Fred Phelps, America’s most rabid gay-basher and a man who drew almost universal contempt from the far right to the far left, has reportedly died at age 84. Timothy Phelps, one of his 13 children, told WIBW-TV in Topeka, Kan., that the vitriol-spouting pastor of Westboro Baptist Church died before midnight Wednesday in a local hospice.
Phelps and his extended family, which made up the bulk of Westboro’s congregation, spent almost a quarter of a century issuing vulgar and incredibly spiteful rhetoric against LGBT people and their supporters. The group was especially loathed for picketing the funerals of American soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying God was punishing a “fag-enabling” nation.
That’s not all. Phelps and his followers attacked school children killed in bus crashes, victims of crazed killers, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, schools, synagogues, and a whole host of others for supporting homosexuality, typically in the most tangential of ways. When Al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001, Phelps’ response was to savage the murdered pilot of one of the downed airliners as “the filthy face of fag evil,” among other things. He also attacked Jews, picketing synagogues and saying Jews’ “vermin ancestors” had killed Christ.
Phelps’ reported death came amid a flurry of reports, based on statements from one of his estranged sons, saying that Phelps had been ex-communicated last fall from the Topeka church he started in 1955. The reports claimed that others in the church had formed an all-male board of elders, thrown out longtime spokeswoman and heir apparent Shirley Phelps-Roper, and tossed Phelps out of his own church because he said that he thought congregants should be kinder to one another. If true, it was an exceedingly ironic end for a man who was not known for his kindness in any way.
Phelps’ crusade against gay people began in earnest in 1991, when he and his followers began picketing a Topeka park supposedly known as a meeting place for gay men. It rapidly picked up steam over the next years, with Phelps claiming to picket more than 40 places a week and his starting of a website called “God Hates Fags.” In 1998, Phelps came to widespread national attention when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered in an infamous attack in Wyoming. Around 2005, he and his followers began picketing the funerals of soldiers killed abroad, leading to worldwide notoriety. A British documentary even labeled Phelps and his offspring, with considerable justification, “the most hated family in America.”
Phelps was a man obsessed by sex and human sexuality for at least six decades. In 1951, Time magazine profiled Phelps’ California street ministry against dirty jokes and sexual petting. Later, as many pointed out, Phelps became the man who seemed to think more about gay sex than virtually any other American, an observation that caused many to wonder just what his mental processes really were.
Phelps’ estranged children — four of his 13 offspring broke with him and have had nothing to do with him or the church in subsequent years — described a harrowing childhood, saying that he beat some of them with a mattock handle, forced them to sell candy in the streets to raise money, and made them do daily extended runs. At least one also said Phelps, who at one point claimed to be a civil rights attorney and even received an NAACP award, commonly used the word “nigger” when they were young.
Phelps was an incredibly litigious lawyer, filing some 400 lawsuits before he was disbarred in Kansas in 1979 and agreeing, in 1989, to give up his license to practice in federal court as well. The reasons had to do with his filing of frivolous lawsuits against a whole array of enemies, including one court reporter he accused of being late with a document. At one point, he filed a suit against Sears for late delivery of a TV set. After six years of litigation, Phelps settled, with Sears paying him $126 — about $60 less than the original cost of the TV, which he never received.
Over the years, police in Topeka took reports from people who said they were battered, harassed, stalked and spat on by Westboro congregants. One mainstream preacher said one of Phelps’ followers accused him of “drink[ing] anal blood at the altar of the sphincter.” But many of Phelps’ children were also lawyers, and they were able to successfully fight off most of these criminal complaints. They also won many First Amendment cases brought against communities that tried to prevent his public harangues.
As Phelps neared his end, the leaders of Westboro fudged the truth, saying over the weekend that he “had a couple of things going on” with his health but was not near death, despite the fact that he was in a hospice. “The source that says he is near death is not well informed,” spokesman Steve Drain claimed.
Even as the news of Phelps’ reported death spread today, various LGBT groups and their supporters shunned the idea of disrupting any funeral for the man who had done them such harm over the decades, often at funerals. Despite the church’s record, they seemed to agree that it was only right to allow Phelps’ family to bury their longtime patriarch in peace.