News & Politics

Forgive him his trespassing, then pass the eggplants

Ian wrote earlier this week that notorious hater Fred Phelps was on his deathbed in hospice; by now you’ve likely heard that yesterday he died at 84.

The immediate hypothetical question for so many who found his profound disrespect of the grieving so repugnant is: should his funeral be picketed? It’s a question likely to remain hypothetical, since a member of Westboro Baptist Church – the church he founded and the one from which he has since last summer been excluded – has said that a funeral for him won’t be held, since “funerals are not in line with church policy.”

A notable lack of sorrow, at the least, has been the widespread public response to his dying, and this will likely continue on in his death.

For my part – and this sentiment is just my own; I respect a wide range of emotional and strategic responses to this man and his life’s legacy, and most important, no one has picketed the funeral of the many loved ones I’ve seen go –  I say: forgive him his trespassing. He knew not what he did.

Also his right to park himself on a public sidewalk and spew vile, evident mental unwellness notwithstanding,  was protected free speech,  explicitly defended by U.S. Supreme Court judgement in 2011 in Snyder v. Phelps.  And while I (and most decent people like me) find every iota of that speech and its emotional impact revolting, I also find the words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about Voltaire, apropos: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Just not my death, I should note: Phelps’.

If one is inspired in any way to celebrate this poor man’s passing, I would like to direct us instead to think back on and celebrate some of the more delightful responses to Westboro through the years, some of which are depicted in the photos here. A lighthearted equivalent of the  somber “forgive the unforgiving” might be: lampoon, rather than judge, the judgemental.  Because who doesn’t love a pie in the face of a blowhard, delivered, ideally, by a clown?

It’s not to say that the hate of Westboro Baptist Church hasn’t had powerful consequences, or that it isn’t a logical consequence of much more widespread and nefarious homophobic distortion of religious doctrine.  But one of queer folks’ contributions to political discourse has long been to disarm or re-frame the opposition with theatricality and humor. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence spring immediately to mind as a brilliant reply to the homophobic strain in traditional Catholicism.

In March 1994, Phyllis Schlafly came to the Twin Cities to spout her regular fare of misinformation and crankiness.  The Minneapolis chapter of the Lesbian Avengers (your trusty VQ pilot Vikki and my own self among ’em) protested her and distributed leaflets identifying and disputing the more outrageous of her lies and locating her and her group the Eagle Forum as a part of the larger Christian Right movement. We brought signs, we chanted chants, we did our best to inform those going in to listen to her and ensure that misinformation was met with information. Probably much like Phelps et al. have thought they were doing. Minus the egregious disrespect of the grieving.

But of all the responses to Schlafly that night, ours included, my favorite and likely the most effective was the giant winged eggplant. I refer not to a vegetable, lobbed in the direction of Schlafly as she spoke, but an actual one. The Riverside Café, a beloved local vegetarian collective, had as its logo a winged eggplant, and some enterprising collectivistas had crafted a life-sized body suit of an eggplant, complete with tiny white wings.  As the college lecture hall was filling, in the eggplant strode, past us rabble-rousing Avengers, past the agog security, directly to a seat at the end of aisle twelve or so. And there it stayed, quietly radiating its eloquent protest, through all of Schlafly’s bloviating. Damn I love my people.

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  1. I’m trying not to waste my energy on FP, but in the funny category, there is this WB turn of phrase from a protest in Chicago against “anal-copulating caterwaulers.” (Can I post that on a “family” site?)

    And on the serious side, Richard Kim’s piece in The Nation, “Fred Phelps: The Death of a Useful Bigot”

  2. I remember that Eggplant very well, Polly.

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