This week, Fred Phelps, who developed and led the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in a high-profile campaign against homosexuals, died at the age of 84. Phelps and his clan became known in the 1990s for colorful protest signs proclaiming that "God hates fags." That was one of the milder ones, in fact.
It is hard to think of any figure in American history who is more universally reviled than Phelps. Even Adolf Hitler still has his supporters. Phelps's support seemed to be limited to the members of his small church. Phelps's conduct was so outrageous that even people who were otherwise ardently anti-homosexual bristled at being associated with him and even fought against him.
In recent years, his group's tactics included bringing their special brand of hatred to picket lines at the funerals of Americans killed abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Phelps's logic, these Americans were struck down as God's punishment for our nation's embrace of homosexuality as a lifestyle.
The thing about radicals is that they often provoke counter-radicals. Phelps's positions on homosexuality were so intense that he radicalized people who had previously been moderate. People who were happy to keep things where they were--keeping homosexual conduct a nominal crime with no enforcement, strictly prohibiting recognition of same-sex relationships, etc.--were the moderates of the day 20 years ago. These people did not necessary wish gays ill, but they didn't wish them well, either.
The rapid acceptance and legal recognition of
homosexual relationships has been the biggest of changes in American
life over the last 20 years. I find it endlessly fascinating that a
that did not show majority approval of the propriety of interracial marriage until the early 1990s (25 years after it became legal everywhere) now shows majority approval of same-sex marriage a few short years after it first became legal anywhere.
Phelps was a major reason why the majority has moved to where it is. Here was a man clamoring for outright stoning of the gays. It is difficult to hear that message and not react with sympathy for its target. Associating that message with Christianity, as Phelps sought to do, forced Christians in particular to react in opposition. That message caused us all to examine some of the policies that existed mostly due to inertia.
Beyond material comforts, most Americans want just a few things: to be left alone to make their own decisions, to treat and see people treated fairly and justly, to avoid controversy and strife over things that don't affect us, to move cautiously forward. When we saw that homosexuals could marry and be recognized as married without implicating the end of our way of life, our opposition dropped away quickly. It's simply not fair to deny gays the right to marry if that's what they want.
I remember that one of my big "concerns" about embracing marriage equality was in what it would do to the language. Could I cope with the inherent dissonance of the phrases "her wife" and "his husband"? As it turns out, sure. Once you encounter, in real life, a woman who has a wife or a man who has a husband, you realize that those fears were unfounded.
When Phelps died, the general reaction was one of "good riddance to bad rubbish." That's fair. But the gay community and its supporters--and, by extension, our whole society--owe a sort of debt of gratitude to him. He was the Lex Luthor to our Clark Kent. His presence required us to access the Superman inside us. There are no heroes without villains. And Phelps was the surest of villains.
I don't regret his passing. Many people suffered great harm because of the horrible things he did. The world is surely a better place without him in it. But despite his best efforts, the world became a better place because he was in it.