Fred Phelps died today. Yes, that Fred Phelps—the Westboro Baptist "church" pastor who has, along with his large family, spent the past three decades redefining the meaning of the word intolerance through daily protests of anyone who refuses to viciously condemn LGBT people the way that they do.
Making up for in perseverance what he lacked in common decency, Fred managed to familiarize American citizens with lengths to which anti-LGBT hostility can and does extend. He is one American character on whom most everyone, from all political stripes, felt free place the hate label without question or hesitance. The funeral (and other) pickets that Fred dreamt (or nightmared) into reality are now a stock idea in the American canon, one that writers will surely reference for years to come as a shorthand way to call to mind the lengths of a persecutory spirit let unchecked; his "God Hates..." signs will surely be featured in any civil rights documentary to look back on the 20th and early 21st century, serving as a cold reminder of religious fervor and its dangers.
Fred was at first the face of the "church" before morphing into a more background role. He will, however, remain its icon—now and forever. His life and his pickets are entwined tales. If the most fitting reality plays out, the "church" will rest alongside its chief executive.
But whether or not WBC shutters at this point will not determine the legacy. Instead, the true legacy of Fred Phelps is playing out through voices that he could not control, no matter how hard he tried. They have names.
In addition to these six who have chosen to go public, there are five others from this generation who I have confirmed (with one of the above names) but who prefer to remain anonymous for now. That's fine that they make this choice, since much more importantly than their first names is the common surname that they all share: "Phelps."
It's his name; the name he wanted to remain attached to one certain idea. These eleven have other plans.
All eleven of these Phelps grandchildren have left the "church" in recent years. Most have become outspoken in their condemnation of their past, and many in support of peace and full equality. Some are married, some have or are starting families of their own, and some are on their own spiritual journeys of sort, trying to reconcile what has been with what will be. Not a one of them seems to have looked back, at least not on the church or its teachings.
There are some defectors in the prior generation as well, and while their outspokenness is also welcome and powerful (son Nate Phelps has been particularly effective), I really think the bigger story is with this near-dozen. These eleven grandchildren were part of the first generation that spent most of their sentient years holding picket signs and screaming angry slogans. As the "church" moved into the digital age with more emphasis on social media and videos, these were the kids who found a new sort of power, possessing skills that their forebears in Phelps-iness simply didn't have. For a while a few years back, it seemed like Megan Phelps-Roper was third or fourth in command at the church, her online presence on behalf of the WBC cause so sizable and seemingly committed. Yet despite (or because of) these decades of experience with everything the church drilled into their heads and their outsized roles within it, Megan and her generation chose to give up everything they had known—including, we should mention, all contact with any family members who remained, including their parents and siblings—because they knew that what they were doing was wrong. They knew that what he did was wrong and, unlike so many of their parents, they refused to stick around and lend their names to it.
This is the story of this day. These grandkids are the human analogues for our country's reaction to Fred Phelps. He made us all familiar with the hate that is directed toward LGBT people for simply living lives of truth. He made his case to all of us—loudly, longly, daily. America, like these grandchildren, could have bought into it. That's not what happened. Any public supporters Fred might've once had left him long ago. That's because true hate, when laid so nakedly bare, runs contrary to the public good. Even people who might agree with the same basic view cannot mar their adult lives and careers with sustained support. By the time of his death, any public support from or for the Phelps became a quick way for public people to relieve themselves of any legitimacy.
Ultimately, this will be the way of any anti-LGBT animus, be it the kind that Phelps spouted to both the public and to his namesakes, or be it the variety that still leads people in places of power to pass laws that do nothing but discriminate against certain kinds of people. Most forms of persecution go through an infancy where they enjoy far too much support. Eventually, people grow up. And move out.