Knocking on Heaven’s Door?

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.

fred-phelps-wildrose-signsIn 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.

Proposition H8

The 1990s brought forth a bastion of political correctness. All at once, we were forbidden from saying “black,” “retard,” and “fag,”  in lieu of the more acceptable terms African-American, mentally-challenged, and homosexual. The politically correct terminology was so successful and so thorough that the words looked weird written on the page. It was uncomfortable to even write them. That’s because I’m a product of those nineties. If you miss a good racist joke, you can blame it on Bill Clinton.

In high school, we held assemblies in the auditorium and painted posters around the school to bring to the forefront what it meant to be tolerant. Tolerance was the term of the nineties and the platform from which the politically correct language would spring. We were actively taught in our liberal arts-led public brainwashing education, that in order to heal society, we had to tolerate people who seemed different than us. But tolerance as a term never sat quite right with me. I never wanted to be in the company of someone who was taught to merely tolerate my existence. But we had to start somewhere, right? And that start was with the accepted vernacular.

Civil Rights comes in waves in this country: in 1920 white women won the right to vote and later, “African-Americans” were awarded the same; progress was made in the way we looked at and treated the handicapped among us. And the word “gay” was maligned as a derogatory expression when we used it to mean “stupid” or “weak.” This week, marriage equality is rearing its head as the Supreme Court examines Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

When I started ninth grade, AIDS was a full-blown threat with some high profile public figures falling ill. We learned that Elton John was homosexual, and that our suspicions about Boy George were spot on. Four years after I left high school, Matthew Shepard was slaughtered by someone who was decidedly intolerant.

Something Maya Angelou once said has always resonated with me. She spoke about how we demonize the people around us, to call murderers or pedophiles, “monsters.” Not people. The words serve to separate and to alienate us from each other. We can’t call people like that “people” because that’s what we are. But no person is a monster, she said.  If one human could complete a heinous act, it is within the realm of possibility for each of us. The Latin phrase she quoted was, “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’

In a similar vein, she continued, we have within us the possibilities to accomplish what the greatest among us have: “If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you.” All of us, each of us, human.

No matter what the courts decide, marriage equality is on its way, just as the times before them had come to cast aside our base judgements and remember the humanity that makes us hold more in common than we oftentimes like to believe. In time, “gay marriage” will simply be called “marriage.”

Beyond that, can we graduate from tolerating our differences to something else? I don’t mean love. I don’t believe we could love everyone we bump into. Respect? No, I think I could learn to love all human beings around me before I could commit to offering indiscriminate and undeserved respect. Coexist brings me to a bumper sticker on a hunter green Subaru, the paint peeling and rust flaking from the bumper. Coexist sounds like tolerate to me – a life lived next to someone else. It’s better than annihilating that neighbor, but I think we can do better. Celebrating our differences is way more than we can ever hope to realistically expect.

I watched a documentary about Matthew Shepard in my first psychology course in college, undoubtedly meant to foster awareness of others, their conditions, and how we react to them. In this psychology course, I learned about transference, a term that meant hating the part of someone else that was something you perceived to be a deep-seated trait of your own. Sort of like how I can’t stand judgmental people.  I remembered that Matthew Shepard’s killer was discovered to have been homosexual. That he butchered another human, calling him “fag” while he did it, not because he was intolerant of that boy, but because he hated that part of himself. He couldn’t bear to see it displayed so blatantly by another.

As I watched Rob Portman change his views of marriage equality after he’d discovered that his own son was homosexual, I thought about ownership. How if we could all own the things we don’t like in ourselves, we could stand up to our parties, our peers, and ourselves and voice our collective humanity in words that seek not to alienate, but to connect.

What would this country look like if we could learn acceptance?