I am a student of Stephen Sondheim. (My long-suffering boyfriend might say I am an “acolyte” of Sondheim or, even more probably, a “sick, obsessed Sondheim queen.”) Nevertheless, Sondheim once beautifully articulated a fundamental truth about the world: someone is on your side, someone else is not.
With that in mind, I would like to discuss Fred Phelps.
For the record, I think “Reverend” Phelps is loathsome. The same goes for all 71 members of his family, who comprise the vast majority of Phelps’s “Westboro Baptist Church.”
I do not, however, think that the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to decide that the First Amendment protects Rev. Phelps and his litter—er . . . congregation—from holding their odious little hootenannies outside the funerals of fallen servicemen.
(For the uninformed, Phelps’s cult held up signs reading “thank god for dead soldiers” and “god hates fags” within a thousand feet of the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who had been killed in Iraq. A jury righteously awarded Lance Corporal Snyder’s father roughly a gazillion dollars in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the jury award on the grounds that Phelps’s protest was protected by the First Amendment.)
My gay friends find my impassionate reaction to the Phelps decision to be frustrating. Similarly, my opinion on hate crimes laws, which I believe are likewise on the unconstitutional side of the First Amendment, earns me a lonely corner at most parties.
I do not condone hate crimes any more than I condone the way Phelps manifests his (revealing, perhaps) obsession with the “sin” of homosexuality. In fact, I don’t even hold the First Amendment (or the “First Amendment” as it has been enunciated over 200 years of case law) in particularly high regard. It has been interpreted well beyond its text, and it now encompasses much that is, in my opinion, neither necessary or productive.
Then again, I don’t protest military funerals—or, for that matter, make art by photographing a crucifix in a jar full of urine (a la Andres Serrano). I’m a simple girl.
But Sondheim is right: someone out there agrees with Phelps—indeed, I hear only slightly softer versions of Phelps’s rhetoric on several radio talk shows. And to the extent the First Amendment protects the crazies on one side, it must protect the crazies on the other.
Yet, it is exactly in the law’s blind reciprocity that we can find so much hope.
Three days after I found out I had been admitted to law school, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down its decision in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, legalizing gay marriage under the state constitution. With the premature hubris of someone who saw his acceptance letter as no-less than a finished degree, I brushed past the newspaper stories and went straight to the court’s opinion for my first real foray into The Law.
Halfway through the opinion, after suffering nearly 20 pages of legal standards and (what were then) opaque analyses of case law, I came upon a short paragraph, devoid of legalese, that transcended the previous formality of the document. These few words remain today among the most poignant I have ever read. “Civil marriage,” wrote the court,
is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. . . . Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.
Self-definition. Public self-expression about who you are and whom you love.
Phelps sadly has dedicated his life to defining himself as someone who doesn’t love anyone. That’s his prerogative.
It is our prerogative, on the other hand, to dedicate our lives to sending another message. And with the principles of free speech—reaffirmed in the Phelps case—we can.