A few years ago I asked Judy Shepard how she felt about Fred Phelps, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church which had picketed the funeral of her son Matthew in what was to become the seminal event that put Westboro into the national spotlight.
Her answer surprised me.
“Oh we love Freddy,” she replied. “If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.”
Judy’s answer to my question illustrates the truth about Fred Phelps. Just as much as Matthew Shepard has become an iconic symbol of the LGBT community’s fight against hatred and intolerance, Fred Phelps is the iconic symbol of anti-gay hate speech.
We need not be thankful for Fred and his family’s hateful narrative, but mindful that they have created an awareness in the public’s mind of anti-gay bias, and a perception of themselves not unlike thoughts that come to mind when speaking of Adolf Hitler.
And yet, Matt himself would likely not be very pleased with hateful reactions by the LGBT community towards the Phelps upon hearing the news of Fred’s demise, says Jim Osborn, a friend who attended school with Matt.
Jim participated in the Rainbow Resource Center meetings at the University of Wyoming with Matt, and was the co-creator of Angel Action — the counter-protest against the Phelps clan who picketed Matt’s funeral and the trial of the the two men responsible for his murder.
“Matt saw everyone as a human being — some with flaws, but none that needed to be condemned,” Jim told me on Sunday. “The LGBT community needs to be better than that, we need to let him [Fred] go and quietly.”
This isn’t about forgiveness, nor is it really about condemnation either. As a journalist, I have reported on Fred, his family, and their bizarre little world that crept into our consciousness on that day 15 years ago in Casper, Wyo., when I first encountered them at Matt’s funeral.
Their “Fags plus AIDS equals Death” signs and garish, neon-colored posters of stick figures engaged in anal sex on display at the funeral of a kid so brutally murdered was a definite “Who the fuck are they” moment.
Years later, as they directed their hateful anti-gay messaging at fallen American service members killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe, the church seemed to morph into a parody — albeit not an amusing one — of the anti-gay “religious right” and their own growing animosity against the LGBT community.
The picketing was disgusting and yes, unconscionable, yet it reflected the values of free speech and right to self expression that American’s cherish.
But like Judy, I think protests by Westboro awoke a sense of awareness among the “Mom, Pop, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” Americans as to what is right, and wrong, with this nation’s values. It has become a debate about humanity, dignity, and the fact that all of us, including the LGBT community, are people.
I feel empathy as a human being for Fred’s family — their anti-gay messaging aside — struggling with the death of a husband, a father, a grandfather.
But at the end of the day, I am reminded that Fred illustrates the worst, not the best, of the very essence of what it truly means to be human. Let him fade away to reckon with his God, as we continue to press forward as a community.
I can’t speak for Matt or his family, but I tend to think they’d agree with me.