When Vernita Gray died in her home in Chicago on March 18, family members knew no traditional memorial service could accommodate all those who’d want to share their love, express their thanks and honor the legendary gay rights activist.
And so, on March 31, Gray, who was an equality advocate before most of America had heard about Stonewall or gay liberation, was remembered in a “celebration of extraordinary life” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
When the Rev. Fred Phelps, Sr., died in hospice in Shawnee County, Kan., on March 19, it seemed there was no space large enough to accommodate the number of people who wanted to protest his funeral and then dance on his grave.
Phelps was as despised as Gray was revered.
If justice is served, in time, Gray, who was 65 when she died of cancer, will be remembered as a vital author of the story of equality and Phelps but a footnote.
Phelps was 84 when he died of an undisclosed illness. He’d been sick for months, but remained estranged from family and, according to a son, cut off from the Westboro Baptist Church, the right-wing church he founded in Topeka, Kan.
Phelps was widely known for his vulgar “God hates fags” campaign, which sent him and a small band of worshippers around the country to protest at military funerals, government buildings, corporate headquarters and celebrity events. With their street-style crusade, they claimed terrorist attacks, war, natural disasters and diseases were God’s punishment for America’s increasing tolerance for homosexuality and abortion.
Phelps was born in Mississippi in 1929. He was a drop-out from Bob Jones University in 1947, but he eventually earned a law degree from Washburn University and was a civil rights lawyer until he was disbarred in 1979 for perjury.
He was making headlines as a street preacher as early as 1951 and was arrested multiple times over the years for “assault, battery, threats, trespassing, disorderly conduct and contempt of court,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classifies Westboro as a hate organization.
In the 1980s, Phelps launched his anti-gay crusade, focusing on AIDS-related deaths. He came to widespread national attention when he and his followers — mostly family members — picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming college student who died after a savage beating by two young men in 1998.
After Phelps announced his intention to picket Shepard’s funeral, LGBT activists organized to protect the Shepard family and mourners — they dressed as angels and served as a shield from the protesters in Laramie, Wyo.
Shepard’s mother, Judy, released a statement on March 20: “Regarding the passing of Fred Phelps, (husband) Dennis and I know how solemn these moments are for anyone who loses a loved one. Out of respect for all people and our desire to erase hate, we’ve decided not to comment further.”
There were others in the LGBT community who, trying to give substance to his obituary, said Phelps and his circus ironically helped drive equality.
“He has brought along allies who are horrified by the hate,” said longtime activist Cathy Renna, who helped organize the response to Westboro in Laramie. “So his legacy will be exactly the opposite of what he dreamed.”
James Esseks, director of the LGBT Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “He would show up with his extreme anti-gay views and a bunch of people in the middle would think, ‘If that’s what it means to be anti-gay, I want no part of it.’”
Others offered far less tempered remarks after Phelps’ death.
In the end, there was no funeral for the preacher but instead, an ambiguous tweet from the church Phelps founded and made infamous: “Westboro Baptist Church thanks God for Fred Phelps Sr.’s passing.”
Gray’s life intersected with Phelps’ in Chicago, where she celebrated with pride in 1998 and he picketed, shouting obscenities through a bullhorn in Boystown.
By then, Gray was an inductee into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame and had spent decades working for equality.
Gray, according to her Hall of Fame biography, attended Woodstock and returned to Chicago ready to organize. She hosted support groups for lesbians in her home, where she also installed a hotline — the number was FBI-LIST — for gay youth.
“Interest in the support groups and hotline was so intense that Gray eventually had to vacate her apartment to obtain a modicum of privacy and peace of mind,” the biography read.
In the early 1970s, she was active in organizing the first Lesbian Caucus of the Gay Liberation group and helped launch the first Chicago lesbian newspaper.
For a time, she ran the Sol Sands restaurant and a company that created audio-visual materials for children, but much of her professional work was with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, where she worked 18 years assisting victims and witnesses.
Gray advocated for marriage equality long before many other activists saw it as a possibility. Last October, she wed longtime partner Patricia Ewert, and they became the first same-sex couple to marry in Illinois.
In a remembrance, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called Gray a “passionate and driven advocate for equality in Illinois.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said she was “an inspiration to all who crossed her path, from President Obama, who knew her by name, to the victims of violence she comforted and the young people for whom she was a fierce advocate. Her legacy can be felt in the many institutions she supported and by every LGBT couple in Illinois who is now free to marry the person they love.”