Stranger at the gate
By Mel White
Word that I was gay spread quickly among my old ghostwriting clients
and friends on the Religious Right. Contracts and unwritten agreements
we had made to do a book or film together were canceled. My letters
and faxes were ignored. My phone calls went unanswered.
Because I had been honest about my sexual orientation, it was becoming
painfully clear that I could no longer serve the very people who had
heaped honors and awards on me for my lifetime of contributions to
Christ and His church. In spite of my graduate degrees in ministry
and twenty-five years of Christian service as a pastor, a seminary
professor, a writer of best-selling books, and a producer of prize-winning
religious films, admitting I was gay ended all chances of continued
service. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder seriously
how I would support my family, but even more important, I began to
wonder what I should do to help turn back this growing avalanche of
bigotry, discrimination, and violence the Religious Right had loosed
About that time, the Reverend Michael Piazza, pastor of the largest
gay/lesbian church in the world, called to ask if he could drop by
our cottage on the beach at Laguna for a visit. I knew Michael and
his amazing congregation. A year earlier, they had invited me to preach
a spiritual-emphasis weekend in Dallas while their church was still
meeting on the group floor of an embarrassingly pink office building
they had rented when they outgrew their four hundred seat sanctuary
on Reagan Street.
Michael parked his rental car near our cottage, hugged me cheerfully,
and suggested immediately that we take a long walk on the beach. He
didn't even take time to change his shoes before we were in the wet
sand, walking through the tide pools, I pointed out a peregrine falcon
that lived in a magnificent wind-twisted pine high on the cliffs above
Shaw's Cove. I picked up sea slugs stranded by the high tide and showed
him Nuns' Cove with its fresh assortment of shells and driftwood.
We walked along Crescent Beach and passed by a series of fascinating
caves en route to Seal Island. I was chatting about the wonders of
Laguna. Michael was polite, but anxious to get on with business.
When I paused on my typically frenetic walk just long enough to watch
a large flock of pelicans flying by, Michael took advantage of the
pause to ask what he had come to ask. "I want you to be the dean of
our new cathedral in Dallas," he said directly. "I don't have any
money to pay you, at least not yet. We've spent all our funds building
the cathedral, but we want you to seriously consider coming anyway."
I was genuinely surprised by Michael's offer. Quickly, he explained
that his commitment as senior pastor to preaching, teaching, and administering
the largest lesbian/gay church in the world required his full-time
attention. He needed someone to help develop the cathedral's ministry
as a spiritual center for the gay and lesbian community. He had dozens
of speaking and writing opportunities he couldn't accept. Michael
also wanted to establish a national television ministry and to launch
nationwide Circles of Hope, small, informal study and action groups
that would help gays and lesbians in towns and villages across the
country where there was currently no proactive, pro-spiritual gay
or lesbian presence.
In 1970, just two years after the Reverend Troy Perry founded the
Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, one of the
earliest sister congregations was founded in Dallas, Texas. Under
the leadership of the Reverend Don Eastman, and now, the Reverend
Michael Piazza, that congregation — the Cathedral of Hope UFMCC —
has grown to be the largest Christian church in the world with a primary
ministry to lesbians and gays, their friends and families.
I was looking for a safe, supportive place to come out against my
old clients on the Religious Right, to help alleviate the suffering
caused by their homophobic rhetoric to my gay brothers and lesbian
sisters, to write my own coming-out story, and to see where God would
lead. All my life I had felt called to a Christian ministry. At this
moment when my old opportunities to minister were dying, it seemed
that God was using Michael and the Cathedral of Hope to bring new
ones to life.
No actual job description was agreed upon. "If you'll just come to
Dallas and do your thing there," Michael told me, something will happen
that will honor Christ and help extend the Cathedral's ministry to
the nation." Little did we know how prophetic Michael's words would
be. Michael didn't even spend the night. He rushed back to the airport
and left me alone on the beach considering the implications of the
move from California and my beloved family to Dallas, Texas, the place
Michael called "the buckle of the Bible Belt."
The first consideration was my family. Lyla was working sixty and
more hours a week with her army of volunteers at All Saints Church,
where she had become the director of stewardship and was being invited
to conduct seminars in fundraising all across the country. Lyla was
staffing two major campaigns a year to support the ministry of this
influential parish, including model programs for the homeless, people
with AIDS and their caregivers, health care for Pasadena's uninsured
school children, pre-school child care, substance abuse, and low-cost
housing. On those rare occasions when she could take a day off, she
came to Laguna and we walked the beach together, talking about everything,
but especially about our children and the ways that God had blessed
them. Not only had they survived those difficult days of our struggle
and stress, but they had grown into creative, responsible, loving
adults who shared our values and enjoyed our presence.
Everything was changing so fast. Erinn had graduated from Azusa Pacific
with her teaching credentials in elementary education. When she and
her classmate, Bob Harriman, were married, they had asked me to conduct
the service. Bob had then gone on to earn his master's degree in student
administration and had later accepted a position in a nearby Christian
university. Erinn remained busy caring for our granddaughter, Katie,
who was just a few months old.
When Michael graduated from Wesleyan with honors, Lyla and I sat drenched
and proud in a rainstorm with a plastic raincoat held over our heads
watching him cross the platform to receive his diploma. Protesting
that he didn't want to cost us "any more money," we finally managed
to convince him to let us underwrite his first year of writing. Halfway
through that year, Michael was hired to write a film script for Twentieth
Century Fox. Already, he had an impressive little office on the lot
at Fox Studios near Century City. In my files I had a collection of
the plays my son had written, directed, and performed at Wesleyan,
and his posters and other memorabilia were tacked proudly to my office
When I told my family about the offer to move to Dallas, Lyla looked
sad for a moment, and then after a few honest words of warning and
a genuine smile of support, she encouraged me to accept the Cathedral's
offer. Erinn was immediately happy that I would be working in a church
again, but insisted that I return for Katie's first birthday party.
Michael was genuinely glad that my ghostwriting days were over. "Go
for it, Dad," he said, grinning. One by one they hugged me. I didn't
even try to hide my tears. I loved my family and wanted always to
be near them. Besides, I had a brand-new granddaughter and I wanted
to see her pass through each of those delightful stages from infancy
to maturity. I wanted to carry her around on my back in the old pack
that I had used to carry Erinn and Michael. I wanted to pass on to
her my love for the sea as we walked hand in hand on Laguna Beach.
I wanted to teach Katie to swim in the Laguna River pool. I didn't
want to hear her first "I love you, Grampa" over the telephone long
distance. For all those years my family and I had been together, if
not in residence, only a few minutes away. Moving to Dallas would
be painful in personal losses. And in all probability, the move would
be a financial disaster as well.
Becoming dean of the largest gay and lesbian congregation in the world
would end my closet days forever. Once the word was out, there would
be no turning back. In all likelihood, my network of conservative
Christian friends, clients, producers, and publishers that had taken
a lifetime to build would vanish. There would be no salary at the
Cathedral. They couldn't even help us with our move. How would I pay
the bills if I couldn't go on ghostwriting, producing films and TV
specials for my old clients? And though I felt called to preach and
teach, I would no longer be asked to speak in conservative Christian
universities, seminaries, or churches. I even worried about the national
press, especially the sensation-seeking tabloid papers and what they
might do with my story, and the embarrassment it might bring my family.
How Gary's life would be changed by the move was of equal concern
to me. I wasn't even sure that he would go along with the idea. He
had a responsible position in Los Angeles, managing commercial properties
for a major corporation. He had been honored as employee of the year
in 1991. He had excellent work benefits, generous health and life
insurance, and, in a plunging economy, total job security. I was asking
him to leave all that to begin the journey into a brand-new life for
both of us.
I wanted to accept Michael Piazza's offer to join him and his people
at the Cathedral in Dallas, but I didn't want to go alone. My romance
and friendship with Gary had evolved into a long-term, committed relationship,
but could I ask him to sacrifice his career to go with me? When I
finally got up my courage to ask, he didn't even pause to consider.
The night I told him about Michael Piazza's offer, Gary just hugged
me and said, "Let's go!"
There was a war being waged by the Religious Right against homosexual
people across this country. Because of my old clients' strident antigay
campaign, my lesbian sisters and gay brothers were suffering bigotry,
discrimination, violence, and death. It was past time for me to do
something to help those who suffered and, at the same time, by taking
a stand against the lies my clients were telling, to help cut off
that suffering at its source. I had prayed, worried, and fussed long
enough. With Gary's vote, the decision was unanimous. It would be
a risk, but we would take that risk together. I remembered Naomi's
famous words to Ruth: "Where you go, I will go. And what you do, I
will do also. Your people shall be my people. And your God, my God."
When there were difficult decisions to make, such as the move to Dallas,
or when Gary could see that I was perplexed, fearful, or stressed,
just before we turned out the lights on another day, he would climb
into bed, prop up the pillows, and pat gently on the sheets. "Get
up here," he would say quietly, and I would sit between his knees
and lean back against his chest. "Talk," he whispered, and as I began
to rehearse the options one more time, Gary would massage my neck
and shoulders, ask important questions, and let me ruminate until
the decision was made, the conflict was resolved, or I just fell asleep
in his arms.
Those moments with Gary were comforting to be sure, but over the years,
they had proven to be far more than just a source of comfort. They
had become a source of truth as well. Accepting my sexual orientation
and entering into a loving, committed gay relationship had proven
to me once and for all times that my homosexuality was another of
God's gifts. Many of my old friends and counselors on the Religious
Right had told me that homosexuality was a sin and that God would
abandon me if I "gave in" to that sinfulness. Others thought I was
just crazy or misled.
"You're somewhere in the middle of Freud's sexual-identity scale,"
one of my many counselors told me. "You are clearly a bisexual," another
exclaimed. "You're AC/DC," one of my friends said with a sly grin.
"You flow both ways." "You're just confused," a supporter of the "ex-gay"
movement once warned me with an unctuous smile. "You never had an
effective male role model so you never really grew up." Then before
praying for me one last time, he added, "You're suffering from a kind
of retarded adolescence that God will help you overcome with time."
Since childhood, I had been a victim of those conflicting voices.
In their noisy cloud of misinformation and judgment, I had doubted,
feared, and questioned my sexual orientation. In Gary's arms, that
painful debate ended. For me, the ultimate test of sexual orientation
had not been the test of passion but the test of time. In his wonderful
book _Memories,_Dreams,_Reflections_, Carl Jung writes, "A man who
has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome
The real test of sexual orientation came when romantic feelings died,
when those first few months or years of fiery sexual passion burned
down to a warm glow (or even burned out altogether), when there was
no urgent desire, as I heard a young friend say recently, "to jump
on each other's bones," when we were content to lie beside each other
in bed reading, watching television, talking and holding hands, or
when we just slept side by side.
The fires of passion were a test of sexual orientation to be sure.
It had been important to ask myself whom did I cast in my sexual fantasies,
a woman or a man? At the beach or swimming pool, was it a male body
that excited me and demanded my attention, or was it a female body
that "turned me on"? When I glanced through those full-page ads for
tight-fitting jeans or underwear in newspapers and magazines, was
it the male model or the female model who caught my eye? I tried to
ignore these involuntary, physiological responses for too long when
I should have trusted myself to heed them, but there had been other
tests of sexual orientation when passions cooled that I had found
Was it a man I wanted to come home to after a hard day's work, or
was it a woman I needed to greet me at the door with a smile and a
hug? Was it a man who brought me comfort by his very presence in the
kitchen, at the fireplace, and in the bedroom; or was it a woman's
company that made me feel safe, comfortable, and at home at last?
Was it a man I wanted to sit beside at church, at a coffee shop, and
in the movies; or was it a woman I liked to see in candlelight across
the restaurant table?
In the early years of our friendship, passion drew me to Gary like
a bee to honey. But after almost ten years, though passion still flared
between us, other equally compelling forces drew me to him. Finally,
after all those years, in my relationship with Gary, I knew who I
really was, a gay Christian man in a committed relationship with another
gay Christian man. Was it right for my relationship with Gary to be
demeaned, dishonored, and declared sinful and disgusting on Jerry
Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour," Pat Robertson's "700 Club," or Jim
Dobson's "Focus on the Family" simply because it was a homosexual
rather than a heterosexual relationship? Should my human rights be
threatened and my civil rights be denied by the Christian Coalition
because I felt more compatible with a man than with a woman?
At that moment, my old clients and friends from the Religious Right
were raising tens of millions of dollars supposedly to support antigay
legislation already pending in fourteen states and more than one hundred
counties and cities across America. Loving, private sexual acts between
consenting adult homosexuals were illegal in twenty-four states, and
the Religious Right was mobilizing to put antigay volunteer workers
in every one of America's fifty thousand voting precincts to pass
legislation that might end our rights forever.
Even worse, good people such as my parents were being confused by
the avalanche of lies. They watched Pat Robertson faithfully. They
heard Jim Dobson on the radio. Almost every day another antigay fundraising
letter appeared in their mailbox with the disgusting and untrue charges
against gay people underlined in red. My parents didn't want my civil
rights curtailed. They liked and respected Gary and could see we loved
each other, but like millions of other religious and political conservatives
in this county, my parents were being swept away by the lies against
us being told by the Religious Right. They knew me and Gary and they
loved us. They knew our beliefs and lifestyles and knew they were
similar to their own. But they believed that we were the exception.
In their minds, everyone else who is gay must be just as Pat Robertson
and all the others depicted them.
If only Pat, Jerry, and the others could understand the great good
they could do in helping their faithful listeners to understand the
truth. My mom and dad need to know that gay and lesbian people are
just like everybody else. I know I'm beginning to sound like a scratched
record, caught in one groove, playing the same old track over and
over again. But this truth cannot be repeated enough. Gay and lesbian
people do not want or need "special rights." We are for, not against,
"family values." We have no "agenda" that threatens the spiritual
or moral standards of this nation. We just want to the right to love
and to be loved without fear, ridicule, or discrimination.
We are not the enemy. The real enemies are those who teach hate instead
of love, those who use misinformation and fear tactics to raise money
and mobilize volunteers, those who play on ancient superstitions to
destroy lives and ruin families. All we want is our God-given right
to live and to love with integrity and to take our place in the community
as responsible neighbors and faithful friends.
Back as far as 1980, while I still cowered in my closet, two gay teenagers
in Anaheim, California, refused to be intimidated by those who hate.
With the whole world watching, Andrew Exler, nineteen, and his boyfriend,
Shawn Elliott, seventeen, demonstrated courage and conviction that
astounded me. After dating regularly for just two months, Andrew and
Shawn headed for "Date Night" at Disneyland. Hand in hand, they rode
the Matterhorn. Then on Space Mountain, they placed their arms around
each other as the young heterosexual couples were doing. After watching
"Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" and hearing Abe speak of individual
liberties and rights, they headed for the outdoor disco.
Eyewitnesses reported to the _Los_Angeles_Times_ that the dance floor
was jammed with teenage couples when Andrew and Shawn walked to the
center of the floor, directly in front of the bandstand, and began
to dance. For a moment, no one noticed. Then, one by one, the teenage
couples dancing near Andrew and Shawn began to whisper and point in
their direction. Security personnel monitoring the dance through television
cameras saw the two boys dancing proudly. Tall men in white uniforms
carrying walkie-talkies with small headsets in their left ears rushed
to the scene. A few couples left the floor. Others stood to stare
at Andrew and Shawn. Finally, the young bandleader noticed the confusion
and stopped the music, but the courageous gay men danced on, refusing
to be intimidated.
Looking back now, I wish Jerry Falwell had been there to see those
two young gay men doing exactly what God intended them to do. I wish
Pat Robertson could have been a witness to their courage as they danced
their way into their place of honor in the history of our liberation
movement. I wish Jim Dobson had been in the crowd to see what two
of our gay kids were willing to pay to enforce the values of families
who have learned to love instead of hate.
In the legal battle that followed, Andrew and Shawn refused to settle
until the courts declared their victory. The Religious Right suffered
a terrible defeat four years later, in 1985, when the verdict was
announced. Disney-land was instructed by the courts to let Andrew
and Shawn dance. While the leaders from the Religious Right jumped
up and down in rage, a growing number of Americans, even those who
didn't understand homosexuality, were wondering to themselves, "Don't
these preachers have anything better to do than pick on two young
gays who just want to dance?" In a _USA_Today_ poll, more than 50
percent of this nation's people said, "Let 'em dance."
As I walked the beaches of Laguna and thought, prayed, and worried
about moving to Dallas, I remembered Darrel, the Boy Scout in his
loincloth and feathers who forty years before had reached out his
hand and led me in my first dance. This time, Michael Piazza was holding
out his hand to me. To join him in the dance would be a terrible risk,
but how awful it would feel to plug my ears to the music and walk
away. Over those next few weeks, it became more and more clear that
it was time for me to take Gary by the hand, walk out into the middle
of that floor, and begin the dance. And just perhaps, if we had half
the courage and the grace that Andrew and Shawn had shown, others
would come dance with us.
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