How televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker became an unlikely ally in the AIDS crisis

On Nov. 15, 1985, simply two months after President Ronald Reagan lastly uttered the phrase “AIDS” publicly, the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker did one thing thought of daring and fearless on the time: She interviewed a homosexual man dwelling with HIV on reside tv and handled him with compassion. 

“How unhappy that we as Christians — who’re to be the salt of the earth, we who’re supposed to have the ability to love everybody — are afraid so badly of an AIDS affected person that we are going to not go up and put our arm round them and inform them that we care,” Bakker stated tearfully throughout her 24-minute interview with Steve Pieters. 

The dialog aired throughout “Tammy’s Home Get together” on the Reward the Lord community, a channel that reached 20 million viewers throughout dozens of nations on the top of its reputation. It’s regarded as the primary time a televangelist ever talked to somebody dwelling with AIDS or HIV on tv, and the in-depth interview (too in-depth for some viewers) grew to become an essential milestone in AIDS and LGBTQ historical past.

Whereas Bakker, who died of most cancers in 2007 at age 65, has a sophisticated legacy, muddied by her first husband Jim Bakker’s fraud conviction, her document on homosexual rights, significantly the empathy she confirmed these dwelling with HIV and AIDS, has remained clear and was radical for its time.

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”SearchLight Photos

Bakker’s watershed dialog with Pieters came about greater than 35 years in the past, but it surely has been thrust again within the highlight because of the brand new movie “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” starring the Oscar-nominated actor Jessica Chastain within the titular function. Based mostly on the RuPaul-narrated 2000 cult documentary of the identical title, the movie, which debuts in theaters Friday, prominently options this groundbreaking interview.

“After I noticed the documentary and I noticed that scene — that unimaginable second between Steve Pieters and Tammy Faye — I knew how essential it was, as a result of my information of Tammy was simply what the media had fed me, this sensationalized model that targeted on the drama,” Chastain, who additionally was government producer of the movie, instructed NBC Information from the Toronto Worldwide Movie Pageant. “That’s not actually the true story of who she was, and that blew me away.” 

Chastain acquired the rights to Bakker’s story practically a decade in the past and has been working to convey the movie to the large display ever since. 

“For me, that interview was the explanation I needed to make the movie; it was an important scene,” she stated. “Steve Pieters is phenomenal, all of his solutions have been so loving and exquisite, and Tammy Faye, she had all these little naive questions. I’m satisfied they saved lives with that interview, as a result of many within the conservative evangelical world have been disowning their kids who’re popping out to them.

When Bakker discovered, throughout that interview, that Pieters’ mother and father accepted him when he got here out to them, she bought visibly emotional. 

“Thank God for a mother and pop who will stand with an adolescent,” she stated. “They’re nonetheless your boy, they’re nonetheless your woman, it doesn’t matter what occurs of their life, and I believe it’s so essential that we as mother and dads love by way of something, and that is the best way with Jesus, you realize. Jesus loves us by way of something.”

To which Pieters responded: “Jesus loves me simply the best way I’m, I actually consider. Jesus loves the best way I like.”

The empathy of a survivor

Whereas Bakker received’t get to see herself portrayed on the large display, Pieters — who was given eight months to reside in 1984 — continues to be alive at the moment. A Los Angeles resident and now 69, Pieters stated he’s completely satisfied to see his interview with Bakker portrayed within the movie and reaching a brand new technology that might not be conscious of the horror and stigma these dwelling with HIV and AIDS confronted within the early years of the epidemic. 

“I don’t actually know why I’ve survived what killed so many different folks,” Pieters instructed NBC Information. “I used to be legally blind for a time, I used to be paralyzed on the left facet of my physique and my adrenal glands blew out. It very practically killed me a few occasions, however they pulled me again from the brink, and I’m right here to inform the story. Is it a miracle? Is it an anomaly? I don’t know.”

Jessica Chastain and Steve Pieters attend the New York premiere of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” at SVA Theater in New York on Sept. 14, 2021.Taylor Hill / WireImage

Pieters got here “roaring out of the closet” within the Nineteen Seventies and have become an activist and pastor in a gay-affirming church, he stated. In 1982, he bought sick with what was then often known as GRID, or gay-related immunodeficiency.  It might later be renamed AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. 

“I used to be terribly sick over the subsequent few years, lastly recognized with stage 4 lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma in April of ‘84 ,” he stated. “And I managed to outlive that prognosis.” 

“My physician, God bless her, instructed me once I was first recognized terminal that not everyone was going to die from AIDS. She stated, ‘If there may be one in one million survivors, why not consider you’re that one in one million?’”

In 1985, Pieters stated, he was the primary affected person to be given one of many first medication scientists ever tried in opposition to HIV, an antiviral agent referred to as suramin. About six weeks into the remedy, he stated the cancers ignited by the virus have been in full remission and disappeared. The drug, nevertheless, was extraordinarily poisonous, making him sick. Each different individual within the trial died however one, he stated.

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner indicators her guide “I Will Survive… And You Can Too.”Mark Sullivan / WireImage file

Like Pieters, Bakker thought of herself a survivor, and that survivor standing is what linked her to so many individuals, based on those that knew her. She even wrote a guide titled “I Will Survive … And You Will, Too” in 2003 that recounted her numerous struggles, together with her divorce, her first bout with most cancers and the way she coped with dependancy and despair. 

And like many individuals who survived the AIDS epidemic of the Nineteen Eighties, Pieters stated he has needed to reconcile advanced emotions about being a survivor. 

“What I found about that through the years is that I can’t be totally alive if I permit the survivor’s guilt to rule my life,” he stated. “I’ve to seek out the enjoyment in life, every day.”

“None of us have any ensures about tomorrow,” he added. “So I’m right here now feeling pleasure regardless of no matter could also be happening in my life or on this planet, and that to me is what’s actually essential. Pleasure, I’ve found, shouldn’t be the absence of struggling, however the presence of religion and hope and love, and I’ve tried to reside that.”

‘The fearlessness of a drag queen’

It was throughout that lethal drug trial that Pieters sat down for an interview with Bakker by way of satellite tv for pc from California. Bakker was broadcasting from the Reward the Lord studios in Charlotte, North Carolina. She claimed throughout their interview the explanation Pieters wasn’t in a position to journey to the studio was due to his chemotherapy remedies, however Pieters stated there was extra to the story. 

“I later discovered that  — whereas Jim and Tammy would have been very hospitable in the direction of me  — they have been afraid that [their employees] won’t deal with me properly, and that certainly the digicam crew won’t work if I used to be within the studio,” he stated. “So I believe it was a mixture of them desirous to watch out for my well being, but additionally to be sure that I wasn’t handled badly by different staff.”

Some critics of the interview have pointed to the invasiveness and even offensiveness of Bakker’s questions — which included queries about Pieters’ intercourse life, if gays might flip their children straight and why Pieters had “no hope … to be straight”  — however Pieters stated though a few of her questions left him speechless, he was completely satisfied she requested them.

“I’ve had quite a few individuals who’ve seen the interview inform me through the years, ‘Properly, she requested loads of actually type of foolish questions, particularly about being homosexual,’” Pieters stated. “However they have been the appropriate questions for the viewers, and I knew that on the time — though I used to be type of flabbergasted when she requested me if I’ve ever had a sexual expertise with a lady. However, you realize, they have been the appropriate questions for her viewers, and I took it as a chance to coach them.”

Pieters additionally stated he believes her questions on his sexuality had a extra private purpose as properly. “It has been stated that in questioning me so intently about why I needed to be homosexual, she was grappling with problems with her personal marriage,” he stated. 

Within the late Nineteen Eighties, fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell accused Jim Bakker of getting sexual relationships with different males, together with a Reward the Lord official, who revealed his alleged relationship with Bakker to a federal grand jury convened to find out if ministry cash was paid for sexual favors. Jim Bakker denied these allegations however was convicted of 28 counts of fraud and conspiracy in 1989 and sentenced to 45 years in jail. He was paroled in 1994 after serving slightly below 5 years. He has been married to his second spouse for over twenty years.

No matter Bakker’s intentions might have been, her interview with Pieters shook the Christian world and was seen as an act of defiance in opposition to the church and conservative political values. 

“It was highly effective and it was radical, and she or he bought in loads of bother for it,” Pieters stated of the backlash.

Tammy Sue Bakker at a taping of “The Sally Jesse Raphael Present” at Sea World in San Diego, California, in 1990.Jim Smeal / Ron Galella Assortment by way of Getty Photographs file

Bakker’s daughter, Tammy Sue Bakker, additionally makes use of the phrase “radical” when describing her mom, significantly the acceptance she stated her mom confirmed to individuals who have been ostracized by different high-profile Christians on the time. 

“I used to be not raised with judgment; that simply was not in our home,” she instructed NBC Information in her first interview in 17 years. “It was at all times a ravishing factor, and it was at all times significant so far as that goes and simply accepting. My finest pal in highschool was homosexual and that was the varsity we had at Heritage. Everyone was sort and loving to him, even at our church.”

Tammy Sue Bakker was 15 when her mom interviewed Pieters, however she stated she remembers it clearly. 

“I knew that when mom did the interview, that it was groundbreaking and that individuals have been going to be offended, as a result of Christians didn’t perceive it,” she stated. “I used to be pleased with her for doing it.”

“Her love was on show that day, and she or he was not ashamed of it,” she added. “She didn’t have that worry of what folks have been going to suppose. She wore make-up, she wore her wigs, she had her massive boobs, she wore her loopy garments and her massive earrings and sang the best way she sang. She had a guide referred to as ‘I Gotta Be Me,’ and that’s her. That’s the best way she was.”

Within the 2000 documentary — which premiered when federally acknowledged same-sex marriage was only a pipe dream and homosexual intercourse was nonetheless criminalized in lots of states throughout the nation — Tammy Faye Bakker was requested about her perspective towards homosexual rights. She notably replied, “We’re all simply folks made out of the identical previous filth, and God didn’t make any junk.” It’s additionally a line used within the Chastain movie.

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, heart, speaks with drag queens Jolene Sugarbaker, proper, and Woman Bunny, left, earlier than a Tammy Faye look alike contest in Cobalt, Washington, on June 8, 2002.Marvin Joseph / The Washington Publish by way of Getty Photographs file

Bakker’s boldness and her refusal to evolve was one thing that struck Chastain — and impressed her to attract a maybe becoming comparability, as Bakker advanced right into a homosexual icon of types and even served as inspiration for gender-bending performers. 

“She had the fearlessness of a drag queen,” Chastain stated. “There was one thing about her, folks speak about drag like a masks or her make-up is a masks, and for me, I noticed it as a method that she was expressing how she felt inside. It wasn’t a masks; she wasn’t hiding — it was truthful. She was being inventive, she was being creative. It was a ravishing factor about her.”

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