Westboro Founder Fred Phelps Might've Helped Gay Rights, Which Is An Ironic And Fitting Twist

Since Thursday's news of the death of Reverend Fred Phelps, some have indulged a counterintuitive theory: That the vitriolic anti-gay preacher accidentally did more good for gay rights than bad, by unifying Americans of all stripes against his hateful message. It's a controversial claim, to be sure — Phelps and his clan have picketed countless funerals through the years, smearing innocent people on such a scale that trying to quantify the suffering it's caused is basically impossible.

But it's an interesting idea, and deserves a little consideration.

Here's the thinking: The Westboro Baptist Church picketed gay people's funerals, a heartless act that horrified and disgusted common Americans. Even for a vigorous anti-gay bigot, the idea of descending on someone's funeral and castigating their surviving family about Hellfire is something else, really. And as such, his hateful public testimony bound people together in unity against him.

The funerals the church would opt to picket weren't limited to those of gay people, or prominent voices who supported gay rights. The thirst for media attention, and Phelps and Westboro's savvy about how to get it, increasingly led the group to an expanded definition of who "deserved" to have their grieving disrupted.

In the quest to draw more and more eyeballs to their cause, the WBC also picketed, most infamously, the funerals of U.S. soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the funerals of dead celebrities — celebrities who, to the church's mind, failed to use their prominent platform to denounce homosexuality.

There's a case to be made, though, that even as this tactic may have succeeded in gaining media attention in the short term — when websites (us included) mention Westboro's plans, they probably feel they've gotten just what they want — it's what has helped forge a sprawling cross-ideological coalition against them.

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In short, everyone, even those sadly lacking the tolerance or empathy to feel heartache for the LGBT community, know and loathe the WBC. You could be the world's biggest homophobe, but if you also love the U.S. military, the respective films of the late Bernie Mac and Paul Walker, and the right of their funerals to go undisrupted, there's still something to sneer at.

This may all seem obvious — it's not that daring to say that Fred Phelps and his cohorts brought themselves down through hatred. But in an American era that's more tolerant to gay rights than at any other time in U.S. history, it does need to be proclaimed, and loudly: Fred Phelps lost. And in some small way, our mutual humanity won. Said Cathy Renna, longtime LGBT consultant, according to the Washington Post:

The world lost someone who did a whole lot more for the LGBT community than we realize or understand. He has brought along allies who are horrified by the hate. So his legacy will be exactly the opposite of what he dreamed.

Of course, not everybody agrees with this, and that's entirely fair and a conversation worth having. The personal hurt caused by Phelps and his family is incalculable, as is any perceived benefit his role as a national pariah may have had for the LGBT community. But it is worth considering whether the suffering he caused to the bereaved, and the fury of his message served a greater purpose, and is the exact reverse of what he intended.