Outspoken anti-gay activist and leader of the Westboro Baptist Church Fred Phelps Sr. has died, likely much to the relief of the gay community and those looking to eliminate the spread of hate in the world. However, his family is likely devastated, and mixed emotions will doubtless fly from all corners of the world. Phelps was likely best known for his excoriation of Matthew Shepard, who was just 21 when he died in Laramie, Wyoming after being tied to a Texas gate and pistol-whipped, apparently simply for his sexual orientation.
Phelps had encouraged his followers with Westboro Baptist Church to attend the trial of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney back in 1998, spewing anti-gay vitriol and attempting to spread hate. Henderson and McKinney were found guilty of Shepard’s murder, and the crime has long been considered a hate crime. In a clear message memorialized in both the film and stage versions of The Laramie Project, a performance based on hundreds of interviews held with Laramie residents in the immediate aftermath of Shepard’s murder, people dressed in angel costumes with very wide wings showed up at the trial as well, encircling Phelps and his group and effectively blocking them from view.
Many would say that this was not a man to be admired. He established Westboro Baptist Church in 1955 and quickly gained a following. The church promoted the idea that homosexuality is the root of all evil and several Westboro Baptist Church members made appearances at the funerals of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that their deaths were the result of the immorality of America. Members would wave signs such as “Thank God for IEDs” and other placards saying that the soldiers died because America supported homosexual marriages.
Fred Phelps Sr. promoted hate in so many ways, a belief that runs contrary to the views that many Christians hold dear. However, it needs to be remembered that this was a father to five children and grandfather to several more. As cantankerous as many say he was – and this was an image he appeared to embrace in the press – he was a real man who deserves some consideration of humanity. At the very least, his grown children do. That will no doubt contribute to the mixed emotions that some will likely feel at the news that Fred Phelps Sr. has died.
I do not condone Phelps or his poisonous beliefs and was heartbroken that the man got within 50 feet of the Henderson-McKinney murder trial back in 1998, though I was blissfully unaware of the proceedings back then. It wasn’t until I watched HBO’s The Laramie Project that something resonated with me. As a bisexual woman, I was gutted to think that people would actually encourage the spread of hate of anyone. This was a 21-year-old boy that was murdered, and that Phelps said that Shepard would burn in hell, among other fates, made me want to shake the man to his very core. I knew there were those who were dead set against the LGBT community, but the protests that Phelps arranged then and continued to arrange about many different people across the US astounded me. The first thought I had about Phelps and his continued protests against the LGBT community was that I could not believe that he would be allowed to continue his vicious protests.
However, the US is the land of free speech, and legally, there was little to stop Phelps. It continues to stun me that there were those who continued to buy into his hatred and promote it. Society can continue to say that it welcomes those of any stripe or creed, but the bottom line is, there are unfortunately those who will continue to hate and continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices being done.
However, those left behind now that Phelps has passed still are mourning a father and grandfather. There is not a lot known about his private life, save for that he had five children: Nate, Fred Jr., Margie, Shirley and Rebekah.
It was Nate that spoke about the death of his father via Facebook, noting that his father had been excommunicated from the church in 2013 by three of his own children. The excommunication occurred because Phelps advocated more kindness from its members. Nate Phelps said he was angry that there were some family members that were blocking others from saying goodbye to their father and grandfather, and his Facebook page was flooded with condolence messages about the death of his father, Fred Phelps Sr.
While I hate the message that Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church spreads – and I know that I am by far not the only person to feel that way – I feel for his family. Fred Phelps Sr. has died, and while there may be many who will celebrate at the loss, the Phelps family has lost a father and grandfather. The loss of a family member can be excruciating, and for the Phelps family, what may be the most excruciating is explaining the legacy that Fred Phelps Sr. would be most known for. His legacy will no doubt cause mixed emotions to fly.
By Christina St-Jean