Fred Phelps, leader and father, really, of the Westboro Baptist Church, died several days ago. He was an angry, hateful, man who worked hard at being obnoxious. His despicable behavior – from my point of view – hurt a lot of people and, ironically, its collateral effect helped the gay community.
In 2003, 33% of Americans were pro-gay marriage, in 2013 49% were pro. For anybody that was at all up in the air about choosing sides – and the numbers say that there were many – Phelps made it very hard to choose his side. At some level, he must have known that. He must have known that his behavior was counter-productive and, yet, he kept it up. How much anger does it take to fuel that kind of action? And how much fear does it take to fuel that kind of anger?
Fred Phelps was a crusading Civil Rights lawyer in the 1950s and 60s and somehow, he became unhinged over gay rights. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer writes of the fanaticism of the right and left as being closer together than they are to the reasonable – for lack of a better word – center. The fanaticism that enabled Phelps to champion Civil Rights in Kansas when it was anti-establishment somehow transmorgafied into hate. It probably wasn’t as big a transformation as it seems. As the social landscape of gay rights changed – in Alyssa Rosenberg words, That trend is part of a long cultural process of not just portraying gay people as normal and unthreatening, but of painting homophobia as distasteful and embarrassing. – Phelps stayed anti-establishment.
Ironically again, by staying anti-establishment as the establishment changed, Phelps went from the front of the Bell Curve as a crusading Civil Rights Lawyer, to the back as he became a reactionary trying to stop the incoming tide. To misquote Shakespeare, May the evil that men do be interred with their bones.