The infamous Fred Phelps, Sr., founder of the hateful "God Hates Fags" Westboro Baptist Church and one of the nation's most outspoken homophobes, died late Wednesday night, according to his his son Timothy.
The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, has died according to his son Tim Phelps. Phelps, 84, was being cared for in a Shawnee County facility, Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said Sunday.
Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "Thank God for 9/11," claiming the deaths are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Phelps was reportedly excommunicated from his own church in a coup last summer. He is survived by his wife, Margie, and 13 children.
Westboro Baptist Church, which consists mostly of members of Phelps's extended family, also pickets LGBT-related events across the country, including the funerals of hate crimes victims and people who've died of AIDS-related complications, performances of The Laramie Project, and the Supreme Court during oral arguments in last year's marriage equality cases. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro Baptist "the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America;" indeed, for many, Fred Phelps, Sr. and his family are the very face of anti-LGBT bigotry.
Ironically, though, in the end Phelps and Westboro Baptist may have done more than many to move LGBT acceptance forward. By putting their bilious, toxic anti-LGBT vitriol front and center, the Phelps clan helped draw a sharp contrast between hatred and love -- and create the space for reasonable Americans to evolve towards the latter.
There's not much about Fred Phelps to be grateful for, but I for one am at least grateful for that -- not least because it's exactly the opposite of what Phelps would want his legacy to be.
Statements from Matthew Shepard's family and national LGBT organizations are after the jump.
Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard:
"Regarding the passing of Fred Phelps, Dennis and I know how solemn these moments are for anyone who loses a loved one. Out of respect for all people and our desire to erase hate, we've decided not to comment further."
Rev Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:
"Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS and the millions of decent people across the world who found what he and his followers do deeply hurtful and offensive. Through his actions, he brought needless pain and suffering to thousands of families, including to military families, at their time of greatest pain and grieving. While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them."
Michael Keegan, President, People For the American Way:
"Fred Phelps made a name for himself by protesting the funerals of soldiers and hate crime victims. In particular, he spent decades causing immeasurable pain to LGBT people and their families. My thoughts are with all those people today.
"Very much in spite of himself, Fred Phelps was an important figure in the movement for LGBT equality. Other right-wing leaders have chosen their words more carefully, and the WBC even protested some far-right activists for being insufficiently hateful, but plenty of Religious Right leaders have always agreed on Phelps's core message: that God reacts to gay people with divine punishment in this world and damnation in the next. Fred Phelps just said what so many anti-gay activists have always believed.
"When Americans were faced with the choice of accepting their LGBT neighbors or endorsing Phelps's unfiltered hate, they chose the former. He showed anti-gay bigotry for what it really is: profoundly un-American. Phelps lived to see a nation that more and more decisively rejected his vile message. That's his legacy."
Early this morning, Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died in hospice care. GetEQUAL -- a national social justice organization working toward the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Americans -- issued the following statement in response to this news:
Fred Phelps Sr. passed away this morning, and we lift up his humanity especially as we know that his family is grieving his loss. Mr. Phelps caused very real pain and trauma for thousands of Americans, especially for those in the LGBTQ community but also for the families of fallen service members. It is our hope that those hurt by his words and actions will find healing. It is our hope that his family will one day find space in their hearts to recognize the humanity of LGBTQ individuals. And it is our hope that people across the United States commit or re-commit themselves to working toward equality and justice for all as a lasting legacy of Mr. Phelps' life.
There will always be those who are so in pain themselves that they feel compelled to inflict pain on others. We re-commit ourselves today to loving those who hate us. We re-commit ourselves today to seeing the humanity in those who cannot or will not see it in us. And we re-commit ourselves today to working toward an America that is free of that pain -- an America in which LGBTQ folks can live and love openly. On this day, we stand with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers across the country to say, with certainty, that we see that day over the horizon and that we will work until our hands bleed to bring about that day with a deep and abiding urgency.