In December 2012, I worked on a student production of The Laramie Project with English 4401. It was a powerful play telling the story of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man from Wyoming. His murder was a hate crime. One of the iconic moments of the play is a speech by Fred Phelps that he actually gave when the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) picketed Matthew’s funeral. It’s a speech that is chilling, disturbing, and disgusting in its unadulterated, vitriolic hate against a dead gay man and the community he was a part of. Imagine my surprise when those hateful words appeared online from members of the WBC directed at the production and myself.
It prompted me to do some research and really find out what the WBC is all about. What I discovered is a church that is a cartoon-like parody of what hate can be. They have a monopoly on godhatesblank websites, they’re incredibly active on Twitter, and they even create parodies of popular songs with hateful messages in hopes of spreading their word. The irony of doing a hateful song against gays to the tune of “Let It Go” sung by Idina Menzel, a super star of musical theatre, is apparently lost on them.
They picket concerts, military funerals, St. Patrick’s Day parades, and any group who has even vaguely supported the LGBTQ community. They thank their God for dead soldiers because they believe that the United States’ progressing stance on LGBTQ marriages has doomed the nation.
Honestly, at this point in history, it’s kind of adorable. But that’s important. At this point in history, it’s meaningless. At points in history no longer than ten years ago, it was powerful and hurtful to the people they targeted.
I’m not saying “woe is me” for being harassed by the WBC. In fact, the harassment we received is probably the most mild in WBC history. What came out of receiving hateful tweets and emails from WBC members was a reminder that hate still exists. Efforts to educate people and counter-act such meaningless hatred still matter today.
With Fred Phelps’ passing, now is a time to reflect on what it means to hate. It’s a time to look at organizations like the WBC and understand what they do and why it is wrong. It’s time to pay tribute to Fred Phelps in the best way we can: by being better than them. We must educate. We must learn. We must understand how people can become so full of hate. And we must be better.
I’m not writing this editorial as a call to action to insight pity or violence against members of the WBC. In fact, what I want to say to Fred Phelps is very simple: Thank you, Mr. Phelps.
Thank you for making hatred so visible in today’s society. Thank you for showing the world that hate still exists. Thank you, Reverend Phelps, for making it so abundantly clear what it means to be on the wrong side of history.