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Former Religious Right Culture Warrior Mel White Comes Out

Read an interview with the Rev. Mel White, a confidante of religious right leaders including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — until he came out.

From the 1960s through the early 1990s, the Rev. Mel White played a behind-the-scenes role in the resurgence of evangelical Christianity. While pastoring several West Coast churches and working with national crusades like Youth for Christ, White produced films and ghostwrote books for a "who's who" of evangelical leaders, including the Revs. Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy and Pat Robertson.

Unknown to his friends and colleagues, White was also a closeted gay man who was nearly driven to suicide after two decades of struggling to save his marriage — and, he believed, his soul — with "reparative therapies" including electric shock and exorcism.

In 1993, White came out publicly and wrote a memoir, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. Ignored or rejected by all his famous colleagues — Robertson advised more therapy and "healing" — he began a campaign of nonviolent resistance against "spiritual violence," leading protests of anti-gay intolerance at events like the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 1998, White founded Soulforce, an organization inspired by the civil-disobedience tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He has been arrested during several protests, and may face jail time again this spring, when Soulforce holds three days of vigils and protests at Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Intelligence Report interviewed White this January in Washington, D.C.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: You've compared the anti-gay movement to the Nazi movement against Jews in Germany. Is that really a fair comparison?

MEL WHITE: I'm convinced that if you walk through the Holocaust Museum here in D.C. and substitute the word "gay" for the word "Jew" during those early years of the Nazi regime, you will be convinced that what [Hitler's chief propagandist] Goebbels did is exactly what Jerry Falwell and [Focus on the Family's] James Dobson and Pat Robertson and Pope John Paul II are doing now.

They are demonizing us. They are creating a case for why we're the problem, and why the nation has gone foul. They are describing us as disease-carriers, child-snatchers, money-grubbers.

All that demonizing creates a deadly environment. The killing here has been isolated and scattered so far, but it certainly has begun.

IR: And you hold religious leaders primarily responsible?

WHITE: It is the Christian Right movement that has become the number one enemy of God's gay children. Their churches are the primary sources of misinformation about gay and lesbian people that leads to suffering and death.

No longer am I afraid of Skinheads and neo-Nazis and white supremacists, by comparison to a church that's committed to the destruction of the civil rights and human rights and families of my sisters and brothers.

Skinheads and Klansmen I can recognize for the enemies that they are. But anti-gay Christians come in the disguise of love, and that disguise is a powerful weapon in itself. They demonize, but they don't see themselves as responsible for the violence their demonizing causes.

I try to bring up examples like that terrible killing of a gay couple in California by the Williams brothers [Matthew and Tyler, in 1999]. When one of them was asked by his mother, "Why'd you do it?" he said, basically, "The Bible says the world would be better off without them."

There are so many of these stories. What kind of smoking gun is more smoking than that?

IR: You've talked personally with both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson about gay issues. How did they respond when you charged them with responsibility for fomenting anti-gay violence?

WHITE: "You lie! You have no proof that anything happens because of what we say. We love gay people." Dobson is saying that a lot now, because everybody is recognizing how hateful he is.

"We love gay people," he'll say. "But they're ruining the nation, and they're seducing your children, and they're bringing disease to your community. Of course, we love them — although they shouldn't have gay marriage, and they shouldn't be able to adopt because you know what they do to children. But we really love gay people!"

IR: You don't believe the religious right truly "loves the sinner but hates the sin"?

WHITE: To say, "I love you, but I have reservations" is to say, "I don't love you." To say, "I love you as you are" — that's love. There is no "but" or "if" in love. When are they going to get that?

You can't love the sinner and hate the sin, when the sin is what I am. I am a gay man, and I love my partner of 23 years, Gary Nixon.

Can you love me and not love my relationship with Gary? Give us a break! Quit using that. That is total false advertising. You don't love me at all unless you love me as I am.

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?

Partners and co-founders of Soulforce: Gary Nixon and the Rev. Mel White

IR: In Stranger at the Gate, you call right-wing Christians "the real Sodomites." Could you explain?

WHITE: The meaning of the destruction of Sodom is discussed in the Bible by five prophets and Jesus. None of them mentions sex. They all say this was a city that could have saved a lot of people's lives if its citizens would just open their doors at night and not keep people out in the cold and in the jungles. Instead, Sodomites closed their doors every night after six o'clock.

They were arrogant, and they did not offer safety or succor to people who needed it. That's why Sodom was destroyed.

So — who's locking gay people out? Who's keeping us out at night? Who's failing to offer us safety and succor? The church and this nation. They are the true Sodomites. They are doing what the city of Sodom was destroyed for doing.

God came — Jesus came — to say, "Love your enemy, feed your neighbor, house those in need." Jesus came to rescue outcasts. Fundamentalists are making outcasts. And they don't see the difference. So they're Sodomites.

Dobson and Falwell and these bishops and these priests — I'm struggling to save their souls. I believe they are victims of misinformation, and that they're victimizing people in turn.

We must stop them for their own sakes if for nobody else's. Because when you look back and you see the damage that you've done, and nobody told you that you were doing it — it's going to be sad.

IR: You've done all you can to reach your old friend, Falwell.

WHITE: I've tried. Gary and I have sat there almost every Sunday for two years, looking up at him from the fifth row in that church [Thomas Road Baptist, in Lynchburg, Va.]. We stand up and protest silently when he starts lying about gay people — we bow our heads and stand there as long as he's talking about it. And 5,000 people see him talking, and us standing.

That's the only way I know to bear witness to these people, because they're not interested in my material. They're not interested in my story.

IR: When you talk to straight Christians who are willing to listen, how do you explain the effect that anti-gay religious rhetoric has on gay people?

WHITE: I say this: Picture yourself in a world where your heterosexuality is called a choice. Where your heterosexuality, what you do in bed, is considered dirty and sinful. Where your relationships are dishonored and demeaned and caricatured by everyone. Picture a world where you are the scum of the earth in the eyes of civic, civil and religious authority.

And ask yourself: How would I feel about myself if I was seen as the enemy of God, and the enemy of the nation? How would I feel if I could lose my job in most states by simply putting my partner's picture on my desk, or if I couldn't adopt, couldn't serve in the military, couldn't lead most churches?

You would feel pretty rotten. You would feel like the scourge of the earth.

IR: In 1993, you wrote Pope John Paul II a letter, accusing him of "advocating an anti-gay policy that leads to the suffering and death of God's children in your care." Was there any response?

WHITE: No. There's no church leader interested in hearing our side of the story now. None. We went over [to Rome], though. We finally got arrested inside Vatican Square, kneeling on the place where a Sicilian gay man had burned himself to death [to protest the church's anti-gay pronouncements] beneath the pope's window.

They're walking a silly tightrope. Such a large percentage of their priests and popes and cardinals are gay, and always have been. And if John Paul II just said, "You know what? God made gays, and they should be who they are," the whole world would change. It would end a terrible, terrible confusion and allow gay people to be what God created them to be.

That's the whole thing: We have to get past the issue so that gay people can do what we were called to do. We have unique gifts to contribute to civilization, let alone to the church.

If we aren't free to give those gifts, if we're always on the defensive and always on the outside, the greatest tragedy is not that we aren't accepted. The greatest tragedy is that we're not allowed to exercise our gifts on behalf of humankind.