As is fairly common knowledge now this morning, Fred Phelps, the hate-mongering leader of Westboro Baptist Church has passed away.
But I want to tell a different story of how I will remember Fred. In 1992, I sat in a computer lab in Manhattan, KS and was introduced to one of Fred's sons. It was one of my first experiences with the Phelps church/ideology, and I knew instantly, despite my misgivings on many issues at the time the the kind of hatred that came from there faith was nothing I would ever be on the side of.
So, when Fred Phelps passed today, I thought about all the hateful things he had done.. and then I thought about all the things that had come from these protests.
When the Phelps clan first started protesting, the US was a very different place. At that time, the view in society was shaped by the idea that gay rights weren't 'real'. We sometimes forget how far we've come on this issue, but in the 80s and early 90s, when I was in school, the talking points of even liberal politicians on Gay issues were non-existent. Outside of a small group, no one was talking about gay rights. Reagan and Bush certainly weren't. The first democratic president since Carter opted for 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'. The idea of the closet was big and had wide support.
But Fred Phelps began his rampage of protest, mocking people and organizations that he felt were too 'gay friendly'. He brought into the light the deep, dark issues that dwelled within the hearts of those who wouldn't say it outloud. The hatred and animosity, the social judgement. Fred Phelps put a face to all of it, at a cartoon level and he made people face the ugly reality of hatred.
For years, people sat on the sidelines as gay rights and sexual rights were oppressed and just said 'well, it's the norm'. But Fred Phelps made a lot of people rethink it, stop being so passive and realize that what was happening was wrong.
People who hadn't protested anything before found that when Fred Phelps would show up to protest or advocate hatred, it was the kind of thing they couldn't just stand on the sidelines and ignore - they had to make their voices heard.
Phelps protests brought out moms, dads, college kids who said: this is not what I believe in. I don't believe in hatred. The idea of a passive support system, a nice pat on the back that said 'I'm OK with people being gay' wasn't enough when people like Fred went out of their way to make life hard on others.
The first counter protest of Phelps I witnessed was in Topeka, Kansas in 1998. It was sparsely held but a few people who stood out with signs that said: "We don't believe in hate". As the years went on, the counter protests grew.
When Fred and his clan showed up, large groups would show up to show their support for their fellow man. The voice of hatred wouldn't be left with a bullhorn all on it's own. It would be opposed.
Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
People who watched the Phelps rallies at first looked across the streets, the parking lots, the businesses and saw no one to oppose hatred. Only an empty space. Darkness. Fred would never be driven away with darkness. Their lack of opposition was fertilizer for his hatred to grow. Instead, they brought love and affection for their fellow man. They were respectful to Fred - I don't remember almost any of these resorting to a fight, but the held up signs that told people: We love you. Don't listen to the hate.
They raised signs and voices and said: We love one another. Hatred cannot drive us away.
This last fall, when a major football star at a Division I school came out, university students from all over a midwestern state stood together to block the words of Fred Phelps.
They held up Jerseys, they lined the field, they protected the sidewalk. They sang, they laughed. People who were gay and straight held arms together to shine a light where there was once darkness, to offer love where hate tried to venture in.
Fred Phelps is dead now.
His legacy of hatred and harm lie in his past. Because of his evil, those who represent love, caring, and hope found a voice. They refused to back down. They shined a light for those who needed it. They sang for those who suffered sorrow, they held hands with their fellow man and said: these aren't just words, I believe in you and I will act to protect you.
Phelps may have been a monster. But because of him, I'm glad to say I've had a front row seat to watching people find humanity and compassion. Because of his hatred, people stopped sitting on the sidelines and found the fight to ask for something different.
Goodbye Fred. Maybe the most fitting thing I can say for all your hate is that the legacy you will receive is the exact opposite of what you had intended.