Former Religious Right Culture Warrior Mel White Comes Out

Mel White was a culture warrior on the religious right — until he came out

IR: In Stranger at the Gate, you note that even conservative churches almost never talked about homosexuality when you were growing up. What happened to end that silence and bring anti-gay preaching to the fore?

WHITE: It has to be seen as part of the historic resurgence of political fundamentalism we're seeing around the world. Whether it's Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Christian, fundamentalism is back, and it is bloodthirsty, and it is seeking to destroy everything that threatens it — and gay people apparently are threatening to it.

Fundamentalism is a cleansing movement. The urge to purge is at the heart of it. They want to bring back the glory of what was — even though it never really was — and they want to make it safe for God to rule the nation.

For Christian fundamentalists, the goal is to purify the United States so that it reflects God, in ways that nations have never reflected Him. And that thinking leads them to say, "OK, what's wrong with America? How can we purify it?" Then they start hunting for impurities.

IR: Considering that the Old Testament spells out hundreds of "abominations," why did homosexuality come to be viewed as the primary "impurity" in America?

WHITE: Again, you have to look at it in historical context. When Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority, he sat down with [influential fundamentalist leader] Francis Schaeffer and said, "We can't win this country to Christ. We're too small a group." Schaeffer said, "Well, use pagans to do it." Because that's what happened in the Old Testament, Schaeffer said. God used pagans — which means anybody who isn't a fundamentalist Christian — to do the work of God.

So Falwell said, "How do we do that?" Schaeffer said, "Through co-belligerency issues. You find issues that you can work together on with pagans."

The first co-belligerency issue, of course, was the "godless Soviet empire." Falwell raised the Moral Majority mailing list of 6 million mostly by going to all the state capitols with the choir from Liberty [Falwell's school in Lynchburg, Va.] and talking about the Soviet Union and waving flags.

When that issue petered out, and eventually the [Berlin] wall fell, the political fundamentalists had already tried out the demographics of two other issues, homosexuality and abortion. As strategically as anybody in American marketing, they switched to the "godless abortion threat" and the "godless homosexual threat."

Of course, fewer people see abortion as murder than see what gay people do in bed as icky. So spreading fear and misinformation about gay people has been their best means to mobilize volunteers, to create a mass, and to raise money.

IR: How sincere are the anti-gay leaders about their cause?

WHITE: I know Jerry Falwell as well as he knows himself; I wrote his autobiography. He is sincere. Most of them are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong on the gay issue. It's something they believe, but it's their marketing gurus — people like [President Bush's political adviser] Karl Rove and [Moral Majority co-founder] Paul Weyrich — who've told them, "This is the one to push."

Homosexuality itself is not important to most of these guys. But it's an important means to an end they believe in, and that is straightening out America to make sure Jesus can come back. Even if they're using anti-gay politics insincerely, they are sincerely interested in taking over the democratic process.

So that's why it became such a major issue. It came from the top down. This new, loud voice against homosexuality came through the parent-church leaders, like Falwell, who began to tell the world that homosexuality was a threat.

Then it trickled down to local churches, and now it has become one of the great hate movements, I think, in history. It's dangerous stuff, because it knows no questions. It hears no response. It is a juggernaut. It is a bulldozer. It is a blitzkrieg that doesn't stop to reason.

IR: How have civil rights leaders reacted to Soulforce?

WHITE: We have many civil rights activists who have stood with us, though we've been shocked at how many will not.

Dr. Rodney Powell is one of the most distinguished of the black activists, and he has been one of Soulforce's leading teachers and supporters. He's been arrested with us all over the place. [Georgia Congressman] John Lewis has been supportive of the gay movement. And at our opening session, Gandhi's grandson Arun took a tremendous stand for Soulforce, and so did King's daughter, Yolanda.

IR: Some black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have said you can't compare this movement to black civil rights, because gay people in America haven't suffered the way black people have.

WHITE: I don't want to compare civil-rights movements. Why compare injustice? I believe that it's very difficult to be raised as black — far more difficult than life has been for me. I would say that as a white man, I am still privileged by that, even after coming out. If I were a white woman, I would be less privileged, and so forth down the line.

But one of my biggest heroes, James Lofton, once told me, "Quite frankly, Mel, it would be harder to be gay than it is to be black." I said, "What?" This distinguished civil rights activist said, "We have our churches and our families on our side. You don't."

He had a point. We may not be kept from voting, we may not be kept from water fountains by signs, but people believe we're destroying everything good in America.

And our mommies don't like us. Our preachers don't like us. That's pretty significant.

My mom said, when I told her I was gay, "I'd rather see you at the bottom of that swimming pool, drowned, than to hear this." Would hearing that from a Ku Klux Klan member have as much impact? I'm 65 and I still hurt.

Blacks suffer, we suffer — it's suffering, whoever it is. When you generate self-hatred in somebody, which the anti-gay people do, what's worse than that? When you teach me to hate myself — and teach others to hate me — is that not a hate movement?