It was hard to hate Fred Phelps. You could feel sorry for him, remark that all the croutons were not in the salad, but he was so much of a showman, you never took him seriously enough to really hate him.
Laugh at him, yes, make fun of him for sure, but hate him? Why bother?
On a personal level, Fred Phelps was the classic preacher, an effervescent and entertaining man, whose barnstorm and brimstone evangelical enthusiasm made him a classic, yet comical creature.
On a professional level, he pushed the envelope so far he tore at the fabric and threads of the First Amendment, with callous, offensive and sometimes obscene actions. I am used to obscenity. I know it when I see it. I saw it all the time with Phelps.
Like my friend and client Al Goldstein, who published Screw Magazine, and was prosecuted for obscenity no less than 19 times, Fred Phelps devised ways to generate publicity and become individually more of the issue than the issue itself.
For Al Goldstein, he vulgarized pornography, reducing it to obscene depictions of women as sex objects, making his own sexual obsessions more pronounced than the pictures.
For Fred Phelps, he so tried to demonize homosexuality, he reduced his credibility to that of a bombastic buffoon billowing mindlessly in a breeze people laughed at. What Goldstein and Phelps shared is they both got the world to pay attention to them.
In the decade I spent hosting daily morning drive radio shows on WFTL 850 AM, I must have had Phelps on the air a dozen times. He must have cut me off and hung up on me more than half, and often within ten minutes of the start of the interview. He was like riding a wild buck, screaming biblical admonitions of my being a disgraceful sodomite who would burn forever in hell. I am looking forward to meeting him there.
Few people could rein him in and hold a conversation with him. I would lose it with Phelps, and his sodomite rants. But the truth that while his words were toxic and his presence poisonous, boy he could draw a crowd, from protesting at military funerals to ranting against the death of AIDS victims.
The first time I met him was on Lincoln Road in 1994 when he and his family of seven disciples showed up to protest the funeral of Pedro Zamora in Miami Beach. Pedro became nationally known when he joined the cast of the third season of “Real World” on MTV as a young man living with HIV. It took his life, and Phelps was at the memorial service to tell the world it “served him right.”
A lot of people were upset with Phelps and his traveling band of haters. The truth is they feel they were carrying out God’s mission, defending the Bible, and protecting the public from burning like Sodom and Gomorrah. Their mission was defending God from transgressors, as intense in their belief as I was in defending citizens in their right to be gay, possess pornography, or smoke dope. We had a lot in common. It was our feeling that our feelings had a right to be articulated, shared, and disseminated.
For me, I just tried to accentuate personal freedom and individual liberation, the right of people to choose their own course and destiny. When I would debate Phelps, I would try to say the difference between you and me is that I want to embrace the rights of diversity, and you are seeking to inhibit the diverse nature of liberty. He would respond by reminding me that he was a paternal soul carrying out a Biblical mission to prevent me from making the kind of choices which would cause my sodomite soul certain damnation, a most inevitable occurrence if I continued to lie naked with other men.
My response was that I won’t tell him what part of his tongue he could put on his wife’s vagina if he would not tell me where I could use my tongue on my male partner’s genitalia. It was about there that he would hang up on me, after a Biblical rant warning of my eternal damnation. He saw homosexuality as a physical invasion of male body parts into places where they should not be. He could never get over the sex acts. He could never see the same sex love.
Phelps was a man of 1878 living in 1978. His church was a traveling one page fax machine sending out press releases of his latest crusades, censoring anyone and anything that he felt violated his interpretation of the Bible.
We need to understand whenever he and his minions showed up at a funeral to scoff at a gay man dying or soldier killed; every time he ranted about HIV patients deservedly dying, and every speech he gave calling men like me ‘sinful sodomites,’ he was doing so under the parameters of a First Amendment that gives both of us equal rights.
When Al Goldstein took a Hollywood prop of a ten foot plastic middle finger sticking out high and placing it on his dock on the Intracoastal in Pompano Beach, people were outraged. One person screamed to the Sun Sentinel, ‘Fuck him for doing that.’ Right. You can say fuck you to him, but he could not say fuck you to the world?
It’s men like Phelps, who by their brazen outrageousness, forge our strength, allow us to stand up and come out, saying ‘we are just not going to take it anymore.’ It is the Fred Phelps’ of the world that probably pushed more gay men to come out of the closet than your local rabbis or priests ever did.
When Phelps’ bio is written and the words are gathered, he will be known as a man who brought pain to those suffering, grief to those hurting, and evil to those who sought only to do well. It’s the kind of thing that would make you hate him, but you will never forget him.
One thing Phelps won’t be remembered for though is the breadth he brought to the First Amendment, and by doing so made it easier for Dykes on Bikes today. By protesting at military funerals of dead American soldiers, he made us realize that wars have to be questioned because they have consequences, lost human lives, consequences of foolish political decisions.
By insanely attacking all things homosexual, he pushed us into the individual decisions we had to make to stand up for our own lives.
So have a toast for the guy, and don’t forget to hold up a glass and use your First Amendment right to say, “Fred thanks for dropping dead. May your new roommates be a flaming queen and transgender African-American. You might dig the switch.”