I don't know that I believe many things. But I do believe in what is called Visionary or Outsider Art. My personal temple is AVAM, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. They keep the work of Gluers there. The unschooled artists who find words too slippery, inadequate to express the nature of reality. In giving up words, or sometimes in redefining, reimagining or catpuring words in the work of their hands, they collectively attempt to share a vision of the world those of us with more prosaic dreams cannot even imagine.
Some few of these visionaries enter the public imagination, and make of politics a performance art. They are the Sacred Clowns. Engulfed by an idea larger than themselves they bring focus to themselves and their truth in a way that cannot be dismissed by the larger society. Often, they fly, like Icarus, too close to the Sun and are consumed.
You had to confront death and dignity with Jack Kevorkian. Lunatic or sage, he defined the world in terms of a single idea, "dying is not a crime." He went to jail for 8 and a half years after his fourth trial.
You had to confront the personal cost of war with Cindy Sheehan, the gold star mother that captivated and repealed us with her grief. She's running for president and under investigation by the IRS, for vowing not to pay taxes until the government gives her son back.
Jack and Cindy intrigued and infuriated the collective us. Their vision was (and is) all consuming, and could not (can not) be contained and channeled into sensible, prudent or reasonable action. But for all that she might be marginalized now, Cindy was a fulcrum that helped turn the country's attention to the cost of war. Jack opened a dialog that has resulted in world wide changes, incremental as they are.
I would like to thank Fred Phelps, at the time of his death, for his role as Sacred Clown. For it was Fred and his followers, more than anyone else, who provided the nation with the face of prejudice.
We don't know why Fred was comsumed with hatred for homosexuals. We can only guess why he chose picketing funerals as his method. We can surmise that his training as a civil rights lawyer lead him to provide for himself and his flock thru the means of lawsuits as they were spending so much time taking their message to the nation.
I first encountered the Phelps phenomenon at a midwestern Gay Pride picnic. I don't remember the year. Maybe it was the year the police horse stepped on my oldest daugher's foot. She was five. Maybe it was one of the years I helped people register to vote, or sign up for memberships in the Human Rights Campaign. Maybe it was after she spent a year abroad in high school. I have a terrible memory.
Three or four people were holding signs across the street from the park where the goings on were going on. It was hot, that flat smothering heat only Oklahoma in the summer can generate, and a lot of the attendees were shirtless. I was walking from the parking lot to the venue (it must have been early because I had a great spot). There was a bit of commotion. One of the many young gay blond shirtless men had crossed the street from "our side," with its ring of 10 x 10 tents surrounding the grassy nugat of the park, to theirs, a strip of sidewalk marginally within shouting distance, and partially under shade cover of large oaks.
I asked the person I was walking near what was happening as the young blond shirtless boy began what I supposed to be the unlikely male chest thumping ritual with a sign holder.
The cops, in their overstuffed brown uniforms, bulked up with body armor and smelling faintly of warm polyester, crossed the street after him in the languid but brisk walk of someone timing their arrival for the perfect moment. It was only a momentary shuffle before that bright boy was in cuffs and marched away.
My companion explained that he had tried to stop the young man, shrugging his shoulders in hopeless acknowledgement of his failure. He explained to me how Phelps made his living.
So I knew, when they showed up at schools, and at movies and finally at funerals that they were going where they knew they would provoke, where the shining blond boys and their allies would react physically to the signage and the message.
I watched it over years. Before and after I saw Howard Dean speak to the Human Rights Campaign after he signed the bill allowing Civil Unions.
And when that happened, I was awash in contradictory emotions. Was it too much, too soon? Was it not enough? Was it important? Why should anyone mind so very much, anyway...this civil union thing, this gay marriage thing.
And week after week, and month after month, Fred with his conviction that we are all doomed by an Old Testament God, and Fred with his truth that his Salvation required that he carry this message whether we listen to it or not, and Fred who knew how to design a sign for television, but whose female family members seemed to dress for a pentacostal picnic, well, Fred kept up his message with the single minded determination of a Saint or Prophet.
And person after person who witnessed the message had to ask themselves whose side where they on?
This clown, living out his pain in the spotlight, provided an anchoring image of fanatic, enduring hatred of the other.
And the world has changed as a result.
Be at peace, Fred. And thank you.
You burned with the light of the visionary, carrying your message and its opposite, a Sacred Clown.