Your Humble Correspondent, like many who care about social justice and equality for all under the law, has been of two minds in rather bitter conflict about the news of the passing of Rev. Fred Phelps, notorious founder, pastor and paterfamilias of Topeka, Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church, at the age of 84 of what so far has only been described as "natural causes" after a long illness and hospitalization.
I'm not going to bother linking to any obituaries; just do a quick Google search on "Fred Phelps" and you can probably find enough of them to satisfy you. (I refuse to go along with the verbing of business names and trademarks; someone has to resist the ongoing degradation of the English language.) I also don't want to give the old bastard or his repellent "church" any more free publicity than I can possibly avoid.
The great multi-genre author Harlan Ellison reportedly once observed that the real reason Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was cremated rather than buried was to prevent those whom Roddenberry had allegedly wronged in life from making a special trip to piss on his grave. One suspects a similar reason behind the WBC's announcement that their funeral-picketing founder will not have any sort of funeral or memorial service; they no doubt suspect (rightly, I think) that such a proceeding would attract far too many people looking to protest and even commit violence against the church and/or its members, in revenge for the antics of Phelps and his followers. Your Humble will confess to a certain amount of temptation to locate his grave and dance upon it, being at least well-raised enough not to urinate in a public place, let alone the sacred ground of a graveyard or mortuary.
But as some are already starting to point out (including one gay activist who has personally tangled with "the Topeka Tornado" and writes about it here), it may well be that Phelps was actually a boon to the LGBTQ equality movement in several ways:
- Exposing the cruelty, hatred and psychopathic fear that many of us believe lies at the heart of conservative and religious anti-gay campaigns, usually hidden behind smartly-tailored suits, bland smiles and "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric;
- Forcing many on the side of limiting or removing rights for persons of minority sexuality to take a good, hard look at themselves and how those of us on the other side (not to mention many who aren't on either side) see them...and in many cases, to change sides when they found they didn't like what they saw;
- Galvanizing many who were either not active or only mildly so on behalf of equality to get off their asses and get serious about the existential threat the religious right poses to queerfolk and their loved ones, friends and allies—not just in the US, but worldwide (witness Uganda's recent enactment of life-imprisonment penalties for homosexuality).
Since many of Phelps' family and congregants were almost as bad as he was, it's hard for me to feel sorry for their grief and loss...but I extend deepest and most sincere sympathies to them, nonetheless. As Gene's onetime employee George Takei has shown, perhaps the best course for those of us on the correct side of history is to be bigger, better people than the Phelpsites (admittedly, a pretty damned low bar). And we can only hope and pray that the Reverend's eternal soul, should he have one, is currently witnessing the utter and complete failure—and in fact, backfiring—of his lifelong mission from whatever circle in the depths of the hell to which he so freely consigned others he may now inhabit.