Fred Phelps is dead at 84. He claimed to be working on behalf of a religious deity, but he had more poison flowing through his veins than half the diamondback rattlesnakes in Florida. Like most venomous reptiles who live to be beheaded by the end of a shovel but that somehow elude that pragmatic instrument, Phelps found his greatest pleasure swallowing innocent mice whole. The small mammals that could not find their way down Phelps’s giant gullet became his willing accomplices and did his bidding through the Westboro Baptist Church.
Phelps was capable of striking at a distance of five states. “Troll” seems too miniscule a word for this craven and atavistic monster, who memorialized his words by picketing funerals of those he deemed immoral. There will be those, even those who stand against Phelps, who will play the “respect for the dead” card, but Phelps deserves neither esteem nor veneration. Let’s not sugarcoat the horror show. He caused insufferable grief to the families of men who served our country and those who struggled to come to terms with their natural identity. His hatred was so electric that it was capable of powering small towns in Kansas and turning innocent people into malicious beasts. Pissing on this ruthless hatemonger’s grave is a rare humanist act.
On the other hand, maybe Phelps’s repugnant conduct was needed to ignite a movement, to get America closer to a less bigoted society that accepts LGBT people as good and vital souls. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old man who was tortured and killed because he was gay. He was tied to a fence and left to die. It was an unspeakably barbaric act that only a sociopath could fail to shed tears over. Fred Phelps arranged for his followers to picket Shepard’s funerals and this was the beginning of his despicable actions. When Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was asked how she felt about Phelps, she replied, “Oh we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” And look how far this nation has come in the sixteen years since. Sixteen states that issue same-sex marriage licenses. 59% of America supporting gay marriage, according to a March 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll. Phelps’s life and legacy raises the unsettling possibility that some extremism may be necessary to make a more tolerant nation.
There was a time in Phelps’s life in which there was a part of his vicious core committed to doing the right thing. As a lawyer in the 1960s, Phelps devoted himself to civil rights, taking on cases that no other counsel would touch. But some baleful piece stirred inside Phelps’s tormented spirit and turned him evil in the subsequent decades. But here’s the thing about intolerance. It has a way of courting intolerance in others. I felt guiltless relish in writing the first two paragraphs of this obituary. I had many friends of varying sexualities when I lived in San Francisco. I hated Fred Phelps with every fiber of my being. The fear he stitched into the American fabric, the insurmountable pain he summoned inside people who did nothing wrong. But I also resent Phelps for summoning these vengeful impulses in the name of humanism. It all makes me want to take a cold shower, yet I feel compelled to stare fearlessly back into the beast.
Near the end of his days, Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church. He was too much even for that abhorrent entity, which will no doubt get a ride of free publicity in the forthcoming weeks. A snake is said to be a solitary beast when it isn’t mating. But it does not back away from confrontation. Its rattle is loud and aggressive, but slightly softer when it scuttles closer to humans. Time will tell if Phelps serves as an inspirational figure for more willing to saunter down the low path or just another poisonous coil dead in a forgotten cave.