Fred Phelps’ anti-gay crusading antics have finally ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. For years, he and members of his Westboro Baptist Church congregation (which is made up nearly entirely of his family members), have been picketing at the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in combat. The far-fetched link between these funerals and Phelps’ protests, according to Rev. Phelps, is that the United States is too tolerant of homosexuality. It took these bizarre protests at military funerals to propel this case to the highest court and to capture the attention of the country, but Phelps began this disgusting campaign long ago.
Just days after award-wining journalist Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994, Fred Phelps’ church issued a news release stating “Another filthy media fag has died of AIDS.” The picket signs at Shilts’ funeral included “Shilts in Hell” and “God Hates Fags.”
Following Matthew Shepard’s torture and murder in October of 1998, Phelps’ gang picketed his funeral with signs including, “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” and “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.” He later attempted to secure permits in the cities of Cheyenne and Casper, Wyoming for a monument that would have read, in part, “Matthew Shepard, Entered Hell October 12, 1998.”
Closer to home, after the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, Phelps said that his congregation would protest at the funerals of the victims because Minneapolis
is the “land of the Sodomite damned.” Those protests didn’t happen, but one can see the madness of Rev. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.
My encounter with a group of Phelps protesters was not at a funeral, but at a commencement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On an overcast and cool morning in June of 2003, I gathered with my classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School to walk in procession from our small campus to Harvard Yard for our graduation ceremony.
In caps and gowns my classmates and I walked side by side through the streets of Cambridge to the main campus. I was walking with my best friend from graduate school, Rosario. I remember turning a corner and Rosario saying something like, “Don’t look at them.” I had no idea what she meant until I looked to my right and saw about a dozen people holding placards with messages like: “God Hates Fags,” “AIDS is God’s Curse” and “Thank God for Sept. 11.”
The demonstration took my breath away. It didn’t make sense. But more than anything, it was heartbreaking to see that the protesters had enlisted very young children – perhaps five or six years old – to hold these hateful signs. The majority of the demonstrators were young kids who couldn’t possibly understand what they were participating in. It was a surreal moment that temporarily dampened the joyous mood.
“Don’t let it bother you,” Rosario said, and I quickly realized that she was right. This was to be a celebration and in no way would I allow a handful of truly sick people spoil the event. We finished our walk to Harvard Yard, graduated and a few days later I packed up my things and returned to Minneapolis. But I never forgot about the demonstration. I would learn later that on that particular day Fred Phelps was protesting an initiative of the Harvard Law School that would protect students from racial insensitivity. Of course, it will take much more than an initiative to protect people from the likes of Fred Phelps and his congregation.
Now the Supreme Court will decide if antics such as these are protected free speech. Mr. Phelps disgusts me. His decades-long actions are reprehensible. The pain he has inflicted on people in grief is unfathomable for most of us. Still, I thought that day in Harvard Yard and I still think today, that Phelps and his ilk have the right to express their hateful opinions, and they have the right to do so in the public square. I would rather know who my enemies are and have the same freedoms to express my disdain for them, as they do for me. I’m less concerned about the outrageous actions of a handful of disturbed people than I am with any effort to squelch expression. No matter how distasteful that expression may be.