Myrtle Beach gay columnist grapples with appropriate response to Fred Phelps’ death

For Weekly SurgeMarch 24, 2014 

Does Phelps deserved the gay community’s mercy?

Perhaps it was because I was binge watching “The Borgias” on Netflix at the time the news of the death of Fred Phelps hit and Pope Alexander VI was burning yet another heretic at the stake. It suddenly occurred to me the exact level of the medieval mentality that causes us to hate one another and to punish each other based on our beliefs. I suppose it begs the trite question, “Who died and made you (fill in your choice of deity)?”

The number of times that I saw Phelps and the members of his Westboro Baptist Church picket the funerals of people who ranged from Matthew Shepard to the heroes who fell in defense of our country, are far too many to count. Each time I saw him, I was angry and hurt and afraid all over again. I was the painfully different teenager in school who was bullied. I was the child in a church that didn’t accept me; who wrongly bought into the idea that God could be so narrowly defined as to be made manifest through the hate of others. Most of all, it touched the fear that resides deep inside of so many of us in the LGBTQ community that we may still be victimized or bullied.

It is a difficult struggle for many of us who came into our full consciousness as adults in the gay community during the zenith of the Phelps era. I was attempting my second (and ongoing) run at a master’s degree at Queen’s University in Charlotte, N.C. when Phelps and his followers, who basically consisted of his family, debuted into the 24-hour news cycle. The murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 served not only to remind the nation that hate crimes against gay people were a reality, it exposed something even uglier: people who celebrated something so horrific. If this were the 1500s, that may be the expected reaction. Without cable, the Internet or malls, burning witches and sodomites pretty much accounted for the entertainment of the masses.

In the modern world, we expect more from civilized people. That is not to say that we should ignore hate or that we should pretend that it doesn’t exist. As long as there is free will in the world, people are going to be on opposing sides. Most of us are willing to walk away and simply agree to disagree. But what about those rare people who decide to make an oeuvre of an unpopular viewpoint which holds that certain groups of people are not created equally? In a less enlightened time, invoking the name of an all-powerful, flood-sending, plague-dealing deity was the proverbial proclamation of the law of the land.

The words used by the late Rev. Phelps are so revolting and wounding that I cannot even give them space. I wish I could forget them but I can’t. The words, the signs and the images connected with this person will remain with me forever. They are a part of my life lesson. Moreover, because these words were, by practice, proclaimed during the times when others were grieving, they become more dishonorable. This is not a core value that should ever be embraced or tolerated.

So, was Phelps the worst enemy of the LGBTQ community in recent memory and if so, how should the end of this chapter affect us? He was arguably our most vocal opponent that comes to mind and the tactics he used and the messages he sent were certainly without mercy and they lacked any measure of decency. But that is now at an end. What is the correct response?

I often told myself that there was no way the members of the Westboro Baptist Church could possibly believe all of the ideas they promoted. There was just too much hyperbole and hatred in their rhetoric for it to be real. Even so, it was impossible to dismiss them because if a bad idea finds a receptive audience, suffering will not be far behind.

I was encouraged and surprised to see many of the people in the media and in the gay community calling for no demonstrations and no words of hate to mark this occasion. I wish I could set myself apart as someone so noble and tell you that my feelings were not mixed on this matter. For me, it is very much a work in progress.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to admit the truth about Phelps and about ourselves, even if we have to do it in private, in therapy or in prayer. We are all flawed in some way and something that we have done during our lifetimes has caused at least one other person pain. In the end, we will be forced to reflect on the ideas and people that we decided to embrace as well as those that we decided to reject or to exclude. If we get it right, there will be none that we decided to victimize. For that reason, my hope is that a person who by every appearance was incredibly unhappy and tortured in this world has found peace and rest in the next. I think they call that mercy.


Friday & Saturday, March 28 & 29 – The Mr. & Miss Unlimited Newcomer 2014 Pageant will be held at Pulse Ultra Club in Myrtle Beach. Pageant time is at 9 p.m. Pulse Ultra Club is located at 803 Main St. Myrtle Beach. For additional information, go to

Sunday, April 6 - CLAWS, the Coastal Leather Allegiance to Wisdom & Service, will hold its monthly business meeting at Pulse Ultra Club in Myrtle Beach from 5-6 p.m. Pulse Ultra Club is located at 803 Main St. Myrtle Beach. For additional information see

Monday, April 7 – SC Equality hosts “A Legendary Evening with Barney Frank,” with proceeds benefitting pro-equality candidates for office in 2014. The event is from 6–7:30 p.m. at M Space, 530 Lady Street in Columbia. General admission is $50. For additional information please see

Saturday, April 12 – The aforementioned CLAWS, the Coastal Leather Allegiance to Wisdom & Service, hosts its Happy Hour and Social at Club Pulse from 6-9 p.m. Additional information about this event and this group can be found at

Have a thought, comment or Out & About event? Send Drew Levy-Neal an e-mail to You can also follow him on Twitter: @Drew_Levy_Neal.

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