Hating Fred

By Lemer, Harriet | Family Therapy Networker, March/April 1994 | Go to article overview

Hating Fred


Lemer, Harriet, Family Therapy Networker


It's Topeka's favorite pastime

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, THE REVEREND FRED PHELPS WAS the subject of ABC's 20/20, in a segment aptly dubbed, "A Gospel of Hate." For those who missed the show, Phelps is a Primitive Baptist minister and disbarred attorney who has made it his spiritual mission and full-time job to eradicate homosexuality from the planet. He has started in his hometown and mine, Topeka, Kansas.

Fred and his small following, most of them members of his family, hit our streets almost every day, rain or shine, carrying huge signs reading, "God Hates Gays," "Death to Gays," and "Gays=AIDS." He pickets parades, performance halls, parks, homes and even funerals if he suspects an AIDS-related death. And he sends thousands of faxes to lawyers, city officials and legislators attacking homosexuals and anyone else who publicly opposes him.

Not long ago, my friend Tom Averill, who teaches English at Washburn University in Topeka, performed a satirical piece about Fred on public radio. Two days later, Fred sent faxes to university departments and scores of people that said, "Washburn University has become Fag University and is a rat's nest of filthy fags like Mr. Averill." Tom is married to journalist Jeffrey Ann Goudie, and when she made oblique reference to Fred in her column in the morning newspaper, Fred sent her a fax that said, "Dear Jeff, are you a bull dike [sic] or what?" The bottom left-hand corner of the fax read, "Fag Goudie, Moralphobic Bible-Basher."

Fred has near-zero support for his particular brand of homophobia. He hates "fags" and "fag-lovers," and Topekans hate Fred. The citizens of Topeka organize counterdemonstrations and offer support to the victims of Fred's harassment; we meet with attorneys; we help pass ordinances restricting his picketing at funerals and private homes. No one asks why Topekans hate Fred. It's obvious.

But I've always felt uneasy with the simplicity of our hatred. In a society that considers heterosexuality the only form of living and loving that can be celebrated, validated or even mentioned, why does everyone hate Fred? Not long ago, a young woman in my doctor's waiting room told me how much she despises Fred. Her daughter had danced with a local ballet company, and Fred and his followers had picketed their performance.

"I could hardly keep from swerving my car into the whole group of them," the young mother told me. "Why should my daughter have to know about those people?"

Those people. I thought at first she was talking about Fred and his relatives, but it turned out she meant homosexuals. Her daughter had seen Fred's signs and asked a lot of questions about "sodomites and fags." "My daughter is only nine," said the irate mother. "She shouldn't be exposed to homosexuality and things like that."

Is this why some Topekans hate Fred? Long before he hit the streets and the fax machine, homophobia was as deeply entrenched in Topeka as it is almost everywhere. …

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