By Brody Levesque WASHINGTON | 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, that 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 the iconic symbol of the LGBTQ community's fight for full inclusion and equal rights- Fred is the iconic symbol of exactly that vitriolic anti-gay speech and deeds which the greater LGBTQ community has been fighting against for so long.
We need to actually be thankful for, not for Fred and his family's hateful messaging and narrative, but for his creating such an awareness in the public's mind so as to be the absolute metaphorical example of anti-gay rhetoric just as say comparisons to Adolf Hitler when one is speaking of reprehensible acts by another person of public note.
Jim Osborn, a friend of mine who attended school with Matt Shepard, participated in the Rainbow Resource Center meetings at the University of Wyoming with him, and was the co-creator of Angel Action- the counter-protest against Fred and his church during the course of the trial of the the two men responsible for the murder of his friend- pointed out to me in a phone call earlier today that Matt himself would likely not be very pleased with the hateful reactions by the LGBTQ community towards Fred and his family to the news.
Jim said, “Matt saw everyone as a human being- some with flaws, but none that needed to be condemned.” He then went on to point out that (the) “GLBT community needs to be better than that, we need to let him [Fred] go and quietly.” I agree.
This isn't about forgiveness nor is it really about condemnation either. As a journalist, I have covered Fred and his family and their bizarre little world that creeps into the rest of our world since that day 15 years ago in Casper, Wyoming when I first encountered them at Matthew's funeral.
Trust me- the “Fags plus Aids equals Death” and the stick figures engaged in anal sex on garish neon coloured poster signs at the funeral of a kid so brutally murdered was a definite “oh wow who the fuck are they” moment.
Years later as their hateful anti-gay messaging was directed against fallen American soldiers, airman, sailors killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe, the church turned into a parody- albeit not amusing- of the anti-gay hate crowd from the so-called religious right who rallied against the LGBTQ community.
The picketing was disgusting and yes, in my opinion was unconscionable, yet it reflected the values of free speech and right to self expression that American's cherish.
However, like Judy, I think that the protests by Westboro awoke a sense of awareness among the “Mom, Pop, Apple Pie-Chevrolet and the Wal-Mart customers” as to what is right and what is wrong in this nation's values. It became a public debate about humanity, dignity, and the fact that all of us including the LGBTQ 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 father, husband, and grandfather.
We need to remind ourselves that Fred used our being LGBTQ community's humanity as an abstract, creating scenarios of hurt and feelings of indignity, but at the end of the day- Fred's example illustrates the worst not the best of the very essence of what it truly means to be human.
Let him fade away and instead let's press forward. I can't speak for Matthew or his family- but I tend to think they'd agree with me.