REV. FRED PHELPS gives good curse. Famous for his anti-gay picketing of funerals and other sensational venues, he admits that his vibrant colored signs with provocative epithets (notably “God Hates Fags”) are intended to “get inside people’s heads.” In October, he will receive what he most seeks—national publicity—during an oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is critical, and so is an understanding of this man, however tempting it is to dismiss him as a self-parody of bigoted ignorance.
“My very first exposure to Phelps was trying to get family and friends into church, through a barrage of the Phelps’ pickets and angry shouting on the church steps,” says Phil Griffin, a director for the Topeka AIDS Project. It was in the early 1990’s, before drugs had made HIV manageable, that Phelps would show up at funerals for deceased gay men carrying signs that gleefully predicted the man’s eternal damnation. It was only when Phelps began to picket the funerals of dead soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that 47 states passed funeral picket laws.