The Rev. A. Stephen Pieters is a wellspring of joy and optimism. He is also one of the longest-term survivors of HIV/AIDS in the United States. For more than 35 years, Pieters has worked to raise awareness and empathy on behalf of those living with AIDS.
Pieters was ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a denomination founded in 1968 to serve the spiritual needs of LGBTQ+ Christians. As a pastor, he stood in sharp contrast to the often-vitriolic rhetoric about AIDS from conservative Christian spokespeople. While others quoted the Bible to condemn people with AIDS, Pieters drew on his faith and his theological training to make sense of his diagnosis and to preach about hope and community.
In 1985, he received a surprising phone call: Would he be willing to sit down for an interview with Tammy Faye Bakker, one of the most famous televangelists in the country? Bakker was typically an empathetic interviewer, but she was also friendly with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two of the loudest voices denouncing people with AIDS at the time.
He agreed to the interview on the condition that it be broadcast live, so that it could not be edited or taken out of context. Tammy Faye agreed. And so, in October 1985, a conservative Christian network aired one of the very first nationally broadcast, longform interviews with an HIV-positive gay man.
The interview made a splash in the televangelist world and beyond. It made Pieters into a national spokesperson and helped to transform Tammy Faye Bakker into a lifelong ally of the queer community. It is also a pivotal moment in the recent biopic—The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain, who has said that it was Pieters’s interview that inspired her to pursue this project.
Emily Suzanne Johnson interviewed Pieters over Zoom to discuss his life, his activism, and the experience of seeing himself portrayed on the big screen.
Religion & Politics: You were diagnosed with AIDS very early on in the epidemic [in 1982] and you’re now a long-term survivor. What was it like to receive this diagnosis when so little was known about the disease?
Steve Pieters: It was really terrifying, because we didn’t know a lot and it seemed like it was a death sentence at the time. I wasn’t actually diagnosed with AIDS; I was diagnosed with GRID—“gay-related immunodeficiency”—which is what they were calling AIDS back then. In 1982 and 1983, I was sick with hepatitis, thrush, pneumonia, mono, herpes, shingles, and a variety of awful fungal infections.
I was so fortunate that I had a group of lesbians who took very good care of me. They were from the women’s Metropolitan Community Church—DeColores MCC—which no longer exists. And they were such a powerful witness about what to do when your friends are diagnosed with GRID. Everyone was so afraid of coming near me. I didn’t see another gay man for a long time, because I was a walking symbol of everything they were afraid of and we didn’t know how it was transmitted. But these brave women saw it as their calling to be present where the quality of life was at stake, where life itself was at stake.
It took me three months to find someone who would bring me communion when I was housebound with the illness, because everyone was so scared. And finally, a deacon from the MCC in the Valley decided that she would come. She was so scared when she walked in, I could see her shaking. I didn’t care because I was so grateful to get this visible sign of inclusion in the community.
And there were times during that period where I really wrestled with my faith. I wrestled with God, “How could you be doing this to me? What did I do wrong? Maybe if I’d never come out, I wouldn’t have been punished with what’s happening to me now—I wouldn’t be facing my death at age 30.” I wrestled so heavily and, at the same time, I knew from all the theology that I’d studied and the good preaching I’d heard in MCCs all over that God doesn’t punish us with disease. God is with us.
R&P: You became a well-known public spokesperson for AIDS awareness in the 1980s and 1990s. How did this happen? What stands out to you about this phase of your life?
SP: It began in 1984. After those two years of serious illness, I was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma and given eight months to live. But then my doctor—not the one who gave me that prognosis—said, “You know not everybody’s going to die from AIDS. It looks that way now, but not everybody will. And if one in a million survives, why not believe that you’re that one in a million and act accordingly?” I took that to heart.
I became a client of AIDS Project Los Angeles, in early 1984. It had been founded in 1983 so this was very early on in their history. Because I had a lot of media experience as a gay activist, they put me in front of a camera pretty quickly. And there wasn’t anybody else talking about what it was like being a person with AIDS, at least not in L.A. So I started doing interviews about being a gay man with AIDS. So that it wasn’t all about me, I drew on the experience that I had from my volunteer work at AIDS Project Los Angeles as a phone buddy to people with AIDS, learning more about the disease and about other people living with the disease.
Another big influence on my activism was this: The night after I was diagnosed, my pastor and mentor, Rev. Ken Martin said, “I’d like you to preach the Easter sermon in two weeks.” And I remember saying, “You mean Good Friday, don’t you? I mean, I’m dying, right?” He said, “No, you need to preach Easter.”
And it was incredibly valuable to look at what it meant to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What did that mean to me, as someone who’s going to die shortly from this horrible, stigmatized disease? And I got up in the pulpit on Easter and said, “If God is greater than the death of Jesus on the cross, then God is greater than AIDS.” The congregation gasped, and then, you could see little lights going on all over the congregation: “Oh, of course, God is a greater reality.” I also said, “Look, they told me the worst thing they could possibly tell me, and I found out that I could still laugh, I could still enjoy my friends, I could still dance.” I did a little soft-shoe across the altar to show that I could still be fully alive, even in the face of death. And to me, that was the manifestation of believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was believing that my faith in God was giving me everything I needed to face whatever was in front of me with this disease. It empowered me to do the work of healing.
R&P: One of the unexpected things that happened in your life was being interviewed by the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who catered to a more conservative Christian audience. Can you tell me more about how this came about and what that experience was like for you?
SP: Well, let me give you the context. Two weeks before the interview, I had a near-death experience. My adrenal glands had failed and I was wasting away to nothing when they finally brought me into the ER. I had been terrified of dying alone, and here I was: facing my death with no friends or family around me. What I discovered was that we’re not alone when we die. No matter who’s there with you, there’s a host of witnesses and loving beings around you. I experienced such peace—the “peace that passes all understanding” [Philippians 4:6].
When I finally got home from the hospital, I got a call from my friend, Rev. Ken South, who was the executive director of AIDS Project Atlanta. Tammy Faye’s producers were looking for a person with AIDS, and they couldn’t find anybody willing to go on the show. Tammy Faye wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a real, live person with AIDS.
I thought this was an opportunity to reach an audience I would never otherwise reach. I did worry a bit about what it would do to my reputation. I even had good friends say to me, “Do you really want to do this? I mean, people might not take you very seriously afterward.” But I somehow knew it was going to be a good thing.
They sent two first-class airplane tickets for me and a friend to fly to Charlotte [where the show was filmed]. We were headed out the door to the airport when the producer called to cancel the interview. They said Tammy was sick. The next day, they called back and said, “Tammy’s feeling better but she thinks that maybe it would be too hard on you to travel, so we’re going to do a satellite interview.” So, I sat in a studio in California and Tammy Faye was in Charlotte.
She had told me that she wanted to talk to me about being a gay man with AIDS, but the first 12-15 minutes were all about being gay. How did I know I was gay and what made me think there was no hope for me to be straight? As many times as I’ve been interviewed as a gay activist, I’d never had questions put quite that way!
Then, we started talking about AIDS and when I began to talk about my near-death experience, I think she was a little afraid of going there. She steered the subject to Rock Hudson [the first celebrity to publicly acknowledge his AIDS diagnosis, and who had died earlier that month]. She used this to talk about what a shame it is that Christians are too afraid to give a person with AIDS a hug. She said, “If you were here, there would be Christians who wouldn’t be afraid to put their arms around you and tell you that we care.” And that was really sincere. I felt that sincerity.
She finally asked me, “Are you afraid to die?” And I said, “No, not after this experience two weeks ago.” I launched into, “I believe in the resurrection of Christ and there’s no reason to fear death.” And that was the moment where it all clicked for her. She said, “You really are a Christian. You’re a gay man who’s a Christian. You’re a gay man with AIDS who’s a Christian. Only a Christian would know that.” There was this communion between us in that moment that let me know that she really understood.
After the interview, my friend and the producer raved about it and said it was terrific and historic and is going to teach the masses about AIDS and being gay. I just thought I’d done a terrible job. When I got home, I called my neighbor and said, “I’m so glad no one I know will ever see this.”
But apparently it really rocked the televangelist world, from what I’ve learned recently. I’ve become good friends with Jay Bakker, Jim and Tammy Faye’s son. He told me about how my interview with his mother changed the whole family—she saw that she had a new ministry to gay and lesbian people. She began taking Jay and his sister to MCC services and AIDS hospices and Pride parades. She introduced her children to the queer community. What an amazing thing for her to do.
A year and a half after the interview, Troy Perry [the founder of the MCC denomination] showed the video at the annual MCC conference. I said, “Oh no, oh no.” But people really responded to it; there was this spontaneous standing ovation. I was the belle of the ball after that. I began to get invitations to fly all over the world to MCCs, and I always had to bring my videotape of me and Tammy to show every time.
Another thing that needs to be said: I later found out that the reason that Tammy Faye and her producer didn’t want me to travel to Charlotte was that they were afraid that I would be treated very badly at their studios, that maybe the staff and the camera people wouldn’t work if I were in the studio.
And that was certainly true. I was interviewed many times in the alley beside AIDS Project Los Angeles because they were afraid of being indoors with people with AIDS. Even while they held an interview with a panel of doctors in the studio—the person with AIDS wasn’t allowed in because the camera crew had told them, “We won’t work if you let that person in.” And these were mainstream networks: ABC, NBC.
I really felt like one of the outcasts that Jesus would have embraced but everybody else would have said, “No. Off to the leper colony you go.” There was even an effort by conservative Republicans at the time to quarantine people or even put them on an island if they had AIDS. And thank God that didn’t happen, but the fear was so powerful, what it did to people.
R&P: So, not only did everyone see the interview, but it ended up being featured in this recent biopic about Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain. What was it like to see part of your life depicted in a Hollywood film?
SP: It was really surreal. When they made the film, they didn’t even know I was still alive. It’s always interesting when people start talking to me about Tammy Faye and then begin to realize, “Oh my God. It’s the person with AIDS who’s still alive.”
Indeed, that’s a feature of this film where, at the end, they have this kind of curtain call, “where are they now” section. And you know, Jerry Falwell’s dead, Tammy Faye is dead, Jim Bakker went to prison, and Steve Pieters is still alive and singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. The person with AIDS is still here.
It was quite a trip to go to the premiere. The studio flew me out [to New York] and took me in limos everywhere. I was walking the red—actually, hot pink!—carpet and appearing before the paparazzi. And then, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around and there was this huge man standing there and he said, “Reverend Pieters, my name is Vincent D’Onofrio. I play Jerry Falwell in the film, and I just want to tell you I saw your interview with Tammy Faye years ago and it was so important and historic and I’ve been following your ministry ever since.”
Then one of the publicists for the film came up and said, “Jessica wants to meet you now.” And she ran to me and threw herself in my arms and just started saying, “Stephen, you’re extraordinary.” And she was just holding me tight and giving me all these extraordinary compliments. Everybody was just so nice to me; it was amazing.
R&P: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you wanted to mention?
SP: Yes! I wanted to tell you, when I was out preaching and teaching on the road for eleven years or so, I would carry a fairy wand. I first remember being called a fairy when I was seven. And I knew somehow they were right and I was so ashamed. When I finally came out and came to terms with being gay, I met a group of Radical Faeries and they taught me to own the name, to believe in myself as a good fairy.
I would talk to audiences about how there were so many good fairies dying now. We learn in Peter Pan that fairies die when people don’t believe in them. And it was a real problem in the later decades of the twentieth century, people not believing in fairies, in our worth, in our pride. When so many good fairies were dying, it was important for us to believe in ourselves enough to do the work of healing and believing in each other as we help each other, and to believe in our community. Well, that was a message that a lot of people heard, and it made sense to a lot of people, and I realized there was a real power in that.
Then in 2019, the Smithsonian was building this LGBT collection, and I was asked to put a box of material together. I found all of these documents and pictures and videotapes, and I put in the wand with an explanation. They loved it! The curator told me that it symbolized what got us through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s: the faith and belief in ourselves as queer people, as fairies, as dykes, as queers. To go from being stigmatized and ashamed for being a fairy at the age of seven to having my fairy wand prized by the Smithsonian—wow!