A 24-minute interview with a religious leader who’s career soon collapsed in scandal, needed to happen at the exact time that it did, between THESE two people.
Tammy Faye Bakker interviewed Steve Pieters, a man who had at that time in 1985 been given a few months to live. Tammy Faye gave a face to gay Christians, and to a gay Christian with AIDS, and that 24-minute segment changed so many lives. They recently even made a movie where this very conversation was what shifted the family into compassionate service and love for the community. Steve Pieters became one of the most powerful voices for the community and those with AIDS, and has outlived everyone, and all expectations.
He has a very goofy friendly disarming smile, and a soft personality, you just love and trust the guy at first word.
Jeremy Hinks: Ok Steve, thank you so much for your time. Lemme start here, you were interviewed by Tammy Faye Baker, at that moment that it was going to be a complete perfect storm of inconvenience for them?
Steve Pieters: I’ve never heard it put that way before, but yes. They invited me to Charlotte and gave me two first-class airplane tickets. I was very weak at the time from an experimental therapy, but they called me on the way to the airport and asked me to send the tickets back because Tammy was sick. Then they called the next day and said that Tammy was feeling better and wanted to do the interview again, but wanted to do it via the first satellite hook-up PTL had ever done. I was on a little TV, that was the monitor, I could not see her, though she could see me. I just heard it all through the earpiece.
JH: SO, I saw the trailer for that film “Through The Eyes Of Tammy”. I was raised Mormon, but for me to talk to you right now, I consider it an honor. I was raised to be homophobic, and I remember seeing that first segment of the interview being used in a scandal report, exposing Jimmy and Tammy as “Evil, greedy, non-Christian” whatever.
SP: I did not know that.
JH: They were saying “Look at all these horrible things they are doing, the greed, the money, and NOW they are propping up these immoral people as Christians. They were trying to use it as ammunition against them, as propaganda, and they were in hot water enough at the time. But for me to go back and watch that interview again with my current views, I’m not gonna lie, I cried watching that.
SP: Oh wow, thank you.
JH: That was very moving to see it 37 years after the fact. But watching that, I mean, you came from perfect Norman Rockwell parents.
SP: I was born and raised in Andover Massachusetts, my father was the wrestling coach and chairman of the math department at one of the oldest boys’ prep schools in the country. My parents were very religious Christians, my grandparents were missionaries to Korea for the Presbyterian church, my uncle was a pastor, my parents were active in our church, and I went every Sunday. I went through the usual for my peer group. We went through a disillusionment in the late 1960s, and I left the church for a while, I came out and was able to come back to the Church when I attended the Metropolitan Church in Chicago where I met a group of wonderful loving people, and there I decided to go into the ministry. I went to Northwestern University to become an actor, I had always wanted to be “A Star” but God had other things in mind for me, and I found myself floundering in becoming an actor out of college. I felt the call to the ministry, so I did my graduate work at McCormack Theological Seminary and got my masters there. I was the only openly gay student at the McCormack seminary, in the late ’70s, it was a HUGE issue for some of the churches back then.
JH: Hey, in Mormonism, they haven’t even accepted that it really exists.
SP: Well, they have accepted that it exists, I was invited to be a panelist at a Mormon conference on religious freedom, and I was the ONLY openly gay participant at that whole conference. Everyone was extremely friendly, and Elder (Dallin H) Oaks’ wife was just as friendly as she could be, I sat with her during a couple of sessions. And she whispered to me “You know, I think my hairdresser might be gay”.
JH: YA THINK????
SP: And Elder Oaks came up to me after my panel came up and shook my hand, the crowd parted and he shook my hand and said “I learned a lot from you, thank you so much for being so honest” and the whole conference, everyone there was Mormon. There was a long line of people to talk to me, not the other panelists, I was the oddball, the “GAY” one.
JH: You were the “OUT” gay one, I’m sure there were plenty of gay folks there.
SP: Oh I’m sure, but some people came up to me and said “I agree with you that people should be able to be out, I think that homosexuality is ok, I really wish the church would see that.” And after about fifteen people saying that to me, I said, “You know you really should tell that to each other, not whisper it to me”. I don’t think that happened, but I told them that.
JH: So, I think that’s interesting because of where the LDS church is on that right now. I was raised in this homophobic, xenophobic world where all other churches are wrong, and you can’t be a Christian and be gay.
SP: Yes, I know it all.
JH: The fact was that they were trying to stand themselves against them for being greedy and dishonest with their money, then they got uncovered having over 100 Billion of “Charitable” investments but none of it went to anything. It’s bad, makes the whole PTL scandal look like someone stealing the milk money.
JH: SO when I watched that video, I had seen Tammy do so many things that were just trite and plastic. But that interview with you was about as authentic as I had ever seen her. I remember they focused on that, the compassion she showed you, that was a serious scandal back in 1988. If that was what brought shame and scandal to the PTL, God bless them for that, they gave you a voice.
SP: Yeah, I had been a public spokesperson for people with AIDS, as a gay man with AIDS doing the media around it since 1982. So by the time Tammy Faye invited me onto her show to discuss this, I had been in front of the camera quite a bit. BUT, I had never been able to reach her audience. So I saw it as an extraordinary opportunity to reach an audience I never would otherwise. I had learned my lessons well to articulate the gay experience and the AIDS experience. I had never been asked some of the questions she asked me, but those were the questions for her audience.
JH: THEY WERE!!!!, that was awesome when she was asking, “Have you ever been with a woman?”
SP: Yeah, I was able to answer her questions from the gay pride perspective, and the gay Christian, and by the end, she was able to affirm that I was a gay Christian. And in the years since then, people coming to tell me about hearing that assurance at that time saved their life or helped them through their adolescence, and not kill themselves because they learned from that interview that they could be gay and Christian, or Lesbian and Christian.
JH: Man, how many angles to this can we take, I am in Utah and we have the highest ratio of queer kids killing themselves. So, she wasn’t pulling any punches in what she asked you, and I saw in your facial expressions, “I have never been asked that before”.
SP: Exactly! As experienced as I was doing interviews on TV, I had never been asked some of those questions. They were the questions that they would have asked me if they had been in her seat.
JH: Did they give you any idea of that and the kind of things she would ask?
SP: No, and I told them I wanted it to go out live, so they couldn’t edit it to their purposes. I told them I was out and proud. I told them that I was a happy gay Christian living with AIDS, and they told me that Tammy was fine with that and that Tammy wanted to get that message out. Nobody gave me questions beforehand, but when they got me into the studio in Los Angeles and gave me the earpiece, and then I’m hearing Tammy Faye talking to me, and thanking me for coming onto her show, and for my courage. She told me that ‘Tammy’s House Party’ was the Phil Donahue segment of PTL, we weren’t going to talk about Jesus, but we were going to talk about issues.
JH: Oh man, she kept bringing Jesus into it.
SP: I know, she brought it up, and “When in Charlotte” but she brought it up, and we talked about Jesus, and that was quite an experience to have that conversation with her.
JH: See, I went to Harvard Divinity School.
SP: Did you really?
JH: Yeah, I was once a devout Christian, I was going to prove Mormonism true (backfired), but I understand the feeling, the rapture. I could go sit with any minister, we could read the scriptures, and pray, and I remember how good all that felt. When I was watching that video, I could recognize that I really could see two Christians connecting. Like, “When two or more are gathered together in my name”, that was beautiful.
SP: Thank you, I take it you haven’t seen the movie.
JH: No, I saw the trailer, and the interview clip in there was one of the high points of it. It looks REALLY MESSY.
SP: Yeah, the interview was 24 minutes long, but they only used 2 minutes of it in the film. But it’s a pivotal moment in the film. Jessica Chastain told me that the interview I did with Tammy Faye was what made her decide to do the film. In all her interviews about it, she talks about “The Steve Pieters” interview as being a huge influence on her wanting to get this message out about “Who Tammy Faye” really was. That there was this real woman who was compassionate, and different.
JH: Did you meet her after that?
SP: No, I never met her, but I am still very close friends with her son Jay, and her daughter Tammy Sue.
JH: Well, in that interview I saw her as the “Mother Hen” taking you under her wing. That was where I developed a respect for her. Because of all the other shit shows, she was involved, and what an asshole Jimmy was, and then you just being there showed a very different side of her that the world needed to see.
SP: That was a big turning point in my life, and in her life, her friends, and son told me that my interview changed the Bakker family. She realized that she had an affinity for the LGBT community. She started taking her children to LGBT-friendly churches and began taking them to AIDS hospices to visit patients, and to gay pride parades. She ended up being the Grand Marshal for several different gay pride parades. But I never got to meet her, I was so saddened when she died that I never got to meet her in person.
JH: Wow, I can see that it was a turning point for the family, but she gave you a voice, and it melted something in her heart. I remember the part in ’88, it’s comedic now, but when you said, “we practice what we call ‘SAFE SEX,”. It sounds stupid now.
SP: YES, the concept of safe sex was still, quiet, and I knew that I was speaking to lots of closeted gay and lesbian people who in particular needed to hear that. You don’t want to get AIDS like me.
JH: Well, at the time that was a death sentence.
SP: Yes, everyone thought it was, but I had a doctor who when she diagnosed me with two kinds of cancer, AND AIDS, told me, “There are no 100% in medicine and everyone is going to die from this” as currently thought, and if one in a million will survive AIDS, maybe you will be that one.”
JH: I remember you saying in the interview that you were going to die soon. And then you outlived her.
SP: Yeah, at the end of the movie they did a “Where are they now” and they showed the actor, and then the actual person and Jim Bakker went to prison, Jerry Fallwell died in 2004, Tammy died in 2007, and “Steve Pieters is alive and well, and living in Los Angeles and singing in the Gay Mens’ Chorus”. It did not turn out the way we thought it would back in 1985.
JH: The first person I ever knew with AIDS was a friend from middle school, she got it supporting a drug habit and as a prostitute in Salt Lake.
SP: WAIT, there are prostitutes in Salt Lake City???? (laughing)
JH: Oh yeah, she was servicing some high-profile Mormon clientele, and she said to me, “Jeremy, don’t ask God for a cure”. She then compared herself to one of the malefactors on the cross to the left and right of Jesus when one said, “Of you are the Messiah, save us” and the other said, “Look man, he is suffering the same death as us, and he is innocent, we earned this”. She is fine now, married, has some kids, and living the perfect Mormon Rockwell home. She felt like she earned it.
SP: Well, we haven’t found a cure, we have found a way to manage it so people with AIDS can live longer, healthy lives, but no, “CURE”. But when I was sick from 82-87, it was just unheard of for people to get well. I was on an experimental drug, and on that drug, the cancer went into submission, and it nearly killed me. It proved to be too toxic for treating HIV and AIDS, the drug caused a near-death experience. I got well despite all that toxicity, the drug didn’t work for anyone else, why it worked for me, I don’t understand. But to many people it was considered a miracle, I am an anomaly, I have been blessed so many times in my life. I’m still shocked that I got well. The Metropolitan Community Churches made me the director of the AIDS ministry. I traveled the world in that work until 1997 when people started getting well from the cocktail and the inhibitors. In 1997 I was burning out, and doing AIDS ministry for 11 years was exhausting. I was working as a chaplain at the AIDS hospice here in Los Angeles.
JH: Yeah, you worked at the hospice, THEN “Playboy”?
SP: Yeah, I went to work in their public relations department in Beverly Hills. I have to say one of the closest and most endearing friends I have ever had was Christie Hefner. We met when we were teenagers, and have stayed friends all these years. She has been an extraordinary support to me through all my trials. I was having dinner with her when I was contemplating what I was going to do, all the AIDS organizations were downsizing. I truly just needed a break, and Christie asked me to come work for her.
JH: THEN you were brought on as the chaplain at Playboy, you were a hit I’m sure.
SP: Well, you have to understand that at that time, the very important jobs were done by gay men and women. But, I was the only clergy. The jobs I had at Playboy were so fun, one of the jobs was to interview the Centerfold and write a little press release. And all these women who were coming to audition to be a playmate, and they thought I could help them land a job, so they are coming onto me, and I’m saying, “Don’t you see the “Q” on my forehead?”, but I am so grateful for Christie getting me in there, I had a wonderful time.
JH: So, talk about your WhiteHouse visit.
SP: Well, in 1993 the first AIDS prayer breakfast in the White House happened in the Clinton White House. He invited 12 religious leaders to AIDS ministry, and because I was the person with AIDS, I got to sit there with Bill Clinton, and Al Gore sat right across from me. And I got to just talk to the President of the United States. IT was an amazing opportunity to speak truth to power. Clinton and Gore had good hearts, and I was again so blessed to be a person with AIDS in the AIDS ministry.
JH: You were the first NON-entertainer “Celebrity” with AIDS, you weren’t Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson.
SP: Well, I became something of a celebrity because of the Tammy Faye interview. Everywhere I went they wanted me to bring that videotape of the interview with me, and they wanted to watch me watch that video with them. I saw that interview WAY too many times. I came away from that interview thinking I had not said the right things. I told my neighbor, “I did a terrible job, I’m glad no one will see it”.
JH: MAN, you changed so many lives, touched so many people. So, I’m the guy who lost faith around a million things in Mormonism. It was the night before my 19th birthday when I was supposed to be going on my mission, and I wasn’t at that time, that I found out that my dad was gay, and that was why my parents were getting divorced. That was a lot to take on for a kid. But I was the asshole of a son and didn’t talk to him for years. Then that policy happened in November 2015, and I realized that, yeah, it was the church, and I was a terrible person to my dad, and I was doing exactly what they would have wanted me to. Also that I was a loophole, that had anything been different, I never could have been baptized, or allowed to go on a mission. I would have been that exiled child. But, man, that was one brutal time in my life to come to terms and accept all of this, and the church suddenly being wrong about EVERYTHING all at once, that was heavy. I can say I don’t know Jesus is divine, and that’s ok, I can say God is Love, and that Jesus guy, we all put a lot of horrible things on him that he has nothing to do with. BUT, in that interview, Tammy was saying, “Jesus is in your heart” and, well, yeah, the message of Jesus was, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Dick”. So obviously you still believe, it carried you a long way.
SP: My faith was strong, and still is, two weeks after I was diagnosed with AIDS and cancer, I was given 8 months to live in April of ’84. I was invited to teach the Easter sermon, I was the associate pastor on staff. It was the most valuable lesson to look at the message of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and I discovered in my meditation and study, that if God is greater than the death of Jesus on the cross, then God is greater than AIDS, and even in the face of this horrible stigmatized disease, I realized that I could still dance. *And I danced right across the altar. And it has been a remarkable journey living that message ever since.
JH: My friend Chuck Panozzo from the rock band “STYX” told me that he began to live his true self when he came out as a gay man with AIDS. He survived two bouts with cancer too, you have a lot in common with Chuck, though he is a rock musician playing to twenty thousand fans a night, and you’re in the Gay Men’s Chorus.
SP: Yeah, there is nothing like being told you have a horrible disease to help you decide how you are going to live the rest of your life. I love life, I love to laugh, and make people laugh. When I was diagnosed as terminal, I was so grief-stricken about feeling like I would never get to see my friends grow old, but here I am turning 70 this year, it’s quite a triumph, I wasn’t supposed to see 33.
JH: If I can go to a moment in the bible, when they said to Jesus, “Whom thou lovest is sick”, and then Jesus shows up late, his friend died. They had the shortest scripture.
SP: Jesus wept.
JH: That’s right, he showed us pure compassion, he knew he was going to raise him from the dead, but he still cried with everyone. That message, “When you are crying, I am crying with you”.
SP: Well, then he said, “Lazarus Come out”, which has been a watchword for so many people who are gay, lesbian, trans, and bi, in the Christian community. Come out of your tomb, come out of your closet, come out and have life.
JH: Wow, that was beautiful I never thought of it that way. I’m gonna have to say thank you so much for all of this, it has been a beautiful conversation, thank you so much, Steve.
For the full audio of this interview, you can click here or see the insert below. For Steve Pieters full Tammy Faye Bakker video, see the last video in this post.