Believers Who Brunch
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 The rhetoric worked: that ordinance was repealed (though it has since been restored).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 Voice before 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."
Soulforce is incorporated, and though its services are free, the group's Web site makes an elaborate pitch for donations in a style reminiscent of fundamentalist fundraising (though without the baiting). "Every unselfish act is also a selfish act," White explains. He's learned to hustle from the masters, and now he is using their techniques to promote a very different message. The question is whether it signals a new kind of gay resistance, or a soft retreat.
While White supports the gay political agenda, he's convinced it hasn't worked. "We no longer believe that what happens in the Congress or the courts will change the minds and hearts of our adversaries nor lead to the understanding and full acceptance that we seek," reads the Soulforce manifesto. Instead, this group offers a program culled from Gandhi, King, and Alcoholics Anonymous-right down to a 17-step path to "renew our spirits and transform our society."
For these believers, true change can only come from interpersonal connection. That may sound more like a Beatles song than a strategy for activism, but gays are different from other minorities in one respect: their oppression is often aggravated by alienation from family and faith. "The angriest activists are Southern Baptist children," White says, "and we're giving them a way to follow their spiritual vision as well as their homosexual one."
The fact that this "homospiritual" journey requires vows to "volunteer suffering" and "control passions" translates as self-abasement and repression to those who still hew to gay-lib ways. "Have you noticed how the gay religionists and the gay cops are ascending while cock-sucking, clit-licking, butt-fucking homos are under even greater attack?" asks Sex Panic founder Bill Dobbs. White has a canny way of skirting such sexual issues, and his political beliefs are just as ambiguous. He described himself to Larry King as "conservative in so many ways," while telling the Voice that he's a liberal Democrat. Falwell couldn't have spun it better.
Whether loving the sinner will help Falwell's media profile remains to be seen. But its biggest impact is likely to be on the gay movement, which has always depended on the unkindness of strangers. As venom gives way to politesse, the terms of gay politics are beginning to change. People of faith are taking center stage, and with them comes a style that's more through-your-soul than in-your-face. Since these are mostly prosperous folks, they collide with queers who have neither money nor faith, and little patience for those with both. The flash point will be that march on Washington next April. The shouting matches have already begun.
That bodes ill, because the great movements of the '60s-from antiwar activism to black civil rights-could not have succeeded without a working alliance between secularists and people of faith. Where would Martin Luther King have been without the black church, or the peace movement without the priestly Berrigan brothers? Yet, for all their fervent belief, these visionaries were at odds with the hierarchies of their respective faiths. What happens when a leader is more interested in returning to the fold than in breaking the mold?
The answer will determine whether the gay movement is about changing straights or accepting their hospitality.
Research: Jason Schwartzberg
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.