By Brent Dorian Carpenter
ANN ARBOR – Reverend Mel White has a simple message for his old nemesis Rev. Jerry Falwell, and other fire-breathing, anti-gay fundamentalists: He will haunt you “until he changes his mind and heart or I die of old age.”
White, founder of Soulforce and author of the definitive tome on being gay and Christian, “Stranger at the Gate,” was in Ypsilanti May 23 as a lecturer at the Together in Faith Conference sponsored by AFSC-Faith Action Network at Eastern Michigan University. His ongoing clashes with Falwell and warnings about the fascist turn America has taken post-September 11 riveted an audience numbering in the hundreds.
“When Gary [Nixon, his partner of 23 years] and I started loving each other and the church rejected us, we decided to start monitoring the words and actions of the religious, from John Paul II to the Methodists to the televangelists. We started realizing they were the source for most of the misinformation about gay people, that the Church is the enemy. The Church is the one that creates all this stuff that becomes political.”
Soulforce was the logical extension of this endeavor, although the path to its creation was circuitous.
“It was at about the time when I said I’m going to give up on these church leaders because they’re hopeless that Coretta Scott King’s assistant Lynn Cothren wrote me and said, ‘Coretta and I have been watching you and this is an act of violence to say you’re giving up.’ And I said, ‘What’s violent about giving up on your adversary?’ and he said, ‘What do you know about non-violence?'”
He goes on to describe how King, Cothren and others took him under their wing. His path led to India to study Gandhi.
“‘Soul force’ is the term Gandhi used to describe relentless non-violent resistance,” White explains. “And so, we started an organization to apply those principles of relentless non-violent resistance to the church, to help end the anti-gay teachings that come out of there.”
Soulforce now has chapters – he calls them “local resistance units” – in 30 cities. Locally they are struggling against Catholic Cardinal Maida.
“They’re in negotiations with him, they’re going to stick it to him, they’re going to stop him, they’re going to work everything they can to help him understand the truth before he does more damage.”
White and Nixon moved to Lynchburg, VA two years ago, across the street from Falwell’s huge Thomas Road Baptist Church, the center of fundamentalism in America, to agitate from within.
“Right now I’m going to Jerry Falwell’s church full-time. I stand up every time he talks about gay people negatively, and last Sunday 14 people joined me. And before long, the whole church is going to be standing and Jerry’s going to have to sit down.”
The ultimate irony: years ago, while married and still deeply closeted, White penned not only Falwell’s biography, but those of Reverends Billy Graham and Pat Robertson as well.
“I started ghostwriting. My agent, Swifty Lazar [the famous agent from New York] because I had a doctorate in religion, sold me to people like Robertson and Falwell, to write their biographies. So I never worked in their camp, I never worked with them to create anti-anything, I just did biographies. You have to know a lot about a guy to write his autobiography.
“You have to understand that Jerry Falwell lives in a little isolated mountain community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” White says. “He’s lived in the same city for his entire lifetime. His background is so primitive that his father killed Jerry’s uncle [his father’s brother] in a pistol fight over revenue from a still that they owned together. So here’s a guy who has now reached the top – he’s about to do the prayer on the opening night at the Republican National Convention in New York City – whose father was chasing his uncle around over revenue from a still. You’ve got to realize this guy has accomplished an amazing powerful lot with no education and really no exposure to the world. Now he’s running the world.”
He says that Falwell is a hypocrite with dozens of gays on his staff.
“Privately, he said to me, ‘you know we have a lot of gay people in our church. If they don’t force me into a corner, I’m not going to force them into a corner.’ So there’s a really interesting double standard.”
White is deeply disturbed by the parallels between Hitler’s Germany and the events in America today, and fears that homosexuals will suffer the same fate as the Jews if the gay community does not act quickly to defeat George W. Bush in November.
“Fundamentalism,” he says, “whether Jewish or Islamic or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist, goes through cycles in world history when it takes over these religions. We call it ‘orthodoxy-gone-cultic.’ These are people who are Orthodox Christians who suddenly get weird on us. And that orthodoxy-gone-cultic has several kinds of dimensions. One: they have gurus whom you don’t question. They have doctrine that you don’t question. They have huge amounts of money and you don’t question where it’s going. And they build it on this politics of blame. And then the urge to purge – they’ve got to find somebody to purge, because that’s the way to ‘clean up America and bring Jesus home.’
“They’ve taken over the Republican Party, they’ve taken over the Congress, they’ve taken over the Senate, they’ve taken over 38 state legislatures, and they have the White House. So now they are trying to reinforce their doctrine, superimpose it on the U.S. Constitution.
“The Patriot Acts I and II are already taking away basic civil rights, not just from people of Arabic descent, but for all Americans. The right of habeas corpus, to a quick trial by our peers, these things are slipping away between the cracks. Right now, this whole business of terrorism is a fluke, it’s a phony excuse to batten down the hatches. All we need now is a dirty bomb in one of our cities and they’ll close down. And remember, fundamentalists have to have somebody to blame, and right now, gay people are set up as the victims of blame. Right now, they are saying we’re a threat to the U.S., we’re a threat to the American family, we’re a threat to children. We are set up to be the fall guys for what’s going to happen next.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’ve seen in my lifetime 11 million people killed by a holocaust, six million of them just for their religious ancestry, and that happened in the most sophisticated Christian country in the world. You got the Castro in San Francisco, you’ve got Boystown in Los Angeles. We now live in gay ghettos and it’s easy for them to just say ‘these people are evil,’ or ‘these people have a disease.’ All you need to do now is put barbed wire around them.”
White says he is not without hope, although it will take a bold act of bipartisan courage by presidential candidate John Kerry to defeat Bush, such as naming Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain as his running mate.
“I think it would be an ideal ticket,” he states. “I don’t see how they couldn’t win with that. I still believe that the spirit of truth, that God, whatever you call Her, has great dreams for the people of this country, as She does for the people of all countries, and that our job is not to become terrorized by Bush. I believe that truth will triumph, that the universe bends towards justice, and that we need to get in there and help bend it.”
White says he wrote “Stranger At The Gate” ten years ago after he came out and finally accepted himself, to document the damage that religious dogma can cause. Published by Simon and Schuster, and released recently by Bantam Paperbacks, it still sells like it did the first year.
“For 40 years I tried to get over it – being gay – with exorcism and electroshock and aversive therapy and ex-gay therapy,” he remembers. “My marriage lasted 20 years, and we were in therapy almost all of that time. Finally I slit my wrists one day at a crazy moment and my wife said after I got myself bandaged up, ‘You know you’re gay and you really need to have a life of your own. You’ve been a good husband and a good father, but it’s time.'”
Although the battle against the religious right rages on, White takes a small measure of comfort in one undeniable fact: whether his relationship with Nixon is legally recognized or not, they make a powerful statement just by being vocal and visible.
“My partner Gary Nixon and I have been together 23 years, so we’re celebrating the fact that these relationships can last, do last, and that they’re wonderful.”