Fred Phelps, you know, the God Hates Fags guy, died last night. You totally know who this guy was, but here's the obligatory recap. Last time on "Famous Bigots", Fred Phelps started the Westboro Baptist Church with mostly only members of his own family, waved signs that said "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates America" and protested pretty much everything they thought they could get attention for.
Fred's passing marks the passing of something else: of overt gay hatred in the public discourse. Politicians and organizations who want to push laws to discriminate against gay people or stop gay marriage no longer speak the language of fear. No more "they'll make your kids gay." No more "HIV is punishment." The Pope is willing to concede to civil unions (too late, Your Holiness, too late). Anti-gay activists are seeing fewer and smaller victories.
No one takes Westboro seriously, if they ever did. They're a tiny Church who puts up offensive signs and seeks opportunities to upset people. They aren't exactly a Church responsible for influencing policy. They seem almost like performance art at times, or a stupid stunt for the other side, like that woman who cut a backwards B into her face and said Obama supporters did it. Fred Phelps wasn't someone to be feared. What Fred Phelps was, was a common enemy. He picketed military funerals and memorials for slain toddlers, gay pride parades and candlelight vigils. Even otherwise homophobic people at least agreed that Fred was bad.
I've seen so much progress made on gay rights even in my lifetime. We went from gay marriage nowhere to gay marriage recognized by the US federal government, and more importantly, we saw homophobia become something embarrassing. Hating fags isn't the sort of thing you tell people these days, it's the sort of thing you whisper, quietly, to your co-conspirators in hatred. It's become like racism; I mean society responds to it in a similar way. While it's still sort of accepted for a politician to work to create policies that discriminate against gays or marginalized people, it's gauche to be honest about it. You can say you want to protect religious liberty ("I respect gay people, I'm not a homophone, it's just my religious beliefs") or work to limit voting opportunities in minority neighboorhoods (I'm not racist but, some of best friends are black") but you can't just say you want to keep the gays or the blacks out of your town.
I imagine Fred's church will keep sending out press releases about their planned marches and waving their signs around and posting their (hilarious) God's hatred-themed sing-a-longs online, their moment has passed. Their 15 minutes are up. Certainly the fight for gay rights isn't over. There are always going to be new struggles with any sort of social progress, and there's a lot of anti-gay backlash internationally right now, but in this country, by any measure, the war has turned and the other side is in retreat.
The story is that Fred was excommunicated at the end of his life (for trying to temper the church's doctrine of hate) and died estranged from not just the family members he'd kicked out of his family for not towing the line enough but also those who were loyal to the church and decided to bestow upon him the same punishment. This is the legacy of so much hate, a rather perfect poetic justice. I don't feel happy that Fred's dead. I feel sad that anyone would (and that many people do) devote their one, irreplaceable, ephemeral life to hating other people. I've devoted mine to making movies and orgasms and stories that people want to see. I think that's better. Fred Phelps would have totally disagreed, but he's dead.