In 2014, I wrote a column reflecting on the death and legacy of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. In it, I said I was oddly grateful to the WBC for illustrating the end-game of anti-queer rhetoric. I ended the column with this:
“Perhaps increased exposure to their message will reaffirm homophobic beliefs in some people. In fact, I hope it does. I hope those people are inspired to write and talk about how much queers disgust them in a public fashion. Canada doesn’t have an equivalent to Fred Phelps … What we do have are anonymous, everyday people, quietly nurturing their hate and their disgust—not brave enough to come out from behind a pseudonym.”
I was absolutely terrified writing those words. What few people knew at the time was that an anonymous blogger who used the handle baconfat53 was writing responses to almost every Queermonton column that were breathtaking in their vileness. The vitriol sent my way was disturbing, but it was nothing compared to what was written about others, including the other Queermonton writer at the time. My Phelps column was bravado, a message intended specifically for this blogger, telling him I wasn’t afraid.
But I was afraid. I was afraid his words would bleed into real life. I was afraid my co-writer would bear the brunt of it. For days after the piece went live, I would visit his blog waiting to see what his response would be. I don’t remember that he ever did say anything about it.
I want to be clear that when I say he was anonymous, I mean the very opposite. We knew his name was Barry Winters. We knew he was employed by the Canadian Forces. We knew this because a few weeks prior to the Phelps column, my editor at the time had a meeting with the Hate Crimes Unit of EPS to talk about this guy. We were told the police knew about him. We were told the bar for a hate crimes charge was extremely high. We were told there wasn’t much they could do.
So life went on. I would check his blog every few weeks, a bystander to a perpetual car wreck. I was reluctant to give him more page views, but I just had to see what he was saying about me and about my community. Knowing I was powerless to stop the terrible things he said about people I knew was the worst part. There was nothing I could do to stop him except bear witness as each new screed unfurled into the dark eternity of the internet. I kept writing and eventually I stopped looking.
Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago, I saw the headline, “Edmonton police charge blogger with hate crime.” I knew it was Winters before I read the story. Reading it, I felt rage and sadness and impotence all over again. It turns out the parallel between Phelps and Winters is more accurate than I thought: Winters apparently had thousands of followers. Who knows how many of them now see him as a martyr. Who knows if they will pick up where he left off.
I stand by what I said in the Phelps column: it is better to have the hate out in the open where it can be confronted, rather than quietly breathing in the background. But hate echoes for a long time and its scars do not easily fade. Winters’ blog has since been removed, but his archive is easily accessible via some smart googling. His words, and mine, continue to live on.
(A link to the previous article can be found here.)