Fred Phelps, 1929–2014

One of America’s most notorious homophobes is dead. A look back at a conversation with the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church

S0, Fred Phelps has reportedly died. The event will prove a strange moment for the queer community. How to acknowledge the death of someone who was so notorious for the way in which he celebrated the deaths of members of our own community?

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 poison that was ruining America.

Thus he launched his website,, and began picketing the funerals of queer people. Yep — it’s every bit as off-putting as it sounds. He went to the funerals of Sonny Bono (because he had queer offspring), former Bewitched star Dick Sargent and even — wait for it — Matthew Shepard. That’s right: the people who were mourning the loss of their son, killed apparently because he was gay, had to endure a parade of protesting lunatics at his funeral, including a placard that read “Matthew Shepard burns in Hell.”

I’m flashing back to my conversation with Phelps. In 1999, the pastor vowed to come to Canada to protest a recent Supreme Court decision that expanded gay rights. Phelps had indicated a stopover for Montreal’s Pride event. We were all pretty put off; at that point, Montreal’s event had remained blissfully Christian-nutjob-free. I was then on staff at the weekly Montreal Mirror, and someone in the office turned to me and said, “You should really interview that guy.”

I didn’t know what good an interview with Phelps would do. I mean, he was so clearly out of his mind.

But then I decided I would interview him as an insider — another Christian activist seeking advice from the master. A phone call with one of his sons, in which I expressed my disgust for the “moral cesspit Canada had become,” led to a direct line to the man himself. Our conversation went like this:

Matthew Hays: My name is Matthew Hays. I’m with a new organization called Christians Concerned for Canadian Families. I understand you’re coming up to this country to protest what’s been done in the name of homosexual rights.

Fred Phelps: They’re going to have a parade in Montreal, you know. On Aug 1.


You mean one of those parades where all those freaks come out and dance?

Yeah. That’s what we’re going to picket. Then on the second, we’re going down to that Supreme Court building and picket there.

And you’re going to burn a Canadian flag?

Yes, but we’re going to do that at the consulate in Chicago as well.

Our group is very concerned about cultural influences on youth. All these freaks in the media! Cher is coming this Wednesday, and we’re going to protest her concert appearance. She’s got a lesbian daughter and says being homosexual is fine.

We have picketed that lesbian daughter on three different occasions and debated with her, and she’s not very smart. Chastity’s her name.

What did you think of her father, Sonny Bono? He was a Republican, but he advocated her lifestyle.

He sure did, and he advocated gay rights in Congress. We picketed his funeral in Palm Springs, too. He was a kind of amoral person in many ways. He didn’t have any core Christian values.

Do you think he’s burning in hell?


What about Cher? What do you think of her?

We’re protesting her.

How will you do that?

There’s about 10 of us and we’re going to have placards.

What will the sign say?

That Cher is pro-gay, and that’s not God’s way. That’s against the Bible!

She’s generally whorish too. Have you seen pictures of her? Just get a picture of her and put it on the sign, and then put a big word at the top, “whore,” and then at the bottom say, “Cher,” and then “pro-gay” at the top.

Why do you think so many people turn out to these gay pride parades?

Because they’re perverts, and it’s the essential nature of the pervert to push it. It’s part of the sodomite character. Jeremiah IV says they were not ashamed when they committed such abominations, neither could they blush. They’re the only humans without the capacity to blush over their shameful, filthy conduct. That’s part of their depravity, to insist on putting it on parade.

Do you think that’s why so many of them seem to like this disco music?

Well that’s a different issue. I’m talking about their insistence on being exhibitionists.

Yeah, but they’re always playing that stuff.

They do. It’s Satanic music.

You go to a lot of those parades.

We go to a lot of fag parades. Every big city has them.

What do you think of Bill Clinton? He seems to like homosexuals a lot.

He’s a pervert and he’s exceedingly evil. There are no redeeming features. He claims to be a Baptist. We picket those priests who counsel Clinton. This country deserves him. This country is evil. But Canada outpaced us with that Supreme Court decision.

Is there any hope for your country?

No, I don’t think there is any hope. We are in the days of Josiah, the King of Israel, who knew his last days had come.

Do you ever manage to convert anyone at these parades you go to?

At the parade you’ve got to be worried about staying alive. It takes a couple of hundred armed police officers in riot gear to get us out of there every year. We’ve heard from some homosexuals who sound sincere and say they’ve converted, and I’ve got hope for them, but not much.

You think they’ll go straight to hell?


What can we concerned people do? I’m worried about my family!

You’ve got to read the Bible and call on the Lord. I’ve got 13 children and 49 grandchildren. I read the Bible and call on the Lord.

What is it about our country that’s taken us so far down this path? We’ve got national gay rights legislation now!

The sure sign of irrevocable apostasy was when the highest judicial body said it was all right for fags to marry. What do you say then?

A lot of people who live here speak French. This is the first place that had gay rights legislation in North America, and some say that has to do with the French influence. What is it with these French people — they seem to let homosexuals get away with all sorts of things! Do you think the French are more sinful than the English?

Montreal is the first place in Canada to have gay rights?

Quebec is, which is the province where Montreal is.

Do you have a mayor?


Is he a fag?

I don’t know.

I don’t know if the French are worse than Englishmen or not. But maybe.

Thanks for talking to me. Jesus loves me and you both!

A strange conversation, for sure.

I would think of Phelps from time to time, as he made intermittent media appearances for his various protests, which expanded to include any military servicemen who were killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. This led his becoming even less popular (now he wasn’t just picking on queers) and even led to a US Supreme Court challenge. (He was allowed to continue his protests on First Amendment grounds.)

Last October, I learned that two of his granddaughters, who had left the WBC, were staying in Montreal. I managed to interview them for a story that appeared in The Globe and Mail. They left the WBC because of all the hatred that the church was famous for spreading. But they also described “gramps” as a loving person. These two brave women were doing their best to rebuild their lives after being brought up with hatred for anyone who wasn’t following the strict teachings of their grandfather. It was an odd follow-up to my original interview.

There has been some indication that people would like to protest at Phelps’s funeral, as payback for all the funerals he disrupted in his lifetime. I would argue we should let his family mourn in peace and show them respect by example.

What I hoped my piece would reflect back in 1999 is what a sad, absurd joke this man was. My strong suspicion is that his family will come to realize this in time.

Read past Daily Xtra coverage about Fred Phelps from this list of articles.

Keep Reading

Job discrimination against trans and non-binary people is alive and well

OPINION: A study reveals that we have a long way to go to reach workplace equality for trans and non-binary people

The new generation of gay Conservative sellouts

OPINION: Melissa Lantsman’s and Eric Duncan’s refusals to call out their party’s transphobia is a betrayal of the LGBTQ2S+ community

Over 300 anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills have been introduced this year. This doesn’t mean we should panic

OPINION: While it’s important to watch out for threats, not all threats are created equally. Some of these bills will die a natural death

Xtra’s top LGBTQ2S+ stories of the year

The best and brightest—even most bewildering—stories from a back catalogue brimming with insight