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“Pride: a reasonable or justifiable self-respect; delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship” — Webster’s Dictionary


Despite her efforts to secure equality for millions, her commitment to numerous charitable organizations, and her undisputed personal dignity and compassion conveyed throughout her lifetime, the recently passed Coretta Scott King is, according to one dogmatic and homophobic Southern preacher, now burning in hell. If only she hadn’t “kicked the righteous blacks off the Freedom Train to make room for her feces eating fag friends”, says Fred Phelps. Fortunately, though, Ronald Reagan, Reggie White, and Pope John Paul II are also there to keep her company. Also in Hell are the Virginia coal miners who recently died in a mining accident. They did nothing in particular to deserve to be condemned to Hell during their afterlife—it’s just that God is pissed at America, so all Americans are doomed to eternal fire.


I learned all this by visiting the website www.godhatesamerica.com, run by the Reverend Fred Phelps of Kansas. If you know of the Rev. Phelps, it is most likely through hearing of his recent protests at American soldiers’ funerals (those fallen soldiers, he argues, deserved to die for defending a gay-tolerant nation). Or maybe you heard of his protest back in 1998, at the funeral of the brutally murdered Matthew Shepard (the young college student whose death at the hands of gay-bashers became headline news in the US). It seems that Phelps the man is almost as ubiquitous as—God. Indeed, he is also quite a presence on the web, where he runs the sites: Priestsrapeboys, Godhatesfags, GodhatesSweden, and GodhatesCanada, among others. Apparently, God is full of hate these days.


And what has God so angry at America? Naturally, the answer depends on who is asked. Those with strong anti-American sentiment may argue it is America’s presence in the Middle East that evokes God’s fury. Well, no matter the source, each answer will be given with absolute conviction as to how American society and culture should be. For Phelps, the reason God hates America is because this country tolerates Gay Rights. Forget its corporate executives stealing millions from their employees. Never mind its serial killers, rapists, and pedophiles that no doubt deserve such righteous anger. Rather, it is the possibility of a gay man securing a job without the risk of being fired due to his sexual orientation, or two women enjoying the same tax benefits as a married heterosexual couple, that has prompted God to rain down his wrath on the US. And He’s not just angry with America, as the websites run by Phelps indicate: God has lots of wrath which He is spreading throughout the world, although the US seems to catch the brunt of it. It’s unclear why God doesn’t hate France, Norway, Spain, Belgium and Germany, all of which have more tolerant attitudes towards gay relationships than the US. Perhaps that fury and the subsequent websites are forthcoming. Time allowing. Phelps is a busy man, after all.


A quick perusal of Phelp’s sites indicates this holy wrath has taken many forms in recent history. Among the tragedies in the US that Phelps attributes to God are the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, an Amtrak wreck that killed 47 in 1993, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and the bonfire collapse that killed 12 students at Texas A & M in 1999. The 2,000 plus American troops who have died in Iraq were killed by God, too — not Iraqi insurgents, Phelps argues — and his church prays that the number reaches 240,000, as that is the only way that the US will wake up to its sinful ways and denounce the evil homosexuals who frolic within its borders.


Clearly, logic and reason are foreign concepts to Phelps, and his interpretation of the Bible is selective and warped (for example, he ‘quotes’ Hosea 8:7 as “When you fill the army with fags and dykes and spit in the face of God, you have sown the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind”). Phelps is so rabidly homophobic that it has distorted his perceptions of every aspect of human society. So why in the world would I use the occasion of Gay Pride, held each June throughout many places in the world, to come to his defense?


As revolting as his rhetoric may be, it is his right to preach it, and he stands by every vicious, ridiculous thing that spews from his too-big, too foul mouth. Quite simply, no matter what one feels about Phelps, there is no doubt that he is a man of his convictions. Regardless of how his distorted misreading of the Bible came to be, Phelps believes in his mind and soul that granting homosexuals any sort of official recognition is wrong and against the teachings of the one true God. And I have to begrudgingly respect that; there are numerous religious points of view with which I disagree, but I don’t feel it’s my place to pass judgment on someone else’s reading of their religious text so long as such interpretations do not cause harm to others. Admittedly, Phelps’ presence at funerals does harm to those grieving. As for his ugly signs displayed at Gay Pride events, well, we can turn our backs on him and his lot.


Phelps’ position ultimately has made his life an angry one, and reduced him to a tiny man raging in the middle of a cultural storm. That’s his right as an American, as the First Amendment allows. He is ‘free’ to scream and rant and proselytize until he meets his maker, which, considering he’s 76, could come any day. Likewise, it is my right to fight his every idea and call to action, to travel around the country behind (or better, ahead of) him teaching a message of tolerance and understanding if I so chose, just as it is the right of civil and gay rights organizations such as PFLAG, ACLU, LAMBDA, and the Human Rights Campaign to proselytize their message of compassion and equality. But I would never try to shut Phelps up, no matter how offensive he may be.


So it would follow that I tolerate the anti-gay rhetoric of President Bush and Senators Bill Frist, Wayne Allard, and Rick Santorum, as well. Not quite. This month alone, Bush has made two major speeches opposing gay marriage, and Frist, Allard, and Santorum have been doing the media circuit to spread their disagreement with such basic civil rights. Sure, these governmental homophobes are entitled to their opinions and religious beliefs; however, they are not entitled to force them into official US policy when they lead to discrimination and cultural division. Although gay men are one of the most targeted groups for hate crimes in the US, these political leaders would deny this segment of their voting population the protection of hate crime laws afforded other minorities; they would deny gay men and women the legal and fiscal benefits available to straight couples through marriage; and they would deny them the security in their jobs and homes that comes from fair hiring and housing legislation. What such men fail to realize is that their position cuts both ways. Without fairness legislation, homosexuals can fire subordinate heterosexuals simply for being straight, if they’re so inclined. Likewise, a narrow definition of marriage denies benefits to straight couples in long-term but unwedded relationships. For instance, in Ohio, courts have ruled that domestic battery charges should be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor if a couple is unmarried, all thanks to that state’s gay marriage ban.


What distinguishes Phelps from Bush and the Senators is that Phelps hasn’t been elected to represent the people of his nation, which includes a large gay and lesbian population, nor has he taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Bush, Frist, Allard, and Santorum, along with the other seven Senate and five House sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), are obligated to uphold that sacred document, but instead have chosen to use it as kindling to light the flames of hatred in another desperate grab to hold on to power. Quite simply, the FMA would prohibit the recognition of gay marriages in this country—even those performed in countries where gay marriage is legal. This sentiment was a success in the political races of 2004, as it appealed to a Right-wing, conservative base, so why not drag that prize-winning horse out to the track again?


It is obvious to even conservative supporters of the Amendment that FMA is nothing more than an election year ploy which never had chance of passing. (The measure failed 49 - 48 in the US Senate, and is expected to fail in the House as well.) According to Fox News, conservative strategists recognize the Amendment as an attempt to bolster the Republican’s core base of religious voters, who apparently are rabidly anti-gay marriage, but as South Carolina Republican strategist Eliot Peace notes, “(The Republican party’s) going to need much more than throwing a bone” in order to shore up its right-wing base, which has felt neglected as Bush’s attention has focused increasingly on the war in Iraq (qtd. in Vlahos, “Marriage Amendment Could Sooth Angry Right”, 1 June 2006, FoxNews.com ).


And what a nasty bone it is, although those starving for a return to antiquated values may find it tasty. Bush and Santorum have led the charge to adopt the constitutional amendment which would define marriage as solely between a man and a woman (What if the woman used to be a man? Does that still count? Well, that’s a conundrum yet to be addressed). These two men, in particular, have issued a series of conflicting, illogical statements on the issue, trying to please the religious right without alienating moderate voters. Take, for instance, Bush’s statement in a 2004 speech in Pennsylvania, “I will always stand firm to protect the sanctity of marriage. I believe it is important to work with people to find common ground on difficult issues.” How does one stand firm and work toward common ground at the same time? Bush muddies his position further in supporting civil unions, by arguing that he views marriage as “different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights.” (Interview with Charles Gibson, Good Morning, America, 25 October, 2004).


If you strip away the love element, marriage is nothing more than a legal arrangement. Your marriage isn’t valid until a marriage license is filed with the state, and it isn’t dissolved until a judge says so. Being married allows citizens legal rights not afforded to others, and we recognize as valid those marriages that are performed by justices of the peace. It’s true most couples involve their religious traditions in their weddings, but that is not a requirement to be legally married, as many heterosexuals who have married in such a fashion can attest.


Santorum’s rhetoric isn’t much clearer, telling the Associated Press in a 2003 interview, “I have no problem with homosexuality; I have a problem with homosexual acts” (qtd in Loughlin, “Santorum Under Fire for Comments on Homosexuality”, 22 April 2003, CNN.com). In other words, just stay in your closets, everyone, and everything will be fine (providing no one enters your home and opens your closet door). Santorum’s illogic continues: “Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that’s what? Children. Monogamous relationships.”


And that’s why Santorum is doing everything possible to insure that gay couples can’t adopt any of the millions of children in need of a loving home, or conceive their own children with the assistance of a third party (i.e., surrogates or medical fertilization), nor have legally recognized, and legally protected, monogamous relationships. (If he truly believed that these factors were the foundation of society, his Constitutional amendments would outlaw child abuse and adultery.) The fact is that gay and lesbian couples have been living in monogamous relationships, often raising children together, throughout human history, throughout the world, and the latest census shows a remarkable increase in the number of same-sex households in the US that identify themselves as “family” or “partners”. Numerous studies validate that gay partners can raise well-adjusted and healthy (and straight) children, and heterosexual marriages haven’t been negatively affected by a greater presence of gay couples, as there has been no significant shift in the divorce rate since homosexuals have started sharing the mortgage payments. Indeed, unlike other social strife in the US, I have yet to hear of a straight couple who moved out — or broke up — because a gay couple moved into the neighborhood.


Misleading arguments aside, the most insulting aspect of the push to amend the Constitution is that Frist would schedule debate and a vote on it during Gay Pride Month, thereby diverting the gay community’s attention away from celebrating what is good and fun about us to focusing on methods to defeat political bigotry. It’s tantamount to introducing a Constitutional amendment allowing racial segregation, again, during Black History Month. (Notably, according to the National Black Justice Coalition, the 14 sponsors of the Federal Marriage Amendment also have the worst voting records on civil rights.)


Ultimately, there is one thing the gay community can learn from Phelps and his ilk: be unwavering in your conviction, stand proud behind your life and words, and don’t negotiate your convictions away to be politically expedient. It’s a strange but no less valid example; but no matter what the federal, state, or local governments throws his way, ole Fred stands up to it. (For instance, he declares on his website that he will keep showing up to protest at soldiers’ funerals despite new laws prohibiting such actions) His resolve is a model of the strength and perseverance that the gay community will need to overcome the ongoing adversity. But of course, such resolve should be combined with far better manners than Phelps’. There is no better time to learn that lesson than during a time of Gay Pride.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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