Notorious anti-gay activist Fred Phelps has died, according to news reports.
Fred Phelps was the founder and patriarch of Westboro Baptist Church, which he and his family members used as a base for attention-grabbing protests at funerals of people who had died from AIDS, at gay-rights rallies and marches, at churches he deemed insufficiently anti-gay, and later at the funerals of American soldiers (based on the “logic” that America itself is vile and hated by God for its growing acceptance of LGBT people).
It is hard to know how much pain Phelps caused individual LGBT people and their families, particularly young people struggling with their sexuality and/or faith, with his denunciations. But he certainly failed in his mission to frighten or harass Americans away from support for equality. In fact he may have accelerated the trend by putting such an unappealing face on anti-gay bigotry that many American Christians wanted nothing to do with him.
Phelps did allow other anti-gay leaders to posture that he was the face of hatred, not them. But the substance of their message to gay people is similar: repent or be damned – it’s just that Phelps framed it as “God hates fags” while people like Bryan Fischer say God loves them and wants them to abandon their demonic lifestyle. They may have disagreed on rhetorical strategy, but they shared their hostility to an America in which LGBT people are treated equally under the law. In the end, other anti-gay religious leaders, even ones who distanced themselves from Phelps’s rhetoric, were tainted by him.
The Phelps family has inspired some truly creative activism by pro-equality activists, who used their appearances to raise funds for progressive organizations, and who created visually striking walls of “angels” to keep Phelps family protesters out of view of grieving family members.
Fred Phelps’s decision to protest military funerals may have accomplished the most in terms of helping more Americans view anti-gay bigotry as broadly un-American. He may have left exactly the legacy he didn’t want.