Could Fred Phelps Bring Tolerance To Mississippi Community?

So, when I read the news that vile publicity-seeking Fred Phelps and his band of merry nutcases at the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church had announced plans to picket Constance McMillen’s graduation, my first thought was: Hasn’t this poor girl been harassed and humiliated enough by her own classmates, their parents, her educators, her neighbors and, it seems, just about everyone else in her town? Now she has to endure being a target for every vicious homophobe in the country?

But then I thought, wait a minute. Maybe, just maybe, Pastor Phelps for once might actually deliver some much-needed healing to this community.

I know. Just bear with me.

If you don’t recognize her name, McMillen is the 18-year-old girl at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, who wanted to take her lesbian date to the prom and wear a tuxedo. To keep her from going with another girl, the school decided to just cancel the prom so that no one would get to go. McMillen filed a request for a preliminary injunction. At the hearing, school officials told the judge that a group of parents were sponsoring a private prom at the Tupelo Furniture Market, but that everyone was invited, including McMillen. After much back and forth about details of the event, McMillen finally received an invitation from school officials saying it would be at the local country club. When she showed up, only seven students were there, including, McMillen said, a couple of learning disabled kids. Meanwhile, the real prom was held at the furniture store. Facebook photos from the event are here.

Oh, one can just imagine the sheer hilarity that ensued as the students all congratulated each other on a great job pulling off such a hoax on this one girl. I picture the mothers, who organized the alternative prom, watching from the sidelines, aglow in the smug satisfaction of Christ’s love. 

Last week, McMillen amended her legal complaint against the school to include the fake prom. To appreciate the sheer meanness of what was done to her, you really have to read the whole thing. In it, she described going home that night and crying.

Now, enter Fred Phelps. I know. Sigh. But here’s why this could be a good thing.

When I was in high school in rural central Pennsylvania, there was a fat kid who everyone made fun of. This kid had a truck, a big shiny red one, that he was intensely proud of and devoted hours to washing and polishing. I didn’t even know the guy, not really. But for some reason, one Friday night, my friends and I decided it would be hysterical to ambush him along a dark road and egg the hell out of that truck. Later, we found him at the car wash. Alone. He had no friends. Not realizing we were the guilty ones, he tearfully recounted the egging incident. As I pretended to be sympathetic, I was forced to see how an outsider would look at me at this moment. As a bully. I can’t tell you how ashamed I felt later that night. It was supposed to be funny, right? But at the car wash, I saw the consequences of my actions — a big fat kid crying alone on a Friday night. Even 27 years later, I cringe at the memory that I had actively done something so cruel to another person. 

So why am I telling this story?  Because perhaps this is a chance for those who exhibited such meanness to McMillen will catch a glimpse of themselves as an outsider might see them. I don’t hold out much hope for the adults. I imagine they chose a long time ago to be the kind of people who as adults would plot such a vicious prank on a young girl. But maybe there is hope for McMillen’s classmates. Maybe they’ll look at the pathetic tiny circus of Phelps and his clan, standing their with their ugly signs of “God hates fags.” Maybe they’ll see in their shriveled bitter faces the insanity that results from a life misspent on hatred and fear of those who are different. Maybe they’ll look at this and say, Whoa. This is not who I want to be. And they will decide to be better people.

Maybe.

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