Would protesting his funeral show his followers what it feels like to be on the other side of their wrath? Probably not, says Emily Heist Moss.
Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, protester of military funerals, homophobic hate-monger, free speech-defender, is dying. Or so says his son’s recent Facebook post. The church alleges that “on his deathbed” is overzealous. Phelps has “health issues” but that to suggest he is near death would be foolish because “all such matters are the sole prerogative of God.”
Whatever. The man is very old, and if not today or tomorrow than in the very near future we will all be confronting his legacy. Some people already are. Facebook groups celebrating his imminent demise have launched, countdowns are in effect, and at least one group is threatening to create, through graveside rituals, a “post-mortem homosexual conversion.”
What do we do when one of the great salesmen of hate is dying? Do we crow in victory? Do we clap? Do we mourn?
I have twice crossed paths with the Westboro Baptist Church. Three times, if you count the unpleasant trip I took to their website this afternoon (google it, if you must). Both times, when confronted with the kind of vitriol I’d rather not retype here, instead of feeling discouraged, I found myself feeling oddly reassured.
When I was in high school in an affluent suburb of Boston, Westboro Baptist protested outside one of our local churches, which was apparently deemed too lenient toward gay parishioners. Though my family has never been churchgoing, a friend invited us to participate in the counterprotest.
While half a dozen adults and children waved neon-signs with big black block letters sporting phrases no one should ever have to read, hundreds of town residents lined up and locked arms to guard the steps to the church doors. Through this safe passage, families made their way to their seats.
Love: 1, Hate: 0
In college, Westboro reared its ugly head again with another six-person outfit of sign-wielders. What exactly they protested—beyond the existence of gays, a fact they seemed particularly obsessed with—I wasn’t sure, but it had something to do with the University of Chicago’s past employment of President Obama.
Students responded with neon signs of their own, “God Loves Internet Porn,” for example, and the brothers of Alpha Delt stripped to tiny shorts and danced on their front porch to “I’m Coming Out” and “It’s Raining Men.”
Love: 2, Hate: 0
From both encounters, I walked away smiling. They are few and we are many, the right side of history, arc bending toward justice and all that jazz. In the face of hate and ignorance, my people responded with neighborly love, laughter, humor, and music.
I felt proud. I felt lucky to have come from the people and places I came from. I pitied them, especially the kids, for being on the other side of the picket line, if you can call it that, instead of locking arms with us. Does that make me an elitist? Probably, but there are worse things to feel superior about than neighbors that stand up for each other.
I’m inclined to let Fred Phelps die in peace. He is the king of the dinosaurs, after all, and their time on the planet is nearing its end. I really do believe that, but it’s not my call to make.
My politics place me squarely in Westboro Baptist’s bucket of Hell-Goers, but I was never the direct target of their vitriol. I have never been assaulted for daring to hold hands with my partner in public. I have never worried that who I love might cost me a job, my friends, or my family. Although the word makes me cringe, I have never felt the direct blow of “faggot” spit in disgust. I don’t know what it feels like, even with the support of hundreds behind me, to walk past a sign telling me God created AIDS to punish me for my sins.
Would protesting his funeral show his followers what it feels like to be on the other side of their wrath? Would it plant a seed that might, for some, blossom some day into tolerance, maybe even acceptance, maybe even love? It’s possible, certainly, but unlikely. It would probably only illustrate that we, too, can stoop so low.
And wouldn’t you rather lock arms and dance?
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.