He Knows Not What He Did

[Content Note: Homophobia.]

Fred Phelps is dead. 

And I am thinking about his life.  I want to state clearly, right up front, that nothing -- nothing -- could justify or mitigate the hatred he fomented during his lifetime, and I have no urge to do that.  This is merely a story about the unintended consequences of his bigotry.

Fred Phelps radicalized my parents.

I grew up and came out as queer in Kansas.  At present (after a 34 year hiatus) I live in Kansas once again. 

When I first heard of Fred Phelps, I didn’t live in Kansas -- I lived in Portland, Oregon -- a place that I “fled to” in the late 1970’s, seeking a life where I could express my queerness with a higher degree of comfort than I’d found in my native state.

Then, Phelps was just some far-off weirdo -- in the early 90’s, queer friends who lived in and around Topeka would report to me about some creepy old local minister protesting Teh Gay in all its forms.

At the time, I was in a something of a state of political burn-out.  Since 1988, I’d been actively engaged in preventing anti-gay laws proposed by the “Oregon Citizens Alliance” (see also: Scott Lively) from passing in my new home state.

I’ll admit it -- I held Phelps in my mind as “business-as-usual for Kansas” while I focused on battle lines in Oregon -- a state that I thought of as my personal queer haven.

As time went on, though, the far-off, seemingly not-my-problem minister came closer and closer -- showing up in larger and larger news-markets, and finally hitting the big time (coverage on CNN) when he picketed Matthew Shepherd’s funeral.

In the meanwhile, something else was happening.

My parents, who lived less than an hour away from Fred Phelps’ church, had been seeing reports of his bigotry on local news reports for years.

My parents, now in their late 80’s, are both life-long Democrats.  They have been, and remain, quietly committed liberals who chose to make their lives in a state that has become more and more conservative.

My mother and father visited me in Portland in 1981, and I (finally) came out to them.  My mother said: “Well, I’ve begun to think differently about this since I first began to suspect.” (Which is a whole ‘nother story.)  “We love you, and we will always love you.”

In other words, when I first came out to my parents, they were accepting.  Please note:  This was way better than the coming-out experiences of most of my Kansan friends.  I felt relieved and fortunate.

For the next ten years, my parents demonstrated what was, at the time, considered to be pretty stellar Parent-Of-Queer behavior -- they welcomed my partner(s) at family celebrations, they remained involved in my life, and they never attempted to convince me that I should try to be straight.

Of course, we never really talked about any of this -- but for me, that wasn’t anything new.  As the daughter of a Germanic/Swedish Midwestern family, I’d come to accept that we didn’t really talk about anything that might be controversial or uncomfortable.  (Except maybe one-on-one, late at night, after everyone else was in bed, and we’d had a couple of drinks.)

And then there was -- Fred Phelps.

I generally talked to my parents a couple of times a month in the years that I lived in Oregon.  The first time I can remember my parents talking with me over the phone about my experience of being queer in a straight world was after they’d seen a local report on one of Phelps’ protests (in the early 90’s, before the Phelps made national news).

Mom:  “So . . . have you heard of Fred Phelps?”

Me:  “Oh yeah -- oh yeah -- I’ve heard of him.”

Dad:  “Well . . .does that make you . . . feel bad?  It’s just so horrible . . . ”

I went on to explain to my parents that I’d been dealing with people like this my entire life, and that I’d developed a pretty thick skin when it came to people who acted with such overt bigotry.  I told them that I found it far more complicated to deal with people who didn’t actually know that they were bigoted against queers.

“What do you mean?” one of them asked . . .  and so the conversation (finally) began.

Within a year, they had moved from “accepting/tolerant” parents of their lesbian daughter to active advocates for queer rights.

They began by standing up in church when their synod was debating LGBTQI issues. They told everyone that their daughter was gay, and that they hoped that she would always be welcome and included in the church -- at every level.

In 1992, they showed up at the gay bar in Colorado where I was doing a benefit concert to raise money to fight anti-queer laws that were up for election in that state.

When those laws passed, they wrote letters to the legislators, Attorney General, and Governor of Colorado and told them that they would not be spending a single dime in Colorado until the laws were repealed (my parents had vacationed in CO regularly prior to this).

My dad started interrupting conservative friends when they were verbally queer-bashing and saying, “I find that offensive.  Please stop.”  If they gave him any pushback, he’d say “My daughter -- you know her, right?  She’s a lesbian.  When you talk that way, you’re talking about her.  You don’t want to talk about her that way, do you?”

Did they get the words and approaches wrong sometimes?  Sure.  We all do, sometimes.  But -- they were talking about it.

Fred Phelps helped them see the end-game of bigotry, and helped them to understand that it wasn’t enough for them to simply remain silent and hope that somehow, somehow, things would change.

Fred Phelps put them on notice that they had to be part of that change.

I’m not grateful to Phelps for that -- but I am grateful to my parents for this:  When they heard Fred Phelps say that God Hates Fags, they heard that he was saying that God Hates me -- and they knew that was bullshit.  And they called it bullshit, in their own quiet, retired-school-teacher ways.

My parents were born in the late 1920’s -- once, when I was talking to my mom about my experience of being queer in this society, and telling her how important it was to me when they could (and did) speak openly and easily about me being queer, her eyes widened for a moment with realization:  “Oh!  You know -- I always knew people who were like you -- but when I was growing up, if you wanted to help them, the thing you did was not talk about them.  I see how that’s different now.”

Fred Phelps talked about me. 

My parents talked back.

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