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By Keith Orr
Well, my old nemesis is dead. I outlived Fred Phelps.
It is a delightful coincidence to Michiganders that Fred Phelps death comes the same week as the first victory in our fight for Marriage Equality.
Fred and I have a history. He and his Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) came to picket the aut BAR in 2001. Martin and I decided to turn his appearance into a fundraiser for the Jim Toy Community Center. We pledged one dollar to the Center for every minute he picketed. Hundreds of people joined in, and by the time of his picket we had pledges of two dollars for every second he was there. He helped me raise $7500 for our local LGBT Center, and in a series of fundraisers modeled on ours, we raised over $100,000 for LGBT Centers, suicide hotlines, service members support, and more.
Also, thanks to Fred Phelps, I got to know Howard Dean. Howard had been picketed by Phelps on several occasions, because he had famously signed into law the first Civil Union bill. That act was the first victory in the long march to Marriage Equality. Howard Dean heard of our fundraiser and contacted me to ask me to join his campaign. Over the course of the campaign we became friends as well as political allies.
So I really owe a bit to Phelps.
By this point, Phelps’ death, or journey to hell, or whatever, is really a non-story. He has been exposed for what he was, a disbarred attorney looking for attention and money. In an interesting side note, it is reported that Fred was recently excommunicated from his own church. He had advocated a kinder approach between church members after his daughter lost a power struggle. Note that this is not some late life conversion. He did not suggest a kinder approach to fags. He was upset that his heir-apparent, his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper, lost a power struggle.
I have said for a long time that the WBC would die with him. Cults rarely survive their founder. The only real hope for the church to survive in any meaningful way (I use that phrase ironically) would be if Shirley would become the new charismatic leader. They are now left without that leader, and have pretty much guaranteed their demise. I anticipated a power struggle after his death. However, I thought they’d wait until he died, and that the power struggle would be among his children. The church is hurtling towards oblivion.
For those of us of a certain age his story is interwoven with ours…and our relationship to society. In the late 80’s he started picketing funerals of gay men who had died of AIDS. Only a few people considered it in poor taste. Most people clearly thought his protests reflected their feelings about the death of a diseased fag. There were no calls for laws which would keep him a certain distance from funerals.
He had been protesting unchecked for about a dozen years when Matthew Sheperd was brutally murdered. Matthew’s story captivated the nation. The image of the angels of mercy protecting a fragile family from a hateful lunatic was a profound moment in our movement. It was one of the first collective moments to humanize us.
And so we learned to mock him, and raise money off of him, and use his hate to promote our cause. In that vein it is easy to say, “you mean nothing, and ultimately your death means nothing”…perhaps the cruelest response to someone who, more than anything, craved attention.
But for me, it is hard to forget his early pickets. We lost young men to a disease which was new, frightening, and almost always deadly. Our government did not care. Families would often sweep dying men from hospitals to die at a home which had turned them out, instead of allowing those young men the solace of dying in the arms of those they loved.
Fred represented society at that time. And it wasn’t pretty.
I am grateful that we are at the point where Fred’s antics are considered sick. I am grateful that there are laws which can both respect freedom of speech, but also the dignity of a funeral. But there is still some bitterness that those laws came about after Fred started picketing funerals of soldiers who died in the Gulf War. Where was the angst over the funerals of our soldiers who died is an un-winnable war against a disease?
So I say to you, Fred, “You lost the war. You don’t even get to die the dignity of a Good Soldier. You die alone and pathetic, reviled by most of the world. I shall not ‘dance on your grave’. You have done enough to despoil it without my help.”
There…that’s my eulogy to Fred Phelps.