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farewell, Fred

March 21, 2014

I’m surprised at the array of feelings that the death of Fred Phelps has churned up in me.  I found it fitting that he died on the day before spring started.  He was Old Man Winter, harsh and cold and symbolic of the fallow yielding to the fresh.  His spirited “God Hates Fags” campaign backfired on him, putting homophobia prominently in the national discourse and further energizing the LGBT community.

Most everywhere he and his family protested, much larger crowds showed up to counter-demonstrate.  When they showed up in San Francisco to picket the funeral of gay author Randy Shilts, they were greeted with a shower of eggs.

My first response to the news of his passing was “Great!  One less raving bigot to worry about.”  I quickly realized that such an attitude plays right into Fred’s wheelhouse.  He seemed to delight in enraging people.  And you can’t fight hatred with more hatred.

So instead I fondly remembered the day my family clashed with his in Topeka.  In May of ’94, my parents and I drove there to attend the graduation of my niece from Washburn University Law School, the very same institution that educated Fred.  There were several openly gay and lesbian faculty members at the school, so the Phelps family felt honour-bound to protest.

I had my camcorder with me to tape the graduation.  We had some time before the ceremony started, so I walked over to the demonstration.  In the middle of the 20 or so picketers was a woman holding a sign that read “Hate Is A Family Value”.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “an ironic counter-protester right in their midst.”

As I approached her to get a better shot, Fred called me a “faggot” and another guy ran over and planted himself right in front of the woman, who had started to hiss like a cornered snake.  The fear and hostility emanating from the group felt almost like heat.

“If you come any closer, this will become a confrontation,” he explained to me.  Since I had cleaned up real nice for my niece and did not want to fight a bunch of maniacs, I backed off.  My father saw this and walked toward me.  Fred called him a “white-haired faggot”.

“God must be proud of you,” my dad countered.  We moved out of the radioactive zone and I taped for a few more minutes.  Fred spoke of Judgement Day, but no one was listening, not even his kin.  They had spread out to look bigger.  Just before we turned to go to the auditorium, Fred pointed to something off-camera and said “Mother, call the police. That’s a nuisance.”

I’m not sure why that particular statement invoked the wrath of God, but there was a clap of thunder and it started pouring cats and dogs and frogs and locusts.  Mom, Dad and I ran for cover as I gleefully yelled “What does that tell you, Fred?”

The storm and the Phelps’s dissipated during the graduation.  Our family regrouped at a Cracker Barrel to celebrate.

I bear Fred and his ilk no bad will.  I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.  I hope he realized on some level that his shock tactics were a huge boost to the mainstream acceptance of our LGBT brothers and sisters.  And if there is an afterlife, I hope it’s like the Castro District, the French Quarter and Fire Island.

And speaking of gaiety, happy spring, everybody!  You, too, Fred.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 25, 2014 9:36 pm

    Or Guerneville!!!!!!!!!! Happy spring, send some of your downpours down here. Michael

  2. Gordon permalink
    April 18, 2014 12:28 pm

    A new level of Hell for Fred in the Divine Comedy.

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