Fred Phelps died this Wednesday. His death was announced to the public by members of his family and former church on Thursday.
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You’re familiar with his family and former church—they’re pretty much one and the same. They’re the ones who are famous for clawing for attention for their message, such as it is, by picketing funerals and other public events with viciously anti-LGBT signs.
The passing of Phelps has been a karmic challenge to the nation and to the LGBTQ community in particular. It can difficult to find the strength of character to extend the compassion to his family that they so vocally refused to extend to others.
It can be easier, though, if we think about the fact that in an odd way, we need to be grateful that he sent his clan out to spew their bile into the world.
Other people may have tried harder to spread hate than Fred Phelps, but no one was louder or meaner about it. But—and this is key to where our gratitude should lie—Phelps turned out to be really, really bad at it.
And as hurtful and frustrating as his actions were, they have boomeranged in the LGBTQ community’s favor many times over.
Phelps and his offspring managed to be so loud, so vicious, and so obviously wrong that the number of non-relatives they have managed to draw into their church can be counted on one hand. Meanwhile, their protests of funerals—especially of military funerals—showed the world how much hate lies behind anti-gay rhetoric. There is arguably an entire generation that now associates all anti-LGBT rhetoric with a mental picture of a screeching WBC member.
Just as important, the clan’s prominent position in the media made it easier and easier for the general public to see how similar all anti-LGBT rhetoric is. It really isn’t more than a step or two from one of their church’s vile protest signs to an average public statement by more garden-variety bigots like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Mike Huckabee.
The Phelps clan’s out-there animosity has made it harder and harder for the bigots with more public relations flair to hide behind the skirts of smooth “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric. More and more people see where the hate is really pointed now, and it shows as Americans favor same-sex marriage and LGBT workplace rights in greater numbers than ever before.
Phelps wanted to be a holy figure and do what he presumably thought — somehow, on some strange level — was good. And he was so terrible at it that he did inadvertently help change a lot of minds for the better. By becoming such an ugly and buffoonish illustration of where intolerance leads, he helped thousands of people open their minds and vow to at least not be like him.
I called Phelps’s church his “former” church because he was excommunicated last summer, reportedly after suggesting the church should start to take a gentler approach. He was terrible at spreading animosity and in the end, he knew it. It’s tempting to throw hate his way, but he isn’t worth it. Just your pity.
You don’t have to like the late Fred Phelps. None of us do. But we can take a moment to be glad for all the legwork he accidentally did for us.