I remember the first time I heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. I was in middle school, and just starting to form my own beliefs about social justice. I was shocked and appalled when I saw the giant neon signs that said “I HATE FAGS” and “FAG =DEATH” I was a pretty emotional kid, and they made me want to cry. I also was starting to come to terms with my own sexuality. While part of me wanted to brush off those words as extremism, a part of me wondered if I was someone who deserved to be hated. Was there something wrong with me? And even scarier, was I going to hell?
I was raised Catholic, and while my home church was hardly fire and brimstone, I knew of hell. I knew it was the worst thing I could imagine, that people burn forever there and that it was for the truly wicked. So the nagging question remained, Was I wicked?
The thing was, I didn’t feel wicked. I felt like I was a good person, I cared fiercely about my friends, I wanted to be a doctor, I volunteered and always turned in my homework on time. But I liked girls. I wanted to be with girls. I would sit in class and fantasize about the way a girls lips might feel when they touched mine until it felt like my heart was beating a thousand times per minute and couldn’t hardly breath. What’s wrong with me? To make things more complicated, I liked boys too. What am I? Some weird sex pervert?
I was lucky to have friends that loved and accepted me for who I was, even when I wasn’t ready to accept myself. However, my parents were another story. I still don’t quite understand what happened, but when I told my mom that I thought I was bisexual and that I was dating a girl, it was like a switch went off in her head. I perceived that she was furious, and I know that she didn’t believe me. I saw in her eyes that to her, I was no longer the same child she had raised. It felt like she didn’t love me anymore. If my own mother doesn’t want me, does that mean God doesn’t want me either?
So I started lying. I didn’t want my mom to think that I was this horrible perverted sinner. I wasn’t willing to stop seeing my girlfriend, so I would lie about where I was going. I lied about who I was with, I lied about when I would be home, I lied about everything. I lied constantly so much until it felt like there was nothing in my brain except lies. I could barely keep them straight so I made up some more just to cover my lie-tracks. I hated it. And I knew that lying really was a sin. Am I going to hell?
The deceitfulness weighed heavily on my soul. I was ashamed of myself and was very depressed. I cut myself and thought of suicide. Yet another unforgivable sin, way to go genius.
Luckily for me, with the help of a supportive team of mental health professionals, I was able to emerge from the fog of depression. I forgave myself for lying. I realized that I could have feelings for other women and not be this evil sinful person. Instead of seeing the signs everywhere that God hates fags, I started seeing different signs.
I realize now that I can be a good person and be queer. I can still be a good friend, become a doctor, be a good student, volunteer and be open and honest about my sexuality. I was so worried about feeling judged and hated that I stopped being me. And my authentic self is a person who believes in forgiveness and love.
So now, as Fred Phelps lays on his deathbed, I would like to offer him my forgiveness. I forgive you for your signs and your hateful words. I forgive you for picketing funerals and parades. I forgive you for the pain you have caused in my life, and the lives of others. I will not rejoice in your death or belittle the feelings of your family who will surely miss you.