Fred Phelps once told me, “I’m the best friend that homosexuals have.” In a way, he had a point. Although it is only now, almost 21 years later to the day and with the news of Phelps’ death all over the Internet, that I’d concede it.
He told me this in 1993, years before Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church went viral. In those days, they primarily used faxes to communicate with media. Phelps had just staged his first major protest in Kansas City, parading with vile hand-printed signs as the symphony performed the piano concerto of a brilliant young composer who had died of AIDS.
Up to that point, Phelps and his band of family/followers had only made a nuisance of themselves in their home base of Topeka, primarily by picketing a park to protest homosexuals who were rumored to gather there.
Phelps hadn’t yet begun attacking the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers; it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the question of how far he could carry his harassment with constitutional protection. There was no Patriot Guard to ride its motorcycles like the cavalry, buffering his signs of “Thank God For Dead Troops” from grieving families.
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Phelps was just getting started.
“The only way we have to get the other side out is to picket,” Phelps said. “I’m the best friend that homosexuals have. I tell them the truth.” That was his full quote. The last part is a flat-out lie. Phelps believed homosexuals were worthy of death.
In our early interviews, before he’d labeled me “the reincarnated witch of Endor,” he claimed that what made God hate gay people was their inability to procreate. He, the father of 13, was only following the dictates of scripture to the letter.
It’s tempting to write this way of thinking off as idiocy, but the most striking recollection I have of my long early interviews with Phelps was his intelligence. People want to deny his intelligence, and yet it was striking, to the point where it drew you in. Not the overall message–that was easy to dismiss–but the sharpness and expansiveness of his mind.
Phelps could quote case law and the Bible exhaustively. He’d won awards for defending the educational rights of poor African-Americans. He didn’t speak in the rambling circular tones of many fundamentalist preachers. A long-distance runner, Phelps had great endurance in an argument, relishing a debate.
His bizarre obsession with homosexuality, coupled with his determination never to give up, eventually earned Phelps what he fervently desired: a national pulpit from which to call America back to godly ways.
Phelps was not the only preacher fulminating against the gay menace, but he was the most flamboyant and the best at making a spectacle. As America grew more tolerant of homosexuality, Phelps became more outlandish. He didn’t just attack gay people who died of AIDS but their parents. He didn’t just write angry diatribes about gay bars but against the United States military for allowing homosexuals in its ranks.
For other, less demonstrative Christian conservatives, Phelps was an embarrassment, a walking, talking, faxing parody of their own biblical beliefs. In important ways, he queered the field for them. His desperate attacks helped turn American opinion in favor of toleration.
As his circle of targets grew, America continued to reflect. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a pathetic compromise of a policy, was repealed when the highest levels of our military began admitting that gay soldiers had long and bravely served the country.
What fascinates us about Phelps is the brazen ugliness of his message. We wonder what to ascribe it to, evil or insanity.
Phelps was not a political opportunist, the sort of charlatan who hustles the public for personal gain by flattering their supposed morality. He sought neither money nor good name. He came not to bring peace, but a sword.
And we, the media, gave him that sword. Phelps sought our attention through the years, adopting new technology and pushing all the right buttons, and we gave it to him. I have often wondered what would have happened if we had refused to take notice. Would he have kept right on picketing that little park in Topeka?
We reporters hated being his megaphone, but we knew that he (and, more importantly, his more civil and well-mannered fellow preachers) were forcing the body politic to consider a very important question: Which civil rights can be denied to people on the basis of sexual orientation? The question is not settled, but it’s not going well for the fundamentalist side. And if, as it now seems, America is tending toward toleration and equality, Phelps – and those of us who covered his antics – helped to make it so.