In what might perhaps be poetic justice, vultures circle over another who fed off of the dead. The Daily News reported yesterday of the encroaching death of Fred Phelps, who rose to infamy with his hate-cult the Westboro Baptist Church by picketing funerals, rubbing acid into the fresh wounds of the bereaved to draw spectacle to his own brand of radical homophobia.
Phelps first came into the public’s consciousness in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the twenty-one year old boy killed in Laramie, Wyoming, the victim of “gay bashing” so severe that the beaten and tortured body of Shepard that was left by his murderers was famously mistaken for a scarecrow by the cyclist who found him.
Despite an outcry of love and support for Shepard around the globe, Phelps and his family attended the funeral and as Shepard was laid to rest, cameras zoomed in on the words, “God Hates Fags!” and “Matt in Hell!” and upon the elder church leader’s face, where it has remained ever since.
There’s been a lot of speculation about the nature of Phelp’s homophobia –questions about why he is so fixated on the sexual practices of those he professes not to understand. There’s a lot of prose to get caught up in in the New Testament. To focus on gay sex, and to blame it for the downgrade of all humanity, veers beyond the extreme and into psychological territory. It leads me to believe that Phelps is a closeted homosexual, projecting his self-hatred on the world. Some believe that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and that his pent up hatred stems from the shame and emotional damage that it caused.
Kerry Lauerman, former Editor-in-Chief of Salon Media Group and current Co-Founder and CEO of The Dodo wrote a feature on Phelps for Mother Jones a decade ago. On a recent Facebook post, Lauerman speculated that he “might just be nuts.” During his interaction with Phelps, he noted “one odd detail that always stuck with me is how he completely freaked out when he thought I’d asked him if he ever had a gay experience (I’d actually asked whether he’d ever known anyone who was gay). As years have gone on, and it’s become so clear how many of the worst homophobes — the Roy Cohns, George Rekers, the countless ministers caught with their pants down — were closeted gay men crazed by self-hate and/or fear, I often think back to that Phelps freakout and wonder if it wasn’t a pretty clear tell.”
It came out later that Matthew Shepard’s killer was gay as well.
We could point to the hypocrisy and get busy designing our own picket signs to carry at his funeral. The Facebook posts I’ve seen so far say, “God Hates Phelps!” But that would be wrong. And hateful. And exactly what he would want.
George Takei, actor, gay rights advocate and most recently, social media personality stated on Facebook:
“I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be.He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”
I think the world will soon lose a tortured soul, someone whose prejudices and fears became so encompassing that they will live on as his legacy. His tombstone might read: Here lies another so married to his righteousness that it clouded out any humanity.
How sad for him.
As for the rest of us, we move forward, opening ourselves up to cracks in the certainties of our opinions. Through those cracks, we might consider the scope of where we have been wrong. It takes bravery to look there, to study our own psyches for doubt or uncertainty where once there was none.
Light is painful when it first touches your eyes.
No, I won’t dance on this man’s grave. Instead, let’s try to leave ourselves open to our own prejudices and fears to discover deeper connections, to let our own humanity shine through.
Let that be our legacy.