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Bob Kunst was pissed. The veteran gay activist from Miami had come to Lynchburg, Virginia to witness the ultimate abomination: Jerry Falwell breaking bread with sodomites. To the media, it was an unqualified love fest, made all the more admirable by the presence of screaming Christians from the 'God Hates Fags' denomination. For their part, gay leaders were cautiously optimistic: 'There's no downside' to the meeting with Falwell, said a spokesman for the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But under the radar of reconciliation was Kunst, who planned to give out Tinky Winky dolls with condoms in their purses, just like in the act up/get down days. "There's no gay bar in this town," he complained.
Kunst is no stranger to Falwell's canny wrath. He fought his first battle with the Christian right in 1977, when Anita Bryant led a holy war against the Dade County gay-rights law. "They said we had sex with animals and the dead," Kunst recalls. The rhetoric worked: that ordinance was repealed (though it has since been restored). Bryant's comrade in arms was Falwell, then an up-and-coming evangelist from a state where sodomy, even between married people, was-and is-a crime.
Two years later, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, building an empire on the backlash to a then emerging gay movement. But last weekend, the reverend played host to 200 of his favorite targets, preaching peace, love, and press conferences with their leader, the telegenic minister Mel White.
A former ghostwriter for Falwell and Pat Robertson, White now calls himself a "homospiritual." He's the cofounder of a group called Soulforce, and perhaps the most dynamic exponent of a rapidly growing movement of out and devout gays-or "GLBT-affirming people of faith," as they are acronymically known. Next year this tribe will claim the mantle of gay activism by marching on Washington, and in a sense, the meet-and-greet with Falwell was a prelude to that event. "If we can change people of faith to know and love gay people," White told the Voicebefore the meeting, "in 10 years, so help me, we will have found some kind of reconciliation."
Of course, it wasn't all media and manna at the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Despite his willingness to feed his gay guests, Falwell drew the line at putting them up, according to White, citing the Bible's prohibition on showing hospitality to sinners. But other local churches in the city pitched in, and the synagogue even sent a deli platter. Amid this cordiality, the only unhappy queer in town was Kunst.
"Bob is so angry at Falwell that he's given up on him," White maintained, "and Martin Luther King said that once you give up on your adversary, you've committed a violent act." But to Kunst, this meeting was just a rationale for s/m. "Groveling and crawling to Falwell for acceptance is the most blatant example of masochism I've ever seen," he said. For Kunst, the whole encounter was a projection of White's ongoing conflict about his homosexuality.
Indeed, as White told Larry King shortly after he came out, "I never chose [to be gay]. I chose against it over and over and over for 25 years." After trying everything from psychoanalysis to electroshock and exorcism, White came out in 1993. His clients promptly rejected him, but he still harbors affection for them. Ollie North is "a fun guy," White told King. "He can fake a gay better than most gays."
For Kunst, this lingering attachment is a symptom of ambivalence, as is White's willingness to tolerate Falwell's line about gays being as guilty of violence as their persecutors are. "It's okay for the sake of this discussion to say we both have hate in our hearts," White explained. But how can gay rage be compared to the ranting of a powerful preacher who has warned that "all will die [from] the gay plague," equated gay-rights laws with protections for rapists, predicted that Christians will be forced "to hire a quota" of homosexuals, and reiterated the canard about gays recruiting children because they can't reproduce-all accompanied by fervent pleas for cash.
True, Falwell now pledges to watch his words-"He's already dropped abomination," White says hopefully-but that's a meager meal, especially when dessert consists of being called a sinner to your smiling face.
"All I'm going to gain from this meeting is nuance," White admits. And he acknowledges that "the way Jerry is working this is so political." White remembers Falwell observing (oblivious to the fact that he was talking to a closet case): "Thank God for these gays, because if they weren't here I'd have to invent them. They give me all the attention I need." But in recent years, Falwell has been upstaged by Pat Robertson and unhinged by his remarks about the Jewish Antichrist (not to mention the Tinky Winky conspiracy). Now that the Moral Majority is defunct, Falwell has much to gain from positioning himself as a latter-day Billy Graham.
But White insists, "I know Jerry, and he's changing." Falwell was horrified by the recent shooting at a Jewish community center in L.A., White claims-especially since the author of a book found in the suspect's car "lived near Jerry and attended his church for 20 years." But Kunst has a less generous explanation for Falwell's entente with White: "They're both manipulating the gay community to make money."