Just after I finished my morning meditation today I thought I would take a look at that source of news you might miss “Facebook”. The first article that I saw dragged me kicking and screaming out of my happy little bubble with the news that Fred Phelps is dying and the LGBTQ community is smiling. The tag line to the piece I read was the question “will his deathbed confession will be his coming out?”
As a gay man I have in the past railed at Fred, I’ve disagreed with his philosophy, his beliefs, and most of all the damage he does to others in order to promote his beliefs. I disagree with the man on every level that matters from his idea of God down to his definition of humans, but in his dying I find myself wondering how much he has affected me as a human.
The first time I heard this man’s name was a long time ago through a news article covering soldier funerals. Westboro church and Fred were picketing the funerals with placards saying that it was because the USA was supportive of fags that these men and women had died. The news showed a few seconds and moved on to the latest scores from whatever sport was playing and I remember feeling hate. Not just at people who could attack who I was but the fact that they chose to attack people at their weakest moment to make a point.
Whether you believe homosexuality is a sin is irrelevant. Whether you are a homophobe, an ally, or a homosexual what you think is irrelevant if you choose to attack people who are mourning and in pain or choose to stop kids from developing free thought, then you should remove human being from your description of yourself. To add fuel to my personal fire I saw Fred and his family using children to hold the signs and saw in their eyes that those kids believed in what they were doing.
So it wasn’t the fact that he chose to say “fags would burn in hell” that started me on my path it was his belief that he could attack the vulnerable and blinker young minds. Since then I have signed petitions, written pieces arguing against his beliefs, but ultimately, today, I find myself sad that he is leaving this world.
The reasons for my sadness are threefold. Firstly he is a living being who had the potential for so much good in the world and failed to see the gifts he was given. Secondly death is a final and there will be pain and sadness for his family. Finally we are loosing an opportunity to address a very real and fundamental issue within America.
Fred stood against progress. He chose to speak out against other people’s lifestyles. So he will forever be remembered as a homophobe. In my mind this is secondary. True he preached intolerance but that’s actually ok. There are many more homophobes in this world and while we as a community fight him we allow others with more money and more influence to do real damage. Give me twenty Fred Phelps with placards over a Scott Lively with his wealth and ability to talk to presidents and prime ministers any day. But even this isn’t the true heart of what I see. At the center is the question of free speech and how America defines it.
As an Englishman I grew up with the idea of having the right to say what I wanted. It was and is my right to claim the sky is blue, green, or polka dot. It is my right and it’s protected by the law. But there was a caveat. While I had the right to say what I wanted I also had the duty to self moderate and if I failed to do that I would find myself swiftly moderated by the law.
Here in America it’s very different. The homophobe has the right to stand on the edge of a cemetery with a placard shouting loudly enough to drown out the minister. The homophobe, the racist, the religious zealot seeking to impose their view on people who don’t subscribe, all have the right to do so in the press, the street, and our most private moments.
My question is simply this. Why is the onus on the individual being attacked to get an injunction adding precious feet of separation? Fundamentally it smells as bad as a sewer. That someone grieving or vulnerable is forced to protect themselves at their weakest moments doesn’t show liberty it shows oppression on a constitutional level. It’s a bit like saying to a cancer victim that they need to be stronger than the disease. Harsh words? Perhaps, but it’s the truth. Free speech is the right to an opinion not to harm others. It is the basic human right to have an opinion and air it not the right to invade other peoples right to their needs and views.
In London there is a small spot on the edge of a park called “speaker’s corner”. There it’s every citizens right to stand, on or off a soap box, and speak their mind. They can rage against the government, speak of the coming of heaven, whatever they want so long as the subject is legal. The idea is that the common man can speak his mind hoping to influence others and begin a wider debate, but no one gets hurt. Here respect for others has been subjugated to the right of someone to speak where ever and however they choose. Individual freedoms have been shackled by those who seek to hurt and harm others.
So with Fred I see that there is a need to continue the debate on freedom of speech and if needed to change the laws which govern it. It’s only words on a page and like so many other laws there have been alterations made or amendments added. to say that one can’t alter a constitution for the betterment of all citizens is to admit you believe that a great country should never grow and become more than it is. Frankly to state that a constitution shouldn’t be altered is to be UnAmerican on the most fundamental level. It’s to want citizens to stagnate and remain oppressed by those with the most money and the strongest will.
Fred Phelps is a man who has become polarized in the public mind. People have heard his words and either agreed or disagreed with him. They will remember the words and not the man. So let me, an opponent of his philosophy, remind the world who he was. He was a man who smiled, he loved, he laughed, he bled when he was cut, and felt sadness and joy. He was a human being and what ever he did there will be those who mourn him. So I personally choose to thank Fred. In my walk with him he has shown me the need to watch where and how I speak my opinion, he has taught me that children should never be indoctrinated in our ideals and taught to hate others, he has taught me the importance of protecting those who are vulnerable and in pain from those who have a “right” to hurt, he has taught me that a right doesn’t mean you should. So Fred thank you for being a wonderful teacher and in your own way an inspiration in my own walk. I wish you a peaceful and quiet passing and hope you find what you believed you would when you breathe your last, and to your family I send my prayers.
I choose to speak peace at his funeral not copy him in how he behaved at others. I have to remember to other’s he was a good man and to me he was an excellent teacher.
“Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honorable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honorable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.”