These are amazing times for Mel White, who sits in his Laguna Woods home and dares to dream that what happened last month in Lynchburg, Va., with Jerry Falwell might signal the end of gay-bashing in America.
But if that happens, he knows it will be miles more down the road--a road that in White's 59 years have already taken a number of careening turns.
Where to start telling White's strange journey?
For most of the 1990s, White hounded Falwell, who after founding the Moral Majority in 1979 had became one of America's foremost evangelists. Please, White wrote to Falwell time after time, read the anti-gay rhetoric sent out by your ministry and realize that it may contribute to violence against gays.
White heard nothing from Falwell, but the rhetoric continued.
Gays represented one of America's gravest threats, Falwell told his supporters. One fund-raising letter referred to "these perverted homosexuals who absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent God-fearing citizens stand for."
White, in a way, had Falwell's ear, having ghost-written Falwell's autobiography, "Strength for the Journey." But that was before Falwell and others in conservative religious circles knew that White--author, filmmaker, seminarian and married father of two--was gay.
The Internal Struggle
As Falwell railed against gays, White railed against himself.
"I thought he was right, in my heart of hearts," White says of Falwell. "I had been struggling for 30 years to overcome my homosexuality."
That struggle included electroshock, exorcism and mental-health therapy. Finally, with the help of a therapist, White realized he could be both gay and a committed Christian.
And so he targeted Falwell, whom he describes as "the primary source of misinformation about gay people."
Earlier this year, White and his partner of 15 years, Gary Nixon, began Soulforce, a Laguna Beach-based organization dedicated to the nonviolent principles espoused by Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"Martin Luther King [talks about] violence of the heart, tongue or fist," White says. "Most people limit it to fists. The fact is, our hearts are full of hatred, and that's eating us up. We're so wounded because of the anger and hatred we feel from the rejection. We are so wounded in what we say. I've been in cars with Falwell with activists screaming at him [profanely] . . . This is violence ready to boil over."
Against that backdrop, White told Falwell that an interfaith flock of 5,000 was coming to Lynchburg. Falwell countered: What if 200 of my supporters lunch privately with 200 of yours?
And on the weekend of Oct. 22-24 at Falwell headquarters, it happened.
Face to Face
'The meeting was unbelievable," White says. "We had tables of eight people each. We put pictures of hate-crime victims all around the room. Our 200 people were mixed up with their 200. The only way people change their minds about gay people is to know us. I wanted 200 of them to know 200 of us."
After the meeting, Falwell announced at a press conference that his rhetoric would be reined in. White also apologized publicly. If Falwell had said hateful things, White had to acknowledge, so had some gay activists.
"Our community loves to demonize him, yet he has more death threats than I have," White says. "He's been scared a lot more from crowds. He's had a bag of urine tainted with HIV splashed all over him."
White has no doubts about Falwell's sincerity. Nor does he feel patronized. "It took me 35 years to accept myself," White says. "It took him less."
Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss says Falwell "has subjected himself to some criticism from his natural allies but believed this is the right thing to do and was very pleased with the weekend."
While Falwell hasn't recanted his belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality, DeMoss says, "It would be fair to say Falwell was very pleased with the fact that this event provided a forum to demonstrate genuine love and concern and compassion for homosexuals."
No follow-up events are planned, DeMoss says. However, Falwell did explain to constituents in his regular newsletter that the meeting was designed "to not only join forces with the homosexual community in reducing the strident rhetoric on both sides of this debate, but to build a bridge of love and communication to the millions of gays and lesbians in our culture."
White--who will lead a contingent next week to Grand Island, Neb., to protest the church trial of Jimmy Creech, a Methodist minister who performed a marriage service earlier this year for two gay women--dares to think big.
"That Falwell has stopped hating us and stopped demonizing us is a tremendous step," White says. "He's taking a stand that I think will lead to the end of gay-bashing from the religious right."
Then, White sighs, "mainline religion" might follow.
For now, he's comforted by something he says Falwell told him: "He said, 'I want to be the first, Mel. The new millennium is coming. We can't go into it hating each other.' "
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org