Fred Phelps is dead and the great marriage debate is all but over. I take no great cheer in either.
Phelps, as you probably know, was a former civil rights attorney who was later disbarred and who founded a radically conservative church, the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. If you don’t know what kind of church that is, then let me tell you that its website is not westboro.org or wbc.org but godhatesfags.com.
Phelps and his family — well, some of his family — were and are pretty much the entire congregation. They were known for years in the gay community for picketing the funerals of those who died of AIDS, or Matthew Shepard, or Coretta Scott King, but really only gained a national renown when they started picketing the funerals of soldiers, claiming that they died because America was too lenient to the queers.
I never had the pleasure of speaking with Phelps, but I did on more than one occasion chat with his daughter, the rabid Shirley Phelps-Roper, who is, I can only say, a piece of work. Shirley was not one of the several members of the Phelps family who recently (or not so recently, as is the case for son Nathan) parted company with the family business.
Phelps was not a pleasant man, and I can’t say that I’m sorry to see him depart this earth. But I’ll not dance on his grave or entertain fantasies of picketing his funeral. For one thing, the church says they don’t do funerals (wonder why that is?), but for another, it would be wrong.
Fred and his crew are genuinely are not happy people. Thirty seconds in the presence of Shirley told me that. She is angry, bitter and biting. Not at all stupid, but profoundly and deeply unhappy. Suffering, I would say. She would say that’s because of all us queers. But I think it’s more because she cannot abide in a world that frightens her, that doesn’t fit with her carefully constructed vision of how a world should be.
“Should” being the operative word. It’s a deadly word, one that has the power to completely kill joy. And without joy, life itself is stale, stagnant, ugly. Or dead.
So I’ll not be celebrating Phelps’ death. I am sad. I’m sad that his family has lost its patriarch, and I’m sad that he lived what looks to me like a sad and lonely life, one that many others have embraced. I can’t be angry at them for that, because even though it is a choice, it’s not one that they fully understand, or even realize they don’t understand.
I honestly don’t care what Fred Phelps or Shirley Phelps-Roper or anyone else thinks of Teh Gays. They can think whatever they want. Westboro’s picketing of funerals was shameful and cruel, in my opinion, but not illegal, in the opinion of the US Supreme Court, the same court that destroyed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Both of those decisions were correct, I believe. We can’t be legislating against protests we don’t like any more than we can legislate against marriages we don’t like. If we ban one kind of protest, we must ban them all, and the same is true for marriage.
Frankly, I’m all for banning marriage, at least as far as being a legal institution. It’s an artificial construct, originally designed to designate property. Love cannot be confined to a piece of paper and vows that can easily be broken.
Marriage, like religion, is a personal thing. They’re both about beliefs. Government has no place in beliefs, and beliefs have no place in government.
Of course, taking marriage out of government is not likely to happen, not for a long time to come. So the Supreme Court’s decision is a good one, and it takes the religious argument right out.
Now the new thing is a proliferation of laws to protect religious freedom, one thing that actually is in the Constitution, because the guys who wrote that understood that it is a personal thing. How you practice your religion, or what you believe, is your business and your business alone.
And there it is. Fred Phelps and family, Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay marriage folks and others like them seem to have forgotten that. Or maybe they never understood. Their religious beliefs should never touch me or anyone else who doesn’t share them.
It’s not hard to understand. But apparently the practice is too daunting for some. I can only conclude that they’re afraid, and need everyone to believe as they do to keep that fear at bay.
And that just breaks my heart.