Fred Phelps, who was perhaps the United States’ most provocative anti-gay activist, died this week, but there was no celebrating on the other side of the phone when the Los Angeles Times reached one of Kansas’ top LGBT advocates on Thursday.
Thomas Witt, the executive director for Equality Kansas, was blunt: Don’t celebrate Phelps’ death, it’s not appropriate. Donate some money to an LGBT advocacy group instead.
“We are asking that the LGBT community rise above all the anger we feel toward the Westboro Baptist Church and do what we’ve been asking the Phelps family do for 20 years, which is let us grieve in peace,” Witt told The Times -- adding that the groups’ executive committee was unanimous on this matter.
It’s been a long two decades for gays and lesbians in Topeka, where Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church is based. Long before Phelps and his followers and kin held incendiary anti-gay signs at soldiers’ funerals and sparked massive counter-protests, they had picked far more vulnerable targets, who had much less public support.
“They were protesting the funerals of gay and lesbian Kansans starting in 1990 or 1991,” Witt recalled. “If they heard that somebody passed away from AIDS, if they knew that person was gay or lesbian, [they protested]. They protested outside their homes in the early days, gay and lesbian Topekans. They protested outside of businesses that hired or served gay people. They hassled hundreds of people in Topeka and eventually all around Kansas and around the nation.”
To what end? Witt dismissed Phelps’ legacy. “Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have had zero impact on LGBT equality,” said Witt. “The gay-rights movement is moving forward … and will continue to move forward now that he’s gone.”
Witt added of Phelps’ death, that beyond a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right to protest at funerals, Phelps “leaves nothing more than an obscene footnote in history. His life will have been meaningless.”