Fred Phelps, who for decades railed against fags like me, isn’t in Kansas any more. The pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose followers (blood kin or not) knew him as Gramps, was declared dead just over a week ago; no funeral was organised. ‘We do not worship the dead’, his daughter Shirley told the press – fingering absent-mindedly, one can but hope, her crucifix.
Phelps picketed hundreds of burials. Those who planned vengefully to picket his, or dreamt of it (and many did), divided views: the civility police railed against the notion, citing taste, decency and compassion as they had when street parties marked Margaret Thatcher’s death. At Westboro’s first post-mortem demonstration, a counterprotest’s banner read SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS – a sign, perhaps, that moral heroism has won out.
I’m not a hero at the best of times. I’m unlikely to grow into one at times like this.
In the face of the Phelps children’s suffering, I’m not stonehearted. Those who escaped and were cut off, among them now-atheist Nate (who broke the news his father was near death), were allowed no final goodbye; while they mourn a lost parent as best they can, thousands dance on his grave. The thought stays my schadenfreude more than most, but ultimately it seems Fred’s doing too. At such an infamous life’s end, could the world be asked to hold its tongue, even for their sake?
Nate Phelps and I have a few mutual friends. Though we’ve never met or spoken, he’s always seemed his father’s opposite, warm-hearted, soft-spoken and kind, graceful in what Louis Theroux, writing on social media of his brothers in the Church, calls the air of an abusive upbringing. That I feel his pain and check my urge to cheer his father’s death challenges my every vindictive instinct – nor do I feel, though, that in the calculus of how we answer Fred’s last gasps, his feelings or his siblings’ are the only ones that count.
Fred Phelps, though mercifully distant and in nothing like as harrowing a way, was part of my childhood too. Unlike Nate or Louis Theroux, I’m queer: his signs, in whose fluorescent shadow I grew up, referred to me.
This May will mark ten years since I came out, if I’d even call it that. (‘Because you’re gay?’, Stephen Hodgson asked after biology, wondering why I didn’t leer over the girl I was meant to. ‘Yeah’, I shrugged. That was it.) Earlier, a decade ago almost exactly, I’d sat online for hours Googling; one queer teen forum in particular was of great use to me, and was where I first discovered Fred.
Imagery shared and mocked there is still fresh: a squadron of girls no older than ten in ‘God hates fags’ shirts; a Flash-based noughts-and-crosses style game, ‘Fags vs. Kids’, on Westboro’s site, where five sodomites (‘represented by a pink swastika’) and three infants (‘represented by a baby bottle’) had to be placed correctly on a grid; footage from Michael Moore’s programme The Awful Truth, where Moore and a dozen gay men and lesbians confronted Fred across the Bible belt. He was 69 in the segment, but looked like he was pushing 90.
Skeletal, stiff as boards and with skin, appropriately, like an old Bible, it was clear he wasn’t a man in good health. Phelps’ appearance meant, conversely, that he never seemed to age, forever at death’s door without quite dying. His was the kind of twilight state the word ‘undead’ must have been coined to describe – you almost suspected, in fact, that some hideous otherworldly force must be sustaining him.
For that reason, he never seemed weak to me or the forum’s other members. Sickliness in a man of such extraordinary evil meant not frailty, for boys like us, but a horrible invulnerability – the same way that, whereas if you or I turned green we’d be rushed to a hospital, a witch’s green skin shows she’s to be feared. Fred was the Wicked Witch of the Midwest: he never seemed human enough to us to pass away like anybody else.
His death, we assumed, would therefore be spectacular. If no tornado dropped a house on him, or water-based attacks failed to melt his flesh, then earthlier routes must be taken. Friends and I fantasised at length about how Fred Phelps, the monster, might be slain: Chris from Toronto picturing putting gun skills to good use; Matt from New Zealand, prompting cardiac arrest through wandering hands; Logan from Alabama and I, blowing the Westboro compound up with high explosives. (A funeral picket afterward seemed only logical.)
If this seems extreme, consider that the straight boys in our classes played at machine-gunning Nazis – Fred was, for us, a spectre in his own lifetime of the kind the Waffen-SS has become in pop culture. It’s also true, of course, that such vicious thoughts came to provide an outlet for a swell of righteous rage.
Westboro did little that harmed me personally; despicably as the Phelpses behaved, they were loathed for what they signified as much as their actions. Fred gave the fear a face that made me scrub my browser history like an infected wound, was the emblem of the way it felt to me when Robbie, a boy in my 13-year-old art class, drove a pair of compasses into my forearm and drew blood; when Jack and Jonathan, sat behind me in maths, took turns spitting on me; when my brother, in the adjoining room one Christmas, unknowingly called me ‘an offence against nature and God’.
I took most of this and more by staying on what I deemed the moral high road, doing what childhood’s moral heroes told me was the Christian thing: loving my enemies, praying for my persecutors, forgiving them because they knew not what they did; turning the other cheek, rising above and being the better soul. When deaths like Phelps’ occur, we hear this too from preachers of civility.
It’s a sick philosophy, I’ve come to think, that tells victims to prove themselves better than their oppressors. Being wronged by somebody I haven’t wronged makes me better than them. Fred was a man who bludgeoned children with farm tools – no quantity of vitriol or disrespect will make us equals, just as no act of self-defence would have sunk me to my assailants’ level. Had I only been less loving toward them, I’d have invested less in hating him, since part of me did long to return fire: lashing out in lurid, violent fantasies at the thought of him became a form of reprisal-by-proxy.
Kids like me needed a witch our rage could melt. PC civility’s expansive plains, like Aunt Em’s ranch, are grey and lonely for us – abiding by its delicate constraints can feel like living in a world made out of cardboard. Fred’s cruelty made him a fair-enough target, someone as vicious as harassment had made us; his pain, an opportunity for justified sadism; his someday demise, a glorious event. Pickets aside, I longed for a good seat – a chance to savour his death throes’ exquisite spasms, watch his spirit break before his choking flesh. I’ll get you, my pretty, and your brittle god too.
After the fact, I’m unsatisfied. Phelps’ death was, in every sense, pathetic.
Westboro, Nate’s statements and implicitly its own have made clear, burnt bridges with its founder some months earlier. Male congregants (fearing, perhaps, a woman’s assumption of church leadership) pushed daughter Shirley to one side, and Fred – seeking, of all things, a ‘kinder approach’ – was excommunicated. Family, concerned that he might harm himself, moved him seemingly against his will to living quarters where ‘stopped eating and drinking’. Hospice care, at some point, followed. It only ends one way.
Not with a bang but a whimper, indeed. His death reads like a man’s who outright lost the will to live, if not a calculated suicide – Fred would no doubt have spurned that option – then a gradual, half-conscious disintegration. I’ve been through that partially because of views like his; gone further and more knowingly, in fact, down the same path of self-destruction. Try as I might, I can’t gloat over it. What’s there to gloat about?
My queer teenage friends and I thought Fred would go out fighting, defeated finally, crying ‘Oh, what a world’ – a spectacular undoing. Not for a second did we see him fading miserably from life, vulnerable and pitiful. The boom-voiced wizard’s fire-and-brimstone face is gone: behind the curtain fallen to one side, only a shrivelled old man’s form remains, Professor Marvel mangled in his own machinery – a lowly, foolish Kansan crystal-gazer.
It might well be that the end of Phelps’ life came as a mercy. He never inspired mercy in me. What lingers is the sense of being thwarted – shock that the inhumane could die such a manifestly human death; grievance at being robbed of a bête noire. Fred perished like a man beneath contempt, too small and weak to hate, but hating him sustained me. There is no monster now, no slaying to look forward to, and I feel lost without it.