Fred Phelps, founder and former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, passed away at the age of 84 on March 19. I struggled with whether or not the world needed 600 more words written about a man who was the face of a vile organization. Isn’t this what the WBC and their ilk crave? Attention?
The WBC, famous for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims and American soldiers killed during the recent wars, probably needs no introduction. Here, however, are some interesting facts I encountered during the research for this column: WBC’s first picket was at Gage Park, Topeka, in 1991. The park was around the corner from their church and was rumoured to be a cruising spot. Phelps claimed that a man (presumably gay) tried to lure his five-year-old grandson into some bushes.
WBC reached national attention when they picketed the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard. Their slogan, “God hates fags,” is also the URL for the church’s website.
Phelps was a democrat, running in five different Kansas primaries during the ’90s. The church is comprised primarily of members of his extended family.
Taken together, these facts paint a picture of a power-hungry man with a personal vendetta against queers and a media-savvy church willing to spread his message. And though Phelps was rumoured to have been excommunicated in August 2013, everything about the WBC is indelibly marked by him.
In an odd way, I am grateful that Phelps began this church. I don’t mean to minimize the pain and suffering the church has caused countless numbers of families and individuals and I am certainly not happy they exist. But I am grateful. I am grateful because the WBC threw the curtain back on the circulation of anti-queer rhetoric in the US and illustrated so beautifully the endgame of that rhetoric. Their logic makes a certain kind of sense: queer sex offends God, the US continues to support queers, so God punishes the US (Canada, however, has managed to escape God’s wrath). Thus, Hurricane Katrina or the second Iraq war or whatever else were a result of God’s wrath.
Now, behind every North American religious anti-queer argument lies the spectre of the WBC. To all these religious folks I would ask: if God truly hates fags, if you believe queerness is a sin, then shouldn’t you be onboard with the WBC’s message, if not their tactics?
I’m also grateful because the WBC inadvertently created the conditions for its own demise. They showcased the depths of anti-queer hate and galvanized counter-protests and resistances that helped shape the tenor of mainstream queer activism in the States. Sure, at times WBC counter-protests had little to do with defending queers directly—the KKK got involved at one point—but every “God hates figs” sign was an affirmation of queer humanity that the WBC was so desperate to erase.
Ultimately, this is why I decided to write about the WBC this week. 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, unless you count Allan “lake of fire” Hunsperger. 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.
Be inspired by Fred Phelps. Bravely announce to your friends, bosses, co-workers and families that you hate queers. Shout loudly so that we know who you are. We’ll make sure you take your rightful place in history.