Ryan Lee: Requiem for the reviled: How to grieve the death of a nemesis

Fred Phelps was going to die whether I expressed my opinion about it or not, and that felt good enough for me.

I’m queasy with celebrations of death, even of universally despised figures like Phelps and Osama Bin Laden. Yet, I was surprised how a man who committed his legacy to defiling other people’s deaths received such a reverent send-off from his (literally) sworn enemies.

Everyone processes death differently, which is one of the reasons the consensus that quickly developed to show restraint at Phelps’s passing felt a little too convenient, both for Phelps and the fags. There are benefits to proving our moral superiority to those who hate us, but we should not focus so much on our respect―and respectability―that we blur the malice our nemesis inflicted upon us.

Stages of grief, including for the loss of a foe, are necessary and healthy.

I instinctively felt slight joy upon hearing of Phelps’s final days, and had I not, I would’ve started developing new instincts. “Relief” or “justice” might be more tactful headers for this stage of grief, but they don’t capture the pang of satisfaction brought on by my thoughts of a world without the Rev. Fred Phelps.

I had no urge to dance on his grave, but I felt no guilt from my mild delight in the death of someone so loathsome.

In my early days of using the internet, I used to search terms like “homosexual” and “gay” in a desperate attempt to understand who I was and what I was feeling. Among the first search results, and really the only result that I remember, was godhatesfags.com.

It was a jarring combination of words for a gay teenager to read, although it was simply the bluntest articulation of what my parents, pastors and society had taught me to believe about God and gay people.
The brutality of this website and catchphrase, and the spiritual terrorism that Phelps led against LGBT for the past two decades, stung too much for me to be celebratory about his demise, or to grant forgiveness immediately upon death.

It seemed fashionable for many who expressed an opinion about Phelps’s death to skip the first two stages of grief and leap directly onto the high ground. This was a noble trend, even if it came across as insincere at times.

It is possible to grant Phelps dignity in death without protecting him from the vile reverb of his life, and to make sure our sense of decorum does not distort the truth. The first words of Fred Phelps’s obituary ought to reference his unyielding hatred, but this was almost unmentionable among many LGBT “mourners.”

Decency is not a bad thing, either as a sentiment or as a political tool. A lack of decency around death, as Phelps and his cult often reminded us, wins few arguments and fewer allies.

The emotion that surprised me most as Phelps lay dying was the appreciation I felt toward him.
Fred Phelps is arguably as significant a force as any other in the advancement of gay rights this millennium. In the 2,000 years since Sodom and Gomorrah burned, it was taken as fact that God wasn’t too fond of gays. He considered us abominations, detestable, unnatural, wicked and worthy of eternal judgment.

All Fred Phelps did was distill that antipathy into the Twitter-friendly slogan: God hates fags. In doing so, he placed the gospel out of bounds. Suddenly, people who were comfortable using their religion to justify personal bigotry had to nuance their prejudice.

“Hate the sin, not the sinner” grew more attractive as people of faith tried to prove they weren’t the same type of Christians as the Baptists from Westboro. We’re now on the brink of a spiritual renaissance in how homosexuality is interpreted in the bible, and I don’t think we’d be here so soon without Phelps’s antagonism.

It will be a bit strange to continue this battle without our most tenacious adversary, and of course the descendants of Westboro will keep up the fight.

We should accept that Fred Phelps is dead, and everything that he stood for is dying. It might still be too early to boast about victory, but one of our chief enemies has departed the battlefield thoroughly defeated.