Finally, a definition of homophobia on which we can all agree, but we shouldn’t take an eye for an eye by celebrating the recent death of anti- gay Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps, writes Philip Cummins
“Resist celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, she was NOT a Peacemaker but it is a mistake to allow her death to poison our minds.”
WHEN SINN FÉIN’S MARTIN MCGUINNESS posted the above sentiments on his Twitter account, in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death in April 2013, it was difficult not to think of the North’s Deputy First Minister’s long history in bitter opposition to Thatcher. The abstentionist MP for Mid Ulster’s tweet was indicative of the distance that both he and the republican movement that he represents have traveled since the deepest, darkest days of the Troubles. Alleged to have been the Provisional IRA’s Chief of Staff from 1978 – 1982, during which time ten PIRA prisoners died during the 1981 Hunger Strike, McGuinness loathed Thatcher and vice- versa, I’m quite certain.
I do sympathise with the view that Thatcher’s policies inflicted unnecessary socio- economic affliction that has been felt by generations of British people and that her unwillingness- as well as that of the Irish government- to engage constructively with all sides of the political divide in the North achieved nothing only to effectively prolong the Troubles. It wasn’t until 1997 / 1998 that New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first British PM to sit at the negotiation table with all sides of the Troubles to deliver The Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Martin McGuinness, though, was right: to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death, as many millions did, was utterly tasteless, immature and inexcusable.
Unfortunately, McGuinness’ remarkably mature and responsible remarks about his one- time sworn enemy, who the PIRA had attempted to assassinate in Brighton in 1984, didn’t deter those in their millions who sang and danced their way through Thatcher’s passing, downloading ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ in their droves to bring that song to the top of the charts.
These were my very thoughts upon learning of the recent death of Fred Phelps Sr. (84), founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. A disbarred lawyer and the leader of a far right church of which all 40 of the church’s members are Phelps family members, Fred Phelps had a long history of spewing his vile and retrograde rhetoric while picketing the funerals of American soldiers. Indeed, two US Presidents enacted law into Congress to prevent Phelps from picketing at funerals of fallen soldiers: George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006, while Barack Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in 2012, both of which ensured 150 foot and 300 foot buffer zones, respectively, around the funerals of serving US soldiers.
By all accounts, Fred Phelps Sr. was a individual of an utterly grotesque character; a homophobe, a bigot and a bitterly angry man who dedicated his life to a hatred of people for a part of their identity that they could not- and should not- change.
From an Irish point of view, Phelps was certainly no friend of ours, founding the now- defunct website GodHatesIreland.com, as well as lambasting both Senator David Norris and former President Mary Robinson in a sermon in which he responded to his invitation to take part in a debate on gay adoption by UCD’s Literary & Historical Society in February 2008. Suffice to say that The Good Pastor declined on the occasion.
Over the past 20 years, Phelps’ infamy and his perceived status as a leader of a cult made him an ideal subject for documentarians. Michael Moore and Louis Theroux both focused their attentions on Phelps, the latter of whom made two documentaries on the Westboro Baptist Church and, at times, seemed genuinely taken aback by intense level of the church’s bigotry.
The funeral of Matthew Shepard
Difficult as it is to select the single lowest point from Phelps’ infamous role as Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, the picketing of the funeral of Matthew Shepard might just be the lowest possible level of depravity demonstrated by Westboro Baptist Church, showing it up to be the bigoted institution that has been profiled by highly respected journalists.
A 21 year- old gay man who was later discovered to have been HIV positive, Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming. Murdered in the most indescribably gruesome of circumstances by two bigoted thugs whom he had met in a bar , Shepard, undoubtedly, was a victim of a hate crime and a homophobic murder.
In the above picture, Fred Phelps is picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral in Shepard’s hometown of Casper, Wyoming, with placards that state “No Special Laws for Fags” and “Matt in Hell”, typifying Fred Phelps’ hatred towards homosexuals and his homophobic agenda to suppress gay rights.
Again, drafting legislation against bigotry in American society- sparked, no doubt, the Westboro Baptist Church’s vile rhetoric- President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill expands the 1969 United States Federal Hate Crime Law to include crimes motivated by gender identity, sexual orientation or disability, making it the first Act in the history of federal law that allows crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation prosecutable as hate crimes.
Fred Phelps had two estranged sons: Fred Phelps Jr. and Nate Phelps (55). Nate Phelps, who now lives in Canada and is both an atheist and a LGBT activist, issued a statement in the wake of his father’s death. Posted on his Facebook page, Nate Phelps’ remarks were remarkably tempered and considered.
“Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on,”, lamented Phelps. The standout comment from Phelps’ statement, however, was his mourning not of who his father was, but of “…who he could have been”.
“I ask this of everyone: let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”, continued Nate Phelps.
That Fred Phelps Sr. and his son Nate chose two completely different paths makes this story all the more remarkable: a father devoted to hatred and bigotry, a son dedicated to building bridges and encouraging tolerance within our society.
Why we should not celebrate Fred Phelps’ death
LGBT activists the world over will no doubt be delighted that Fred Phelps Sr., a man who personified every fibre of the bigotry and hatred that gay people have had to endure for decades, is no longer alive to spread his vile rhetoric.
However, to celebrate Phelps’ death as distastefully as did those who celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s death, or perhaps more pertinently, as distastefully as the Westoboro Baptist Church celebrated the deaths of the many homosexuals, AIDS victims, American soldiers and celebrities whose funerals they picketed, would be stooping down to the utterly depraved and unequaled level that Fred Phelps Sr. and his family have set for themselves.
Instead, we- and by we, I mean all sound- thinking people of all genders, orientations, race and creed; all of us who believe in creating a tolerant and fair society for our fellow person and a society where people are be entitled to live their lives as they choose- should educate our children that hatred of others fulfills no positive outcome in one’s life.
Phelps’ death in an Irish context
With the fires slowly burning out after the recent heated debates regarding homophobia in Ireland, sparked initially by Rory O’Neill’s, AKA Panti Bliss’, unfounded allegations of homophobia against two high- profile journalists as well as conservative Catholic lobby group The Iona Institute on Brendan O’Connor’s The Saturday Night Show as well as O’Neill’s claim on the Abbey Theatre stage, in which O’Neill suggested that “we’re all homophobic”, we can now look at Fred Phelps Sr. as a picture- perfect example of a homophobe- that is, someone who holds attitudes of extreme hatred of and an aversion to homosexuality and homosexuals- on the outrageously bigoted level occupied by the Westboro Baptist Church, which, thankfully, remains unequaled in Ireland.
To put it simply: I don’t ever remember David Quinn, director of The Iona Institute, or anyone else involved in The Iona Institute, publicly instructing young children that “queers” are evil- the product of Satan himself, no less- and that they should be treated with utter contempt; I don’t remember The Iona Institute printing signs and brochures insisting that “no special laws” be drafted to protect “fags” in Ireland.
Though I don’t fully agree with The Iona Institute’s stance on same- sex marriage, I do believe that The Iona Institute are legitimate in their opposition of same- sex marriage. The idea that a person or a group of people who oppose same- sex marriage are inherently “homophobic” simply because they view marriage as a gendered institution between one man and one woman and, for this reason, oppose same- sex marriages, is a complete misnomer.
True: if that opposition to same- sex marriage expresses extreme levels of hateful opposition, such as those levels demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church, then a charge of homophobia is fair and unequivocal. However, Ireland, in my opinion, has yet to experience those outrageous levels of bigotry demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church.
It will be this time next year when the Irish people go to the polls for the impending referendum on same- sex marriage. In the mean- time, however naïvely, we can only hope that, in Nate Phelps’ words, the teachings of the Westboro Baptist Church go the way of Fred Phelps.