Upon hearing that a well-known person is dying or has died, I will generally feel a pang of sadness or empathy (even though they are a stranger to me) because I am a human with the capability to feel emotions.
When hearing the news that Reverend Fred Phelps, founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, was reportedly dying, I had no pang of anything – except hunger (it was lunchtime).
The Westboro Baptist Church is made up of about 40 members, most of them spawned by Phelps, and is probably best known around the world for the catchy and inventive slogan ‘God Hates Fags’, and the picketing they do.
They first came under the spotlight for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard in 1998 (so classy), and since then have spread the concept to picketing (or threatening to) the funerals of a vast array of obviously terrible people who deserve it including soldiers, children and victims of the Boston Marathon Bombing.
They hold colourful signs saying things like ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’, ‘Fags Doom Nations’ and ‘God Sent the Bombs’. In case the clues are too subtle for you to pick up on, True Detectives, the WBC has a big problem with homosexuals, and extends this hate to ‘fag enablers’ – that is, anyone who isn’t actively working against gay people at all times.
So it was not shocking to find that there is an outpouring on social media by people who are reveling in this news, people celebrating, luxuriating in the pleasure at this thought of this man’s death.
There have even been serious calls for people to picket his funeral, as payback for what his ‘church’ has done over the years. Trust me, I understand these impulses. What Phelps has contributed to the world is nothing but sheer venom, ignorance and pithy slogans. He has piled on hurt to people who have just lost a loved one, targeting them at the exact moment they don’t need more help suffering.
The language the WBC uses is shocking and hurtful. But the death of Phelps should not inspire you to waste your time with revenge, when you could be using it to do precious fag-enabling! There lies an 84-year-old man, about to meet his maker. The maker he believes to be dark and vengeful. He has dedicated most of his life to spreading hate and bitterness and in return, he has become despised and ridiculed. In fact, if he has had any impact on the progression of queer rights at all, it has probably helped in moving us forward.
The WBC held up a mirror to people undecided on gay rights, and a lot of those people have not liked what they saw. They have caused citizens to band together, groups of bikies to take up the cause, and come together to do things like block the WBC from picketing. Phelps has no power over us. He is nothing. The tiny, mostly-related Westboro Baptist Church is nothing. You should feel no pangs of anything – except worse hunger pangs (I still haven’t had lunch).
If you have a lot of pent-up emotion about Phelps, try not to waste your time and energy concentrating on him. Instead, focus on doing positive things that happily we know he would hate. Donate some money to an organization that helps LGTBQ people. Finally say yes to donate sperm to your lesbian friends. Take your queer friends out for a fancy dinner and order the most flamboyant cocktails you can find. Take the plunge you’ve always secretly wanted and make out with someone who is the same sex as you! (That last one should be employed at basically all times, not just when a terrible homophobe dies).
I am not against people feeling nothing, or feeling positively about the death of an awful person. I am against people expending energy on the same sort of outlook that awful person had during their life. Don’t be like him. Don’t simmer in your hate and venom. Remember, he isn’t worth it.
Go out with your friends and celebrate life with a delicious burrito (they almost convince me God exists) instead.
Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based writer and host of the fortnightly comedy podcast Bring a Plate.