Fred Phelps once told me, “I’m the best friend that homosexuals have.”
In a way, he had a point. Although it is only now, almost 21 years later to the day and with the news of Phelps’ death all over the Internet, that I’d concede it.
He told me this in 1993, years before Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church went viral. In those days, they primarily used faxes to communicate with media. Phelps had just staged his first major protest in Kansas City, parading with vile hand-printed signs as the Kansas City Symphony performed the piano concerto of a brilliant young composer who had died of AIDS.
Up to that point, Phelps and his band of family/followers had only made a nuisance of themselves in their home base of Topeka, primarily by picketing a park to protest against homosexuals who were rumored to gather there.
Phelps hadn’t yet begun attacking the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers; it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the question of how far he could carry his harassment with constitutional protection. There was no Patriot Guard to ride its motorcycles like cavalry, buffering his signs of “Thank God For Dead Troops” from grieving families.
Phelps was just getting started.
“The only way we have to get the other side out is to picket,” Phelps said. “I’m the best friend that homosexuals have. I tell them the truth.”
That was his full quote. The last part is a flat-out lie. Phelps believed homosexuals were only worthy of death.
In our early interviews, before he’d labeled me “the reincarnated witch of Endor,” he claimed that what made God hate gay people was their inability to procreate. He, the father of 13, was only following the dictates of scripture.
It’s tempting to write this way of thinking off as idiocy, but the most striking recollection I have of my long early interviews with Phelps was his intelligence. His message was easy to dismiss, but not the sharpness and expansiveness of his mind.
Phelps could quote case law and the Bible exhaustively. He’d won awards for defending the educational rights of poor African-Americans. A long-distance runner, Phelps had great endurance in an argument, relishing a debate.
His bizarre obsession with homosexuality eventually earned Phelps what he fervently desired: a national pulpit from which to call America back to godly ways.
Phelps was not the only preacher fulminating against the gay menace, but he was the best at making a spectacle. As America grew more tolerant of homosexuality, Phelps became more outlandish.
For other, less demonstrative Christian conservatives, Phelps was an embarrassment, a parody of their own biblical beliefs. In important ways, he queered the field for them. His desperate attacks helped turn American opinion in favor of toleration.
Phelps was not a political opportunist, the sort of charlatan who hustles the public for personal gain by flattering their supposed morality. He sought neither money nor good name. He came not to bring peace, but a sword.
And we, the media, gave him that sword. Phelps sought our attention and we gave it to him. I have often wondered what would have happened if we had refused to take notice. Would he have kept right on picketing that little park in Topeka?
We reporters hated being his megaphone, but we knew that he (and, more importantly, his more civil and well-mannered fellow preachers) was forcing the body politic to consider a very important question: Which civil rights can be denied to people on the basis of sexual orientation?
The question is not settled, but it’s not going well for the fundamentalist side. And if, as it now seems, America is tending toward toleration and equality, Phelps — and those of us who covered his antics — helped to make it so.