I spent Monday morning on the Penn campus, where a few members of the anti-gay, anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church were greeted with hundreds and hundreds of counter-demonstrators — the culmination of a weekend during which church members were given rude welcomes all across Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Don’t kid yourselves. The Phelps folks loved the attention. Loved it. It’s the reason they exist — more than the message of hate they persistently and obnoxiously try to spread. Because, really, the more they try to spread it, the more they fail to do so.
I grew up in Kansas. Spent eight years in Lawrence, just a few miles down the road from where the Phelpses make their home base. I’ve even talked to Fred Phelps. Typically, though, we in the news business tried to ignore Fred as much as possible — and generally failed to do so because he’d come up with new, innovative ways to shock the conscience.
After all that time, what I’ve come to realize is this: Fred Phelps and his church have probably done more to advance the cause of gay acceptance than any other force in American history. And they’ve also done more to retard to progress of gay civil rights than is generally understood — but not for the reasons you might think.
Ever since Phelps and his clan burst onto the national scene in the 1990s by picketing the funerals of Matthew Shepard and Bill Clinton’s mother, it’s generally been considered gauche to engage in displays of outright homophobia and gay antagonism. With few exceptions, most mainstream folks engaged in battle against civil rights for gays try to adopt a “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach to the debate, forced to contrast themselves against the “hate the sin, hate the sinner” approach of Westboro. The lower temperature — believe it or not, it could be more heated — of the debate has been favorable to gays; so has the anti-Phelps backlash. People have realized they don’t want to be on the side of bigotry.
But here’s the thing: that also means the Phelpses represent only themselves. They are not a movement. They’re a sideshow, a few dozen people from the same family from a small Kansas town who happen to be unusually good at drawing negative attention to themselves. Wherever they go, they draw an unusual amount of energy from right-thinking folks — energy that I’m guessing doesn’t usually go into the nitty-gritty day-to-day efforts to achieve equality for gays.
It was really nice to see all those Penn kids out fighting the good fight today, really it was. But tomorrow the Phelpses will be back in Kansas and all the Penn kids will have is their good memories of taunting plainly evil people. Meanwhile, gay Pennsylvanians don’t have the right to marry — they don’t even actually have the legal right to be free from discrimination in their jobs and housing. And that’s a situation that’s not changing very quickly. It’s not Fred Phelps who stands in the way.
These Ivy League students are going to be tomorrow’s elite — I heard one student bragging about landing a job with CitiGroup this morning. If every one those hundreds of students were to take a few minutes to write or call a Pennsylvania legislator to urge them to act on behalf of gay civil rights — and did it again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, and kept on going until the job was finished — they might eventually accomplish something. It’s easy to hate Fred Phelps; it’s easy to make an ostentatious display of “acceptance.” And it makes you feel good if you do it. But that’s all it does.
Doing the hard work of advocating for civil rights is harder, with less instant gratification, and is more likely to bring you in uncomfortable conflict with your friends, family and neighbors. It’s also more important. Time to stop wasting energy on the sideshows, kids.