Fred Phelps displays one of his many infamous protest signs. Phelps, fiery founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AID
Updated: April 24, 2014 9:54AM
When the anti-gay, serial-funeral demonstrator and Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps died last week, it raised a pressing question:
How should we handle the funeral of the man behind one of the most hurtful and hateful public displays in modern history?
For decades, Phelps led a band of protesters across the country to disrupt the most sacred of sacred — demonstrating outside burials and funerals as grieving families put loved ones to rest.
Phelps pushed for demonstrations outside of gay funerals and that later grew into organizing outside of any military funeral to protest allowing gays into the military. He and other protesters carried signs attributing the death on that day to God punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
Among his most incendiary protest signs: “Fags die, God laughs.”
So in what environment does Phelps deserve to be put to rest?
To me, the best person to ask in Chicago is Andy Thayer, the prolific protester and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network. Thayer is a mainstay at demonstrations in Federal Plaza as well as a key organizer in the 2012 NATO protests in Chicago.
Thayer could curse Phelps, wishing him an eternity of marching in an endless gay pride parade.
He, instead, is sitting this one out.
There is a history here. Thayer took part in two counterprotests against Phelps in Chicago in 1998 when Phelps brought an anti-gay contingent to the city to rage against a minister who was proposing to preside over civil unions for same-sex couples. Thayer believes the show of strength against Phelps’ group kept him out of Chicago — the closest big city to Phelps’ Topeka, Kan., home base — for the next 10 years.
“Without tooting our horn, that’s the value to showing a large public opposition to people like this,” Thayer said.
To demonstrate at a Phelps funeral now is misguided, Thayer argued.
“If the point is to do something other than vent frustrations, then there are unfortunately far more dangerous people operating with impunity in the world today,” Thayer said.
He points to Scott Lively and Peter LaBarbera, who advanced so-called lock-up-the-gays bills in places like Uganda, Nigeria and Jamaica. LaBarbera is the cofounder of the Naperville-based Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, which the Southern Law Poverty Center has listed as a hate group. LaBarbera once ran for State Central Committeeman for the 13th Congressional District in Illinois.
“This is my personal reaction. I’m one who organizes demonstrations quite a bit. I know the time and effort that goes into doing them. I want whatever organizing that we do to have some meaning and not just venting of frustration,” Thayer says. “That’s probably going to be the response of any serious organizer. When you have someone as vile as Fred Phelps leave us, you’re relieved that he’s gone, but you know there’s work more serious to do than doing any kind of victory lap.”
Thayer notes how far Chicago — and Illinois — have come since Phelps’ presence in 1998.
“Fortunately, as a country, we’ve matured quite a bit since then,” he said.
“When he was going around and picketing gay funerals, there was nothing like the kind of uproar when he started picketing the funerals of soldiers,” Thayer noted. “Various legislatures got in the act. They didn’t bother with any of that stuff when gays were being picketed.”
There’s populist support for same-sex marriage, for instance, culminating in Illinois legalizing (not without a battle) same-sex marriage.
With that growing understanding of gay rights in the backdrop, Thayer said maybe there is one hypothetical picket sign that would greet a Phelps funeral procession.
“Phelps dies. Fags laugh.”