A Surprising Odyssey


On a sunny morning at a seaside taco stand in Laguna Beach, the Rev. Mel White was yapping on his ever-present cell phone, griping about his prostate while on hold, then bickering with the cops over the script of how to get himself and his devotees arrested.

White, 61, an affable gay minister ordained in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, clutched a Tecate beer. It may have been 11:20 a.m., but he’d been up since 4 a.m., so he figured he’d earned it. That’s got to be in the Bible somewhere.

“Hey, you want to get arrested on Sunday?” he asked the waitress. “You’ll be out of jail in time to take care of your kid.”


She passed on the offer with a laugh, thunking a burrito on the table. “By the way,” she asked, “what would that accomplish again?”

White cringed, then chuckled. It was a good point: What, exactly, has he accomplished?

For the last year, he has traipsed across the country with other activists, staging sit-ins to protest what he believes are the anti-gay policies of Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others, carefully choreographing his own arrest, bailing himself out and moving on to the next stop.

On this day he was piecing together a planned protest at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., where leaders of the denomination would be crafting a “statement of faith” opposing women as senior pastors and gay sex.

White’s life has been a curious metamorphosis from darling of the religious right to gay rights leader. It crested in 1993, when he stood at the pulpit of one of the nation’s largest gay congregations and declared that God loved him “without reservation.”

He became a famous front man for the gay rights cause. When 200 people were arrested during a protest at the United Methodist Church conference last year in Cleveland, for example, his arrest was the shot for the evening news.

But recently, White had an epiphany: “It’s not about Mel anymore.” Today, he feels that he has established enough of a foundation to push others into the spotlight as he crusades to secure a place for gays in America’s churches--a notion many of his contemporaries gave up on long ago.


That’s why Dignity USA, a Washington-based support group for gay Catholics, took center stage earlier this year in a protest at the Vatican, rather than White. It is why the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for uniting two men at a ceremony in North Carolina, is the new chairman of the board of White’s organization, Soulforce. It’s why White, who now has allies in virtually every major church in the country, can step up his campaign from talk to action, encouraging supporters to withhold tithes until churches change their bylaws regarding gays, and encouraging gay organists to quit in the middle of services.

“I had this weird connection with the religious right, so it started out kind of about Mel,” White said. “But we have reached a new place.”

Raised by Evangelicals

His mother thought he was some sort of apostle.

Raised by evangelical parents in Santa Cruz, he moved to Southern California in 1963, taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and quickly became the hidden voice behind the most powerful icons of Christian conservatism. He churned out a speech for Oliver North, and “first-person” books for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But White had a secret: He was gay. He vacillated wildly, cruising gay bars in Laguna Beach, then seeking aversion therapy that delivered him an electric shock every time photographs of men aroused him. After years of turmoil, he pinned his demons to the mat and defected. He became an icon in his own right--of the gay rights movement.

His work reached a milestone, ostensibly, in late 1999, when he traveled to Lynchburg, Va., and urged Falwell to tone down his rhetoric about gays. But that meeting ultimately left White feeling betrayed. Falwell, White says, was able to play the populist without making any substantive changes to his ministry. Since the meeting, for example, Falwell’s popular and agenda-setting Web site has called American Airlines’ support of gay rights “astounding.”

White was left in an awkward position: one of the few people with a foot in both camps. He claimed a stake in the church, much of which showed little interest in opening its arms to gays. And he was an integral part of the gay community.


It has hardly made him rich. He and his life partner, Gary Nixon, each earn about $3,000 a month as the directors of Soulforce. He does a few speeches at colleges that fetch him $2,100 a pop. He brings his own cup to the taco stand to save a quarter.

He has devoted his life to raising tolerance in people like Fred Phelps, a Kansas-based Baptist minister who has mocked the funerals of gay men. How well has that gone?

“The hottest spot in hell is reserved for the likes of Mel White,” Phelps said recently after a meeting with White.

Many gays regard White as a gay version of Uncle Tom.

“Who is Mel White as a role model?” demands Bob Kunst, leader of the activist group Oral Majority. “We don’t have to play his little charade: If we grovel and climb into bed with the Nazis, maybe they will like us. That’s Mel White’s crap.”

Changing the Outlook of an Old Friend

What exactly has Mel White accomplished?

Ask Philip Yancey.

“Mel, gay? Is the pope Muslim?”

Those were the first words that popped into Christian author Yancey’s head when he heard White’s secret. Yancey, the author of books such as “The Jesus I Never Knew,” and a mouthpiece for evangelism, is an old friend.

For years, Yancey believed, as many Christian conservatives do, that being gay was a simple matter of choice.


Then, in the mid-1980s--before much of the rest of the world knew--White sat Yancey down in a hurried meeting at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and revealed that he was gay. Yancey was, he would write later, “repulsed” at the idea of having a gay friend. Suddenly, he had no choice.

Over the next few years, he talked White out of jumping off a fifth-floor balcony. He helped White destroy mementos of his gay life, such as a bath club identification card. Finally, in 1987, Yancey accompanied White to a gay pride march in Washington.

In his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Yancey recalled being taken aback by a faction of the 300,000 marchers who “clearly intended to shock the public.” But Yancey was also disgusted, he wrote, by the “orthodox” religious groups that peppered marchers with insults: “Faggots go home!” and “AIDS, AIDS, it’s comin’ your way!”

“The more orthodox group spewed out hate, and the other group [gay marchers] sang of Jesus’ love,” he wrote. “I left Washington with my head reeling.”

Ultimately, White taught Yancey a great deal about grace, about acceptance.

“I think of the changes that have occurred within the evangelical church in my lifetime over the issue of divorce, an issue on which Jesus is absolutely clear,” Yancey wrote. “Yet today a divorced person is not shunned, banned from churches, spit upon, screamed at. . . . For me it has been an intense and ongoing test on how grace calls me to treat ‘different’ people.”

The ‘Golden Couple’ Splits Up

Lyla Loehr met James Melville White, son of the Santa Cruz mayor, when they were 12. In high school, when White was the student body president, she tried to get him impeached. Not drawn to religion, Lyla believed that Mel’s obsession with evangelism was a conflict of interest. White responded by asking her out. They got married when they were 22.


He had converted her to Christianity, and they had two children, Erinn and Michael (who would go on to star in the film “Chuck & Buck”). They were a “golden couple,” Lyla said--smart, articulate, full of hope.

And then one night, two years after they got married, he picked her up from Crescenta Valley High School, where she was teaching English. He pulled into a Chinese restaurant. “I think I might be a homosexual,” he said.

He tried not to be. He even tried dropping homophobic comments from time to time. But it was a mirage, and he was miserable. Lyla told him to pack up. He moved out of their Pasadena home, they divorced and today they are best friends.

“I have some deep spiritual resources,” she said. “And I have all of that because of Mel.”

White plans to stage more protests and organize a smattering of voices into a succinct series of demands: “Marry us. Ordain us. Let us serve.”