Reverend Steve Pieters has been many things: A religious leader, a chorus member, a singer, an author and an activist. But most of all Steve Pieters is known as a survivor. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, Steve Pieters survived illnesses and clinical trials through the darkest days of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and four decades later, he is still here to tell his tale.
But while Steve’s story of faith, perseverance and survival is his biggest journey, Steve Pieters is best remembered for a groundbreaking moment in 1985 when he was interviewed by flamboyant television evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker on her PTL Network talk show, Tammy’s House Party. For the first time on Christian television, Steve and Tammy had a conversation on homosexuality and AIDS in a calm and intelligent way, which normalized the LGBTQ+ community for the conservative Christian audience. It was a game-changing moment on Christian television, which brought forth Tammy Faye as a compassionate ally, and Steve Pieters as a spokesperson for gay Christians everywhere. The interview would continue to affect both of their lives forever.
This September, a new biopic on Tammy Faye Bakker titled, appropriately, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, will be released in theatres. Although it is a film detailing Tammy’s rise and fall, one of the sub-plots of the film is her interview with Steve Pieters. In the film, Steve will be played by actor Randy Havens.
Now living in Los Angeles, Steve Pieters waits along with the rest of us to see the upcoming film. But the movie brings Steve back to the forefront as an important cultural figure— as a beacon of light from what was a dark time in modern history.
Sam Tweedle: When you were a young man, growing up in the Christian church, what was the overall attitude towards homosexuality that you experienced, and how did that affect you?
Steve Pieters: The attitude was that we don’t talk about it. Somehow, I learnt to become ashamed of my sexuality and that came from my father’s disapproving glances at me if I said something ‘inappropriate’ about liking a boy. It came from my grandmother when I tried to write a story at six years old, and she offered to type it up and she got to this part where I was talking about this muscular boy, and she ‘tisked tisked’ and just got up from the typewriter and walked away without saying a word. So, I thought I had done wrong. I grew up in a congregational church in a puritan family. There were no images of gay people in the late fifties and sixties, except for books about psychotic individuals who had to hide in back alleys and were forever doomed, which was what I was taught. I worked so hard to keep it a secret. I was so ashamed of being gay. I was so afraid that my limp wrists would give me away that I would wear rulers up my sleeves to keep my wrists stiff. It was not a good scene.
Sam: Knowing that you were gay, what made you decide to go into the ministry and keep your faith, despite there being this negative stigma within the church?
Steve: Well, originally, I had every intention of being a Broadway legend. In my undergraduate years at Northwestern University, I sought out to be a song and dance man. In the amateur theatre world, I was welcomed everywhere I went with leading roles, but when I got into the professional world it was like beating my head against the walls. There were doors slamming everywhere. But I realized that if I was going to stay at all sane, I had to deal with being gay. A friend brought me to the Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago. Do you know that denomination of church?
Sam: Honestly, I’ve only come across it in my preliminary reading for this conversation with you.
Steve: The MCC’s were founded in Los Angeles in 1968 as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people to be able to worship together. So, I came out by going to the MCC church in Chicago. It was like I had a spiritual awakening when I met God there and became a part of this congregation. It was a congregation full of happy, productive LGBTQ+ people in good, loving relationships and I wanted what they had, so I stuck around. Then I got a call from the ministry, and I went to seminary and all the doors open. So, I became the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford, Connecticut.
Sam: What years would this have been between, just to get an idea of the timeline?
Steve: I came out in 1975 and went to seminary school between 1978 and 1979. I became the pastor in Hartford in 1979 after graduating with my Master of Divinity.
Sam: Now thinking back to when I was a kid, I don’t remember gay culture being very prevalent in the world I grew up in. The gay men among our family and friends were still firmly in the closet until the ’90s. Was gay culture still an underground culture in the ’70s, or do I have it all wrong?
Steve: Yes, you do. I think that is a misconception of the 1970s. Stonewall happened in 1969 and then there was a surge of people coming out in the 1970s, and when Anita Bryant started fighting her fight against gay rights, another surge of us came out in the mid ’70s. Harvey Milk was our spiritual leader, so it was a very exciting time to be gay. I came out in the Chicago gay scene, and it was not at all uncommon to see two men walking hand in hand down Broadway or kiss in broad daylight. They were gay discos and gay bookstores and gay restaurants and there were these huge fundraisers to fight against Anita Bryant. When Harvey Milk was assassinated, we went into great mourning, but it empowered us in a way with the deep grief that we felt over Harvey being killed. We buckled down more and more, and even more people came out. So, the ’70s was a great time to be gay, and we were very open. It was AIDS in the 1980s which changed everything.
Sam: So, it was in 1982 that you learnt that you were ill.
Steve: That’s correct. I probably contracted the virus in 1979. I got sick in 1982 and was diagnosed with something called GRID, which was Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, which is what they were calling AIDS back then.
Sam: That’s quite early, isn’t it?
Steve: Oh yes. The first reports of AIDS were in the summer of 1981. I was diagnosed in the spring of 1982, eight or nine months into the crisis, so it was very early.
Sam: So, what was it like for you to find out you have this disease that was still sort of a mystery?
Steve: Well, it was a mystery because they didn’t even know how it was transmitted yet. They didn’t even know it was a virus. They suspected it was a virus, but they had not found it yet. They didn’t discover that until 1984. So, when I was first sick with GRID, people were terrified of me and people left me alone. If it hadn’t been for a couple of lesbian women who lived next door to me, I don’t know what I would have done. They were the only ones who would come into my house and bring me food and keep me company. I was desperately ill, but people were terrified. So little was known. There were no treatments. Everybody died.
Sam: I know you’ve been asked this so many times, and I don’t know if I can word it in a way that is at all original, but why are you still alive? How are you still alive?
Steve: (Laughs) It’s not just other people who have asked me that. I’ve asked it myself. Why am I still alive? Is it a miracle? Is it an anomaly? Is it one or the other, or both? I don’t know. I just know that I am very lucky to be alive today. I worked very hard at getting well. I was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma and Kaposi sarcom in 1984. I was told that I had eight months to live. My doctor told me that I could do a lot to create the conditions for her medicine to work when she came up with one. Her name was Dr. Alexandra Levine, and she was one of the premier AIDS researchers in the US. She told me that there was no 100% in medicine, and not everyone was going to die from this as we thought. She said, “If only one in a million survives, why don’t you be that one in a million and act accordingly?” There was nothing written about surviving AIDS back then because nobody had done it. So, I set out to create my own wellness program, and I worked hard at staying as healthy as I could. But the cancer was advancing when Dr. Levine invited me in early 1985 to be patient number one in the very first antiviral drug they tried to fight AIDS and HIV. It was an experimental anti-virus drug called suramin. Six weeks into the treatment my sarcoma lesions completely cleared, and my stage four lymphoma went into total remission. They put 89 other people on the drug throughout the United States but it proved to be very toxic, and it killed most of the people in the trial. It very nearly killed me. Everyone else, except for one other, died from the progression of AIDS within the next year or two. I was the one complete clinical response, but it caused huge toxic side effects. My adrenal glands failed, and I have to take medicine for that every day. My eyes became so inflamed that I was blind. I was paralyzed on the left side of my body. I lost all my hair. Everybody, once again, thought I was dying. But I didn’t. I got well after 1987 when I got off the suramin drug. It was in the midst of this trial that I did the interview with Tammy Faye Bakker.
Sam: Obviously, this is a big thing that influenced your life and is now a subplot in the upcoming film The Eyes of Tammy Faye. You know, I saw the documentary that the film is based on, and I was surprised at that time about what I didn’t know about her. I suppose that my personal biases about evangelistic TV preachers is a negative one, but the documentary challenged my attitude and knee-jerk opinion on Tammy Faye because it surprised me how progressive she actually was.
Steve: She surprised everybody by being as affirming to me as she was. I am told by those who were close to her at the time that our interview changed her, and it changed her attitudes about what she wanted to do in her ministry. She began to take her children to MCC services and PRIDE parades and hospices and hospitals for people with AIDS. She discovered that she had an outreach and ministry to the LGBTQ+ community.
Sam: Did you ever get an explanation about why she wanted to do this interview with you? I mean, 1985 was so early for any discussion of gay issues and AIDS on television at all, and ten-fold for an evangelistic Christian television network. Tammy Faye conducting that interview was a groundbreaking moment in television history. Wasn’t Jerry Falwell involved in that network?
Steve: No. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker ran the PTL Network at the time of our interview. It was only later that Jerry Falwell brought them down and took over it and basically closed the network. One of the reasons he was apparently so upset with them was because Tammy Faye did this interview with me. Apparently, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Jerry Falwell.
Sam: I see. So how did the interview come to be?
Steve: Apparently Tammy Faye wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS, and in particular she wanted it to be a gay Christian with AIDS. So, she had her producers look for someone who would go on her TV show with her and talk about it. They couldn’t find anybody in the southeast or the northeast of the US, so they finally called the AIDS project in Atlanta, Georgia, and the executive director was a friend of mine. He referred them to me, thinking that It’d be perfect for me. I did say yes right away, but I stipulated that it had to be live so they couldn’t edit it any way they wanted to.
Sam: Was it scary to do the interview?
Steve: Well, I was accustomed to talking about being a gay man and talking about being a person with AIDS. I had done a lot of interviews by that point. So, I was accustomed to talking about it, but I had never talked about it to an audience like she had. A conservative evangelical audience. So, I had some fear that she would try to “convert me to Christianity” despite me already being a Christian, but to her brand, if she had any so that I could repent to my homosexuality and all of that. Of course, that was not the direction that she went at all.
Sam: It’s a very interesting interview. What I find most interesting is that upon first watching the interview, through today’s eyes, some of her questions seem ridiculous. But, when you begin to think about who her audience is, and the time that this interview was done, those questions seem to be very precise and clever, because she is trying to form a dialogue in its most basic form for an audience that has mentally blocked themselves from, or doesn’t have, any understanding of what being gay really is.
Steve: I think Tammy was very clever and smarter than she was given credit for. She was very sweet and generous and steered the conversation with me to different areas. She asked the questions that her audience would ask. So, I just stuck with what I knew – I am a gay Christian with AIDS and I know that God loves me and that he did not punish me with AIDS and that he was with me in my fight against AIDS.
Sam: Did you ever get to spend time with her in person?
Steve: No. I never did. I never met her. We exchanged greetings a number of times through mutual friends, but I never talked to her again.
Sam: But that interview had echoes that continued to affect both yours and her life in huge ways.
Steve: Absolutely. I already told you that she started her own outreach to gay and lesbian people and took her children around to teach them about the dignity and worth of all human beings. Later on, after PTL fell, she said that it was the gay and lesbian community that saved her through that, and she did a talk show with Jim J. Bullock, who is a very out gay man. She said on that show that she felt it was very important to be loving towards all people and to accept all people for who they are, but she still had reservations on how moral it was. In terms of my life, I remember coming home from the interview and my neighbour, who was one of the lesbians who took care of me when I was so sick, came over and I told her about the interview, and we laughed at some of the questions she asked. I told her “I don’t think I did a very good job. I should have said this, and I could have said that, and I wish I would have said this.” I was second-guessing myself. I concluded by saying “I’m certainly glad no one will ever see it.” (Laughs) That proved not to be true. A year and a half later at the International General Meeting of all the MCC’s around the world, the founder and global leader of the MCC denomination, Reverend Troy Perry, decided to open the conference by playing the video of the interview. I hadn’t seen it in a year and a half and suddenly there it was, and I cringed. There were over a thousand people there watching it. In the end, they stood up and cheered and cheered and cheered. My mentor in ministry, who was sitting next to me, got me up and kissed me on the cheek, and Troy Perry came and got me and brought me forward to the front so I could wave at everyone. After that MCC’s around the world started asking me to come to their city and preach, and all of them said “Bring that Tammy Faye tape because I want my congregation to see that.” I was well enough to travel then, so I played it everywhere I went, and people were surprised. People always giggle at first at Tammy Faye, but they are always in shock at how the interview went. By the end of it, they were cheering.
Sam: Now I have read other articles by you and watched some additional videos, and one thing I think is a powerful analogy that you make throughout your ministry is about Peter Pan. Can you tell me what that was inspired from, and how that goes?
Steve: It was kind of divine inspiration. Peter Pan had been my favourite story when I was growing up, and I always wanted to fly off with Peter and join the Lost Boys in Neverland and have adventures. Well, I had been called a ‘fairy’ for the first time when I was seven years old, and the other boys kidded me mercilessly about being a fairy all through elementary school. So, I felt terrible because I knew they were right. Then, when I came out in the ’70s, I met a group of men that considered themselves to be radical fairies. They told me to own the title. Believe in it. Fast forward to the AIDS years, and all the Lost Boys of West Hollywood and all the Good Fairies were getting sick and dying. So, I thought, I needed to talk about this. I got a fairy wand at a renaissance fair, and I started carrying it with me everywhere I went to talk about how fairies die when people don’t believe in them, which is what we learnt in Peter Pan. Of course, in the stage play, Tinkerbelle is dying…
Sam: I remember that messing me up so badly when I saw the play as a little kid.
Steve: I know, right? Mary Martin is the one I remember, and in the role of Peter Pan, she says “Tinkerbelle is dying because people don’t believe in fairies. If you believe in fairies, clap your hands and that’ll bring her back to life.” For over a century now, audiences have been applauding like crazy and Tinkerbelle comes back to life and Peter goes off to save the day with her. So, I waved the fairy wand as I spoke in churches and conferences and schools, and I’d say “There are a lot of good fairies dying. I am a good fairy who was dying. I found it was so important to believe in fairies. To believe in me. To believe in us as good fairies. To believe in us as people who are worth saving. So, if you believe in fairies, clap your hands and let the good fairies who are dying to know you believe in them.” That was my brand.
Sam: I think that is both very clever and very powerful.
Steve: The Smithsonian Institute seemed to think so too. My fairy wand is in there now, along with a lot of the work I did as the director of AIDS ministry for the MCC denomination. When I got the invitation from the Smithsonian through Troy Perry to submit articles from my ministry for consideration for their collection, I was putting together a box filled with magazine articles, sermons, a DVD with the interview with Tammy Faye and me, and then I found my fairy wand and I thought “I don’t want to give this. It’s important. It means so much to me.” But then I thought “Am I can let my fairy wand sit on a shelf for me to see, gathering dust, or am I going to put it in the Smithsonian?”
Sam: And there it is with George Washington’s false teeth and Archie Bunker’s chair.
Steve: That’s right.
Sam: In the upcoming film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, you are being played by Randy Havens, which most people know from the show Stranger Things. When filming the film, did he reach out to you or consult with you at all?
Steve: No. I didn’t know they were making the film, actually. I’ve just been waiting to see the film myself. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard from the screenwriter, which told me that my interview is featured prominently in the film. Those was his exact words.
Sam: Well, you can see it right in the trailer. How does it feel to know Hollywood is doing your story?
Steve: Well, it’s not my story exactly.
Sam: Well, featuring that piece of it.
Steve: Well, I am extraordinarily honoured and flattered, and it’s kind of surreal. I’ve seen myself portrayed on stage twice before. Once in a play about Tammy Faye and my interview was interspersed throughout the play and an actor portrayed me in that interview. Another time an actor portrayed me on stage was by a man who read writings from my 1991 book, I’m Still Dancing. He decided to write a one-man show for himself where he played me and told my story through the words that I wrote, and he played it in Florida and New York and a couple of festivals. I got to see it twice. It’s really weird to see someone playing you. In regard to the film, I haven’t seen anything but the trailer, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I anticipate it’s going to be good because I know Randy Havens has a really good reputation as an actor in Hollywood. I’m looking forward to seeing how they do it and what they do with it.
Sam: Overall, in a broad sense, has Christianity’s attitude towards homosexuality changed over time?
Steve: Oh yes, it has. It’s perhaps too obvious to say that Christianity is not a monolithic religion. There is not one Christianity. There are a lot of different denominations. I think that a lot of churches and denominations have stayed stuck in which homosexuality is concerned. But a lot of denominations, such as the Unitarians and Episcopalians and some Presbyterians, are much more progressive. The United Church of Christ is a very progressive denomination and they have come a long way in accepting LGBTQ+ people. Then, of course, there is MCC, and we were afforded a lot of respect from other churches in regard to what we went through with AIDS because a full third of our clergy died from AIDS. A full third of our congregation died of AIDS. It took a heavy toll on us, and we are still here.
Sam: Your life and ministry have touched so many people, not only via your story of survival but through all forms of media and now into the realm of Hollywood. What do you want your message to people to be?
Steve: Well, for those who believe, and even for those who don’t believe, God loves you just the way you are. You don’t need to change, and God loves you that way. God loves me, and God is still in the healing business. I really believe that, and I’ve seen so many people get well like I did in the ’80s and it’s been a remarkable change. God is still in the healing business and God loves us so very much.
While preparing for my talk with Steve, as well as during the interview itself, I found myself constantly adjusting my mind to what I thought I knew. My biases on religion and faith were consistently challenged and I became educated in an LGBTQ+ historical timeline that I wasn’t otherwise aware of. Also, despite being able to remember the AIDS crisis and the fear that surrounded it, during my youth, I realized how much I didn’t know about its history, as well as how uneducated I am about its beginnings and outcomes. It made me aware that more education should be mandatory in regard to LGBTQ+ history and issues. It is a social history that is so important for us to recognize as a society, and it would continue to bridge the gap of understanding and solidarity.
But Steve Pieters is a living story within himself, and it is a blessing to listen to him and hear his words. Whether he is a miracle or an anomaly, he is a joy of a human being. He is warm, well-spoken and funny and whatever our beliefs are, we are all blessed to have him in our world.