IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Friend's Funeral Was Picketed By Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church

The world was a hostile, scary place because not only could you be murdered by those whom you trusted most, there would be those who would celebrate such a thing.
Publish date:
March 21, 2014
gay, westboro baptist church, protests, fred phelps, M

We were messed up kids, all of us. To different degrees, sure, but we were all in that special classroom because we had issues. For me, it was depression and ADHD and a number of other things that basically boiled down to "can't cope, need assistance."

It was a day treatment program -- which meant a lot of group therapy and one-on-one therapy with a bit of schooling provided by a single teacher, who we called Ms. Joy (her first name, to establish a friendly and comfortable atmosphere). They and the therapy staff did the best they could for all of us emotionally fragile, unstable teens.

I met Scotty there, and though he was obviously a sweet and kind person, I had no idea how he would end up shaping me, and in some ways, my life.

Scotty was fabulous and absolutely not afraid to be out of the closet, something that was alien to me at the time. Rural Alabama is not what I would have called then and would not call now, "gay friendly." But here he was, not caring about that, being him, even if that meant being sad or hurt sometimes, too.

His first day in, I sensed a friend in him. Adorable and outgoing, he also managed to be a bit shy, later confessing that he thought I was cute. I remember admiring the gorgeous, shiny curls of his hair, his wide smile and soft face. I was one of the first people he revealed his drag persona to, and even as a burgeoning queer, that was completely new to my inexperienced small town self.

You know that phrase about someone giving you the shirt off their back? That was no cliche with Scotty. He most certainly would. With a smile and a hug. I cannot stress his generosity and kindness enough, and though it may be built upon a pedestal of years of grief and sadness and missing him, I know that the core of it is true.

Maybe he was too kind, though. That's sort of what got him killed. Murdered, that is.

He was living with his childhood friend, a woman he had known since kindergarten. I did not know her very well, but I had a vague sense of approval just because Scotty approved. If someone as kind and good as Scotty could like her, then surely that itchy-weird feeling in my heart and head was just me being over-protective.

Her boyfriend lived with them, and for a brief time, a friend of the boyfriend's. I don't know exactly what happened, I don't know who suggested what or went along with who. All I do know is that one night after getting off his shift at Waffle House and returning to the trailer he shared with those people -- without charging them rent, because he wanted to help -- my friend lost his life.

A mutual friend called me, sobbing, saying that Scotty had been missing for three days, that a body had been found nearby, mutilated and decomposed to the point where identification was impossible and dental records had to be used. He had just turned 18.

I remember being disgusted by our mutual friend's surety that the body was his. Yet I knew, too. I felt it. Scotty wouldn't up and disappear on everyone. The confirmation came not long after. The long and short of it was that my friend was murdered by people he thought were his friends.

To this day I have this ball of anger within me, knowing what he went through, what he had survived, only to have it stolen. He had carried on and had healed from the scars of his adolescence, he had found it somewhere within himself to quiet the roaring sadness and embrace life as best he could. And that, all of that, meant nothing in the face of putrid, unfathomable hate.

Our mutual friend, sometime before the funeral, sent me a link to a scan. It was a black-and-white fold-out pamphlet rendered with as much skill as 1999 Geocities personal site. There was a photo of Scotty, of Matthew Shepard, of other gay men who had fallen at the hands and fists and loathing of awful people. The words "Burning In Hell Right Now" glared at me from my computer screen.

I had heard of Westboro Baptist Church, of Phelps and his gang before, but they had been an abstract. The hate-filled joke of "" was nothing that would ever touch me. Yet here I was, seeing that hate made painfully personal. The clip art flames arranged around the words would forever become a part of my memory of that time.

I could not and cannot process the sort of hatred it takes to devote oneself to spreading such ill feelings, to twist the knife of tragedy and grief. I honestly don't recall what else the pamphlet said, it was a blur of vile hatred that didn't sink in past that bold headline. I should probably be thankful for that.

Westboro Baptist Church proposed to picket the church at which Scotty's funeral would be held. A soup of fear and revulsion boiled in my belly. I was scared of those people, scared that others would take up their cause, scared of what I might do if confronted with such awfulness in person. Hopelessness settled in -- the world was a hostile, scary place because not only could you be murdered by those whom you trusted most, there would be those who would celebrate such a thing, feel elation and joy in violent death.

When the day came, I didn't see the protestors, although others told me they were there. I had tunnel vision for getting into that church, which held not spiritual relief, but social, in the form of Scotty's many friends. The pastor of the church angered me, and I maintain the belief that she would rather have joined the Westboro Baptist Church outside. She made sure to tell everyone how "they" didn't "agree" with Scotty's "lifestyle," and got his name incorrect on at least two occasions. Her discomfort with the whole ordeal was distressingly palpable. Yet another avenue of grieving was denied.

I have since been told that I should not allow it to bother me -- after all, neither the pastor or the WBC could hurt Scotty anymore. But it is far more complicated than that. Because even though I don't believe there is any hell for my friend Scotty to be burning in, even though I know that no one can take away the good memories that I have of my friend, they came at me and his other loved ones while the wounds were exceedingly fresh and raw and denied Scotty the dignity of his own death.