Editor's Note: Guest blogger Cathy Renna is nationally recognized as a media relations expert and as a leader within the LGBT community. During 14 years at GLAAD, she contributed to the strategic, crisis communications and community relations components of the organization's most visible campaigns; most notably, Cathy played a central role in shaping media coverage of the beating death of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Since leaving GLAAD, Cathy has worked to increase the visibility of clients such as the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Point Foundation, Family Pride and the Williams Institute. She now serves as senior vice president at Target Cue.
While many people will be celebrating the death of Fred Phelps, whose name is synonymous with irrational hate and vitriol, I think that today the world lost someone who did a whole lot more for the LGBT community that we realize or understand.
I know because I have had to deal with the Phelps clan for over 15 years as an activist and countless times have talked with the media about the merits and faults of giving him and his band of hateful protesters any attention at all.
The turning point in how the LGBT community responded to Phelps came in 1999, as he organized a picket outside the Matthew Shepard trials. Phelps had previously protested the funeral and got the most attention he'd ever had until that point. It was appalling. Friends of Matt and community members wanted to not only respond to this protest but shield Matt's parents from the vicious images Phelps and his family brought with them from Kansas.
As I stood feet away from Phelps, I saw a parade of a dozen or so angels -- dubbed "Angel Action" by Romaine Patterson and Jim Osborn, who came up with the idea -- turn the corner onto Grand St. and approach the Laramie County courthouse. All the cameras and reporters turned toward them, and I cried as I saw this brave group of people stride toward him with love and strength in their hearts. And that was what made the news -- not him but the amazing response.
Now, remember that only a short time prior, the response to Phelps was not as gracious. At gay journalist Randy Shilts' funeral (picketing funerals of people who'd died of AIDS was a regular shtick for Phelps in the '80s and early '90s), people threw eggs at the protestors and confronted them angrily. I can't blame them, but the truth is that with cameras rolling and the media loving conflict and controversy, the juxtaposition of Phelps' face with the angels surrounding him, turning their backs to him and singing "Amazing Grace" was an image that has impact far beyond the gut reaction of anger.
We are better than he is. And the world needed to see that.