God hates fags.
Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church turned “God hates fags” into a worldwide-recognized slogan. It is the epitome of homophobia in America. Fred Phelps is the quintessential anti-gay Christian.
Fred Phelps is also grossly misunderstood.
Let’s start with a few declarations: The message “God hates fags” is harmful, hurtful, mean-spirited, and patently untrue. The use of “fags” is demeaning and dehumanizing. The use of “God” is spiritually violent and emotionally toxic. There is nothing good or true about the message he preaches.
Ok, the obvious is out of the way.
Here’s the reality: Westboro Baptist Church is a tiny church compromised almost entirely of members of Phelps’s family (those who haven’t defected, at least). He holds no influence over public policy or even church polity. Even conservative Evangelical Christians consider him a fringe with whom they disagree.
And that is the problem: When Fred Phelps is the definition of homophobia, everyone else who isn’t as bad as him (and that’s pretty much everyone) is let off the hook. It lets off the parents who try to “butch up” their young son, or the aunt who prays over her lesbian niece, or the politicians who will only support civil unions because in their personal religious opinion, marriage is between a man and a woman. It excuses the people with the real power to affect change and make a difference in countless lives. Fred Phelps’s opinion of homosexuality doesn’t effect me. Rick Warren’s might.
Here is what Fred Phelps does right. He ignites a critical conversation around free speech and assembly. He FORCES us to confront the tough questions which we face and declare where we stand. Do we value freedom of speech so dearly that we will defend even that speech we find repulsive?
His message also mobilizes supporters of justice and equality. Everywhere he and his family go to protest, there are even more people standing in support of LGBT equality. Fred Phelps asks us: Where do you stand? And how much do you care?
Fred Phelps is not an armchair activist.
I recently performed in Out In The Open: Stories of Queer Oppression and Empowerment. One of the monologues is entitled “God Made a Dyke.” While some people whoop and cheer along, it makes others uncomfortable. Our director, Andy Cofino, had a conversation with an audience member after our final performance. He was offended. The piece “went too far.”
That is exactly the point. It is at the edge of my comfort zone that growth occurs. In the same way that I must stress and strain my muscles in order to grow them, so must I push my edges to expand them. The moment when one of us becomes uncomfortable is the moment where it all begins, where change happens, where communion is forged, where divinity rests.
Are you uncomfortable? Good. Something is happening.
When I think back to my life, I can see clearly that the most profound change occurred when people around me were uncomfortable. When students watched as my friends were arrested on the order of Christian administrators for talking about the Bible on campus. When my parents faced the reality of my sexuality. When my friend Leo spoke plainly about the dismal state of homeless services, and his own experiences on the streets, in NYC.
In my own life, growth happens when I am uncomfortable, scared, or unsure. It is awkward, difficult, and sometimes painful. And it is vitally important.
Would you consider stepping out of your comfort zone and confronting something uncomfortable?
P.S. Fred Phelps is not actually my hero.