Lola Olson writes for PinkNews on the Westboro Baptist Church, and argues that the attention given to the announcement that its leader Fred Phelps is on his death bed, should instead be focussed on LGBT inequalities.
There were a lot of things that separated me from most American children in middle school. Not only did I know way more about the internet and could type faster than most did, but I had a gay mother and was bullied myself for my inability to fit gender norms and the assumptions that created around my own sexuality. With that combination, it’s not surprising I was well aware of the Westboro Baptist Church, or the “God Hates Fags” people as I called them, from a young age.
The first time I visited their site, sparked by the news that they would be protesting Matthew Shephard’s funeral, I almost laughed. It was ridiculous, everything that they blamed us for. Thanks to both the silence around LGBTQ history in my life, schools, and the whitewashing of that history by the gay community, I wasn’t aware of people like Sylvia Rivera who was still alive to fight for our rights at the time, but I was aware of Matthew Shepherd and, having a mother who liked to go out now and then, it made me terrified for her and terrified for myself. The part the WBC had to play in that was minimal. They were caricatures. Ridiculous and I knew they posed me little to no harm unless I was directly in their line of fire.
Contrast that to the teachers and students who sat silent while I was relentlessly teased including my fifth grade teacher who rolled her eyes at me whenever I expressed distressed that my name had been written several times on the bathroom wall. Contrast that to the Congressmen who brought charts and diagrams to prove why my mother raising me was like giving a child molester access to children, why she didn’t deserve basic human rights because of who she loved. Contrast that to the temp agency that claimed my mother tested positive for PCP after a great first day at her new job – that is until her boss saw the rainbow sticker on her car. Contrast that to my own father who threatened repeatedly to take me away from my mother, take her into court, and win me from her on the grounds that she was gay and the courts in the 90s in the US South that would have gladly let him win.
But things are different now, yeah? It gets better? The WBC learned long ago that picking on gay people and picketing their funerals didn’t get them any closer to fame and it was only when they began picking on soldiers, the worst of patriotic taboos in the US, that people started actually caring. I don’t recall any “Freedom Riders” coming to Matthew and Judy Shephard’s aid, but now there are people lined up around the block to cheer about Fred Phelps’ death. As if the WBC had any power whatsoever over my real life. The truth is, I’m not mad at them. And I’m sick of their publicity and the way it allows people to pat themselves on the back for being pro-gay.
The same people who think Fred Phelps is horrible were the same people who told me they would vote for Bush despite his constant gunning for a marriage amendment because they “just didn’t believe in that”, with regards to my family. The same people who want to raise a glass are the same people who sat silent while I was bullied and did nothing. The same people who want to picket his funeral don’t seem that outraged by the growing amounts of homeless LGBTQ youth. Fred Phelps’ almost-death receives international media attention while the deaths of trans women of color across the globe go unnoticed. Everyone wants to party at his funeral but no one wants to do anything to keep us alive.
I’m not attempting to downplay the damage that the WBC has had on people’s lives, especially now that they’ve expanded their repertoire outside of LGBTQ people to anyone who will get them the most media attention for picketing. But it frustrates me that people continue to pretend as if the WBC are the most bigoted, as if there aren’t people in power who believe the exact same things they do but are more dangerous because they don’t advertise it. There are people with the same beliefs with far more institutional power than that church could ever hope for. Or worse, there are thousands of people with a poisonous apathy, who would gladly talk about how much they hate Fred Phelps but don’t give recent news about two murdered lesbians the time of day.
I don’t want to debate about whether we should have compassion for him. I don’t want to make plans to picket his funeral. I just want people to stop caring about the near death of a bigot and instead start caring about the lives of the people they supposedly support. Take the money you would spend on a pint drinking to Fred Phelps or on the picket parties or whatever people plan on organising, and give it instead to organisations that attempt to tackle the severe issues of homelessness and addiction among LGBTQ youth. If you’re in the UK, the Stonewall Housing project is a good one and if you’re in the US, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is another.
Normally I do not support the “ignore bullies and they’ll go away” approach because I know full well that it doesn’t work. But bullies have power. The WBC has only the power of distracting us from the real people who hate “fags” among us. In the case of this one individual who gains more more by making us look the other way, I want to focus on strengthening our crumbling bridge instead of looking at the the troll that lives under it.
Lola Olson works in marketing and volunteers for Gendered Intelligence, runs an LGBTQ youth group, and identifies as non-binary.
As with all comment, this does not necessarily reflect the views of PinkNews.