswallop handed down to them by their psychotic father and grandfather, a man so besotted with contempt for virtually everyone outside of his Topeka klavern as to call into question how he managed to live this long. Antipathy, after all, eats away at the body as with the soul, and with as much odium as was regularly emitted from the pores of Fred Phelps, his body should well have given out years ago. His soul, or whatever there was of it, had no doubt rotted decades earlier.

And so now the Phelps fury will fall to the remaining elders of the Westboro Baptist Church, people like Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred’s daughter, who evinces a frenzied, almost orgasmic degree of vitriol every bit as concretized as anything her deranged dad ever managed to show the world. As do the male elders of the church who apparently have been sparring with Shirley, and even went so far as to excommunicate Fred in the months leading up to his demise. Talk about irony: Fred Phelps, kicked out of his own Tabernacle of Spite by those upon whom he bestowed such malevolence in the first place.

Ah yes, and so what goes around really does come around, as Brother Phelps, I figure, is learning right about now and far better than most of us, as he comes to the terrifying realization that hate, indeed, does swallow: sexual pun very much intended. You’re welcome.

It is tempting (and let me be honest here, I mean really tempting) to simply say good riddance to a bastard as completely deserving of the send-off as this one. The pain he has inflicted on the world with his proclamations of divine wrath for the evil of same-sex love is deserving, in so many ways, of nothing better or more thoughtful or more kind or compassionate than that which he put out there. And yet, try though I might, and tempted though I am, I cannot find it in myself to hate Fred Phelps. I’m not sure why, but I figure it has something to do with having looked into the man’s eyes before, and having seen there the fear, the insecurity, and the fragmented psyche of this villain. I have had my own Fred Phelps moment, and what it revealed to me was telling.

It was April, 1995, and I had traveled to Lawrence, Kansas to speak about the intersectionality of racism and straight supremacy during Pride Week at Kansas University. It was only my third event since heading out on the national lecture circuit, and it was quite the honor to be part of the weeklong celebration. As I learned upon my arrival, KU has one of the longest-standing LGBT student groups in the country: it was, according to their version of it, founded just a week after the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. They also put on — or at least did as of the mid-’90s — one of the most spectacular drag shows I’ve ever seen, which I had the pleasure of observing outside the student center, all while Fred and his minions paraded with their placards of putrescent vulgarity. It was quite the visual.

Now needless to say, the Phelps crew was not there to protest me. Their presence at the campus that day was focused primarily on the keynote speaker for the week: Olympic Gold Medalist and champion diver, Greg Louganis, who only that February had come out on national television as a gay man and also as someone who was living with HIV. He and journalist Michelangelo Signorile were the real draws for Fred and the bunch, and so amid signs that said things like “God Gave Louganis AIDS,” I observed the carnival-like inanity of the event, from behind a veil of virtual anonymity. There were no pictures of me on campus posters announcing my upcoming speech, and since I was only 26, not yet graying, and not far removed from the age of most students, I was able to blend in fairly well in street clothes. The Phelps bunch had no idea who I was, so far as I could tell.

But then I saw it: a sign that seemed as though it had been thrown together almost as an afterthought. “Wise is a Closet Fag” it read. Instantly I knew that I had arrived. I could think of no better honor than to be enshrined on one of the Phelps family’s pissy little posters. I decided that I had to have it. To frame it. But how to manage the feat? Suddenly it dawned on me and so I sauntered up to the very young man holding it (who I assume must have been one of Fred’s grandkids) and initiated my evil scheme.

“Wait, what?’ I said. ‘Wise is a closet fag? Are you serious?” I queried, incredulous at the prospects of such a thing, and utterly incognito so far as the younger Phelps was concerned.

“Oh yeah,’ he replied, ‘He’s a big ol’ fag!”

Wow, closeted and “big ol’!” Though I wasn’t sure how big a fag I could be while presumably ensconced firmly in a closet, I figured I’d play along.

“Well here’s the thing,’ I said. ‘I’m thinking of going to his speech later, and I think it would be really cool if you’d let me have that sign. I could roll it up and then right when he gets going I could unfurl it and hold it up inside the room. That would really show him, don’t ya think?”

The young man was visibly excited. Unsure what to do in reply to my request, he called Fred over to discuss it. After relaying my plan to his grandpa, Fred began to beam with excitement. “Why that’s great! We don’t get much support here at Gay-U,” he noted, likely thinking himself quite original for having turned the K into “Gay.” I see what you did there Fred. Kudos, you.

Fred stuck out his hand to shake mine, at which point he asked my name. Gripping his contemptible claw tightly I smiled and told him, “I’m Tim Wise,” at which point he yanked back his sweaty palm, wiped it on his jogging suit (which was his uniform for these street protests), and said something about me being a filthy fag. I laughed, several of the students watching it laughed. Hilarity ensued, and needless to say I didn’t get my poster.

I would see him again the next day, from the back of a convertible in which Greg Louganis and I were sitting, driving slowly down the main strip in Lawrence as part of the official Gay Pride parade. It was an event made even more celebratory by the fact that the night before, the townsfolk of Lawrence had voted to extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT folks. We were all in a festive mood — well, all but the Phelps brood — and as Greg and I practiced our very best pageant waves from the back of the car, there they were, running down the sidewalk, signs in hand, yelling something about the devil and pitchforks and Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and Jesus and bathhouses or something to that effect (though I’m assuming not Jesus literally in a bathhouse, but one can never be too sure).

In any event, it was that look on Fred’s face, both when we were shaking hands and as he was galloping along with our motorcade, screaming from the sidelines, which sticks with me. It was hateful yes, but behind the hate is what lurks always beneath such a thing: a pitiable, pathetic, frightened and very small person, hoping against hope to be big in the world. None of which excuses the evil that was his daily offering to the universe, but which places it in a context that should be all too familiar. To all of us. For even though most will never be so consumed by bigotry as to waste the precious moments of our lives heaping rancid cruelties upon others, sadly, the self-doubt and uncertainties that often propel such bitterness forward — and surely did in the life of Fred Phelps — can and often do impact us all. We have all had those moments, however less extreme they may be when contrasted with the recently departed patriarch of Westboro Baptist.

Fred’s fears were those of a man desperate to know God’s will, and if he couldn’t know it, then he would just project it onto God as a way to make himself feel better, stronger, more righteous. For people such as he, not knowing for sure what God wants of you and what will come in some desired afterlife is too terrifying to contemplate, and only by knowing that others are unclean and impure and unworthy of God can one like Fred Phelps feel important at all, and secure that his own salvation has meaning. It is also the only way that one such as Fred could push aside and control the sexual insecurities, confusions and ambiguities that almost always mark the most extreme homophobes.

And while the rest of our fears may be less totalizing and quite different as to their origins, they can be no less affecting. A fear of financial insecurity, dying alone without the support of loved ones, wasting our lives in a job we hate, alienation from family never to be put right, or just the fear of our pending obsolescence, and the realization that a few hundred years hence, no one will even know we were here: all of these can bring out the kinds of anger that so animated Fred Phelps. It is an anger we then turn on others, or on ourselves, because doing that is so much easier than learning to love those others, or ourselves.

Sappy, I know, I get it. Love yourself, love others: never has a more trite and simplistic message been put forth at the end of such a long exegesis on the life of an evil man. But truthfully, there is not much more to say. And in moments like this I am reminded of it. When those among us who sow evil pass, it is all the more reason for the rest of us to reflect upon what separates us from them. And while it might make us feel good to retreat into some fanciful conceit that we are simply better than they, more moral, more decent, and incapable of such a descent into tragic and debilitating viciousness, the more sober truth is that in some ways we’ve just been lucky.

Somewhere along the way, we had teachers, parents, friends, colleagues or mentors who taught us that only love can conquer hate. And somewhere along the way, Fred Phelps received a very different instruction, as have his children and grandkids. Although some have thankfully emerged from that trap relatively unscathed, and have moved on to places of tolerance and acceptance and decency, such is not the norm in cases like this.

For a family nurtured on anger and reared with rage, it is perhaps only by virtue of some inexplicable miracle that any of its members could ever truly learn to love. But if they have, and if we have — exposed as we all have been to so much rancor and prejudice of one form or another in this world — then maybe there is a God, though one far different and more merciful than the one to whom the Phelps family prays at night.

But either way, God or no, what the life and death of Fred Phelps makes glaringly clear is that, as the old saying goes, time is tight. The clock is running, and our children and grandchildren and friends and partners and neighbors are counting on us, and we upon them. And if we do not resolve to teach love and compassion every bit as voraciously as Fred Phelps taught hostility and acrimony, it will be not Fred, but the rest of us upon whom the ultimate blame falls for whatever hatreds manage to swallow the societies we share. Fred Phelps is no more. But we are still here. And as his family (or at least the majority of it) continues to infect and inject still more of their own with the sickness of which Fred was such a contagious carrier, may the rest of us resolve to balance out that hatred, and all of its lesser forms, with something more lasting.

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