By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist
Allow me to share with you an epiphany. I think Fred Phelps is gay.
Not that I’d have any way to know for sure, and not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it seems obvious to me that Freddie has spent a little time up on “Brokeback Mountain,” if you catch my drift. I’m thinking he’s secretly into show tunes, interior decorating and man-sized love.
Granted, that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about the Fredster, who is defined by an apparently pathological hatred of all things homosexual. Perhaps you remember how his followers desecrated the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was beaten and left to die on a prairie fence in Wyoming eight years ago. They showed up at the funeral bearing signs that said, “God Hates Fags.”
Now Phelps has updated his act. His “thinking,” if you want to use that word, is that the casualties of the Iraq war are divine retribution for this country’s tolerance of homosexuality. So, he says, thank God for the IEDs, improvised explosive devices, that have sent so many American soldiers home dead or in broken pieces.
Phelps’ followers — he pastors a church in Topeka, Kan., where most of the congregants are members of his family — have been showing up at military funerals to express this view. Picture it: as your son, sister, wife, brother is being consigned to the soil, these idiots pop up with signs, loudly celebrating his or her death.
Small wonder the state of Wisconsin enacted a law last week banning protests at military funerals. Or that more than a dozen other states are moving in the same direction.
Phelps has vowed to fight the restrictions on First Amendment grounds and the unfortunate truth is that he has a point. His message is bizarre, grotesque and calculated to hurt, yes. But the Constitution carves out no exception for messages that are bizarre, grotesque and calculated to hurt. The right to freedom of speech is a precious thing that extends even here.
At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself that next to this guy, Pat Robertson is a model of statesmanlike restraint. You probably think he’s crazy. And not ordinary crazy, mind you, but 20 pages, typewritten, single-space, both sides of the page with scribbles in the margins crazy.
Well, I don’t think he’s as crazy as he seems. Heck, nobody could be. No, he’s not disturbed. He’s just gay.
Hear me out. How often have we seen public moralists railing against that which they themselves secretly indulge? Think Jimmy Swaggart with his prostitute. Think Dr. Laura’s pose in the nude. And for goodness’ sake, how many times have we seen homosexuality condemned by those who turned out to be closeted themselves? There was Pat Robertson biographer-turned-gay activist Mel White, Spokane Mayor James West who spent his days opposing gay rights and his nights in gay chat rooms, and Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, who founded a group that purported to cure people of homosexuality, but gave it up when they fell in love with each other.
Consider all that, and then consider the sick ferocity of Phelps’ attack:
God hates “fags.”
Gays are vomit-eating dogs.
Gays are “worthy of death.”
Can you say “self-hatred,” boys and girls? Come on, isn’t it obvious? The poor fellow is gayer than a Bette Midler AIDS benefit. In San Francisco.
He needs not our condemnation but our understanding. Maybe someday he’ll find the strength to stop living this lie. He might just go on to be the greatest gay-rights activist this country has ever known. Maybe then, in the arms of the right man, he’ll stop hurting.
Kind of chokes me up to think about it.
Of course, the Fredster will deny all this. He might even call me unpleasant names. Hey, that’s his right. We may not see eye to eye on much, but on one thing, we agree.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org