The first time I heard of the Westboro Baptist Church was in tenth grade. I had to write an essay on the 2011 Supreme Court case in which it was determined that it was within WBC members’ First Amendment rights to carry out the offensive picketing campaigns that made them famous. These protests have been featured in the media several times since that lawsuit, and many Americans are now familiar with Westboro’s outrageous claims. The church’s infamous message that “God hates fags” is generally the most inflammatory, but it should be noted that, according to the Westboro crew, the Good Lord also hates (among other things) Islam, Judaism, the Catholic Church, the NFL, NASA, the media, American soldiers, Obama, Oprah, Billy Graham, and Mr. Rogers. Oh yeah, and the world.
When lead pastor Fred Phelps died in March, the church, comprised primarily of Phelps’s extended family, was thrown back into the spotlight. Online, many people have expressed regret that Phelps’s family did not hold a funeral service. These users stated that they had been looking forward to picketing the infamous preacher’s funeral just as his congregants had picketed those of so many others.
However, some writers have begun to ask why we’re still listening to Westboro’s idiocy. These authors draw attention to the fact that the church’s efforts have garnered far more support for the LGBT cause than for its own by painting a ridiculous caricature of homophobia. Even hyper-conservative blogger Michael Enoch goes as far as to call the WBC a “liberal wet dream.” While I certainly don’t agree with the views Enoch expresses in this piece, it’s true that Fred Phelps and company are the kinds of people we love to hate—stereotypical bigots with views so extreme they almost seem darkly comical. Stop and think for a moment. How many reasonable adults do you know who would actually be swayed by Westboro’s nonsense? The church’s taunts are cruel, but they are also indisputably absurd. These people are shouting at the world, but to no end.
When it comes to legitimate obstacles to equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community, this one group of radicals really doesn’t pose an actual threat. There are much more serious problems. Instead of screaming back at the crazies on the corner, why don’t we stop accepting the lax attitude towards homophobia in our schools? Why don’t we crack down on the use of gay as a synonym for stupid? Why don’t we, collectively and individually, work towards ensuring that our communities are safe places for everyone, regardless of sexuality? Those of us who haven’t had to suffer through protests of our loved ones’ funerals have no excuse for railing against Westboro but ignoring society’s subtler but more dangerous discrimination—discrimination that affects more of us than a ridiculous protest ever could. Instead of raging against the extreme minority, let’s redirect our anger and channel it towards making actual progress.
Moreover, let’s take some time to more closely examine our own biases. Maybe you’re pro-gay marriage but squeamish about trans* issues. Maybe you’re familiar with the basic LGBT acronym but you’re not so sure you believe that people can really be pansexual, asexual, genderqueer, etc. And what’s with all the pronouns? It’s easy to shout back at people who are obviously in the wrong; it’s harder to root out the internalized prejudice in our own mindsets.
Stop providing a band of incendiaries with more fuel for their fire. Instead of fighting back against a group that isn’t even a real threat, attack the less extreme but infinitely more hurtful attitudes that still, embarrassingly enough, permeate our culture. Support the rights and well-being of all of the human beings with whom you coexist. And, perhaps most importantly, give your own attitude a thorough inspection.
Fred Phelps wasted his life raging at the world. Don’t waste yours raging back.