RIP Fred Phelps (1929–2014)

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SO, Fred Phelps is dead. But how to acknowledge the death of someone who was so notorious for the way in which he celebrated the deaths of gay people, among others?

For those who don’t know, Phelps led the Westboro Baptist Church for decades. Most of its members were his own relatives. Strangely enough, he was a lawyer who had once worked to expand the rights of African-Americans. But as his religious convictions shifted, he became obsessed with homosexuality, something he saw as a malevolent force that was ruining things for everyone. He also believed in a vengeful, wrathful God who hated sinners and relished their destruction.

So he and his followers began picketing the funerals of gay people, sporting their signature “god hates fags” signs, among other choice slogans. He also launched a website called “Godhatesfags.com.” They and their signs were at the funerals of Sonny Bono, Bewitched star Dick Sargent, and Matthew Shepard. At the latter, Shepard’s parents and friends were met with a placard that read “Matthew Shepard burns in Hell.”

I interviewed Phelps in 1999 when he vowed to visit Canada to protest a Supreme Court decision that expanded gay rights. He was planning a stopover in Montreal to coincide with our annual pride event, and someone from the Montreal Mirror suggested that I try to get an interview with him. I didn’t know what good an interview would do, as Phelps seemed clearly to be out of his mind. I decided to interview him as an insider—as a sympathetic Christian activist seeking his advice. After a phone call with one of his sons, in which I expressed my disgust over the “moral cesspit Canada had become,” I was granted a direct line to Fred Phelps himself. Our conversation went like this:

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