03/21/2014 09:15 am ET Updated May 21, 2014

Now Let Us Praise Fred Phelps: How He Helped Topeka, Kansas


Fred Phelps is dead, and few will mourn his absence. As you undoubtedly know, Fred made it his spiritual mission and full-time job to eradicate homosexuality from the planet, starting in the town I lived in for most of my adult life -- Topeka Kansas.

From the start, Fred had near-zero support for his particular brand of homophobia. He hated "fags" and "fag-lovers" and Kansans hated Fred. The citizens of Topeka organized counter-demonstrations, offered support to the victims of Fred's harassment, and worked with attorneys to help restrict his picketing of funerals and private homes.

No one asks why we hated Fred. It's obvious.

But I've always felt uneasy with the simplicity of our hatred. When Fred first hit the streets, heterosexuality was the only form of living and loving that could be celebrated, validated or even mentioned. So why does everyone hate Fred?

Once, a young mother in my doctor's waiting room told me how much she despised Fred. Her daughter had danced with a local ballet company and Fred and his followers had picketed their performance.

"I could hardly keep from swerving my car into the whole group of them," this woman mother told me. "Why should my daughter have to know about those people?"

Those people. I thought at first she was talking about Fred and his relatives, but it turned out she meant gays. Her daughter had seen Fred's signs and asked a lot of questions about "sodomites and fags."

"My daughter is only nine," said the irate mother. "She shouldn't be exposed to homosexuality and things like that."

Is this why some Topekans hated Fred? Before Fred came along homophobia was deeply entrenched in Kansas as it is almost everywhere. There wasn't much talk about hating gay people then, because no one acknowledged their existence, except in tasteless jokes. Gays and lesbians didn't feel free to come out of hiding in Topeka and many still don't, but that's not Fred's doing.

"We're not just asked to keep a secret," a gay friend told me. We're asked to be a secret."

Watching Fred at work, often got me thinking about my being Jewish. What would be the lesser of two evils in this historical moment, I'd ponder -- enforced invisibility or being hated outright? Outright hate frightens me. I'd sleep less well if Fred's signs said, "God Hates Jews" and "Death to Jews." But that at least would acknowledge that we Jews do, indeed, exist.

What about enforced invisibility -- a life in the closet. At first, it seems like the better choice. But I know how deeply, over time, it would erode my dignity and self-regard. I imagined myself living in a community preaching "tolerance" -- but not visibility and celebration -- of my Jewishness. ("It's unfortunate, but after all Harriet was born that way."). I imagined the young mother in the waiting room, angry that her daughter was forced to know about "my kind." I pictured my neighbors reacting to my sons' Bar Mitzvahs ("Well, I think it's fine that the Lerners are Jewish, but must they flaunt it.") I imagined having to lie, to conceal, and to pretend each day to be what I am not.

To be erased by the dominant culture is a terrible thing. Once, flying home to Kansas from the west coast, I spotted a famous runner on the plane and asked him for an autograph for my younger son. He wrote, "To Ben, Run for Jesus." I was stunned by his assumptions--and equally stunned that I didn't gather the courage to tell him we were Jewish and to ask him for a different autograph.

It's this assumption -- that the world is like us or should be -- -that is the seeding ground from which more virulent and elaborate forms of bigotry grow.

A lesbian friend of mine reminds me that she feels erased almost daily from the categories of humans and women. She attends a program on "Mothers and Daughters" or a panel called "Adjusting to Mastectomy." The programs don't include lesbians and the experts talk as if homosexuals don't exist. "Heterosexuals," are like the runner on the airplane" she tells me. "They assume everyone is just like them."

Bigotry has many faces. Fred was dangerous, but he represented only one form of danger. It is also dangerous to pretend that the Freds of the world are the containers of all prejudice while the rest of us are on the side of virtue. This false assumption promotes passivity. Hating Fred was our political activism rather than our working to ensure the safety and legal protection of gays and lesbians, and to insist that they are honored and included in all aspects of language, community and culture.

At the time of Fred's death, it's only kind to find something positive to say about him. Perhaps the citizens of Topeka should thank Fred for reminding us daily that homosexuals exist -- and that people do hate them.

Harriet Lerner, PhD is the author of the New York Times best seller, The Dance of Anger, and, most recently, Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up.