Fred Phelps was a closeted gay man.
No, I have no conclusive proof of that, and I’m not being facetious in a “ha-ha, he sure would hate me saying that” kind of way. It’s what I truly believe, because it’s the only rational explanation I can come up with for the sheer volume of the man’s hatred for homosexuality and the LGBT community. [pullquote position=”right”]Fred Phelps was attracted to men, and he hated himself so much for that, with such fervor and intensity, that hating himself was not enough.[/pullquote] He needed all of America, all of the world, to hate him too.
How else to explain the decision to move from protesting the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS, as Phelps and his “church” of family members, did for years, to protesting the funerals of America’s war veterans? To protesting the funerals of beloved celebrities, to eventually jumping in front of the cameras at any widely-covered event, just so he could show a few more Americans why they should hate him?
People say he was a publicity hound, and a bigot, and mentally ill—and he may have been any or all of those things, but that doesn’t explain why he chose the particular strategy he did. But LGBT people, many of us at least, understand. We’ve lived through that time in our coming-out process when we hate ourselves so much that we hurt ourselves. We do it with drugs, with alcohol, with violence, or with meaningless sex. We seek out people who will hate us as much as we do, dating abusers who will put us down and tell us we’re worthless, or calling attention to ourselves in settings where we know we’ll be attacked, physically or verbally. We convince ourselves that it feels good, because while we’re convinced we’re undeserving of love, we crave human connection, and to be hated is better than to be ignored.
Some of us hate ourselves so much that we destroy ourselves completely, through drugs or sex or outright suicide. Most of us get over it, although even as we learn to embrace our sexual identities, that kernel of self-loathing usually sticks around, buried deep down in our psyches to occasionally torment us.
And so, as Fred Phelps leaves this world, we should not celebrate the death of another villain, but the destruction of a life lost to homophobia and hate.
Fred Phelps never came to terms with himself. Instead, he dedicated his life to hate. He didn’t reach out to family and friends; instead he taught them to hate the way he did. At every opportunity to engage in conversation, he pushed people away by looking for the surest opportunity to make them hate him. He never exempted himself from his teachings—if asked, he would say that God hated him and his church as much as anyone. His God was not hate; Hate was his God.
Certainly, this was a man who hurt a great many people. A share of every suicide by a bullied gay teen in the United States belongs to him. But he was himself a casualty of homophobia and hatred. He’s dead now, the sad quiet conclusion of a life filled only with hate.
There are those who will celebrate, who will want to parade with “God Hates Fred” signs, who will declare this a victory. I would ask: A victory over what? To dedicate ourselves, for even a moment, to celebrating hatred seems to me like a loss. It’s giving in to the darkness that consumed this man. Personally, I would rather remain in light.
I can’t feel anything for Fred Phelps’s passing but sadness. In the last week, as news reports placed him on his death bed, I wondered if he might finally come out, finally accept himself and announce himself to the world, to take some small measure of pride. But there came no such announcement.
The news instead says that, at some point in the recent past, Fred suggested that his church had become too extreme, that they should be kinder. In response, his family excommunicated him, casting him out from the only group that would call him a member. They have publicly stated that there will be no funeral, and they will not mourn him.
Fred Phelps died alone and unloved, with not a person who loved him, as he himself had always designed—because Fred Phelps convinced himself that God Hated Fags, and that meant God hated him.