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Steve Pieters, Pastor Who Spoke of AIDS in Famed Interview, Dies at 70


In 1985, when fear and homophobia were still driving much of the conversation surrounding AIDS, the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters, a gay pastor who had the disease, was a decidedly different voice.

That May, at the St. Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, Calif., presiding at a mass for people with AIDS attended by hundreds, he declared: “Rather than feel deserted by God, I have never been more sure of God’s love for me. God did not give me this disease. God is with me in this disease.”

That September, he spoke to The Los Angeles Times about the ostracism people with AIDS were encountering.

“Some people ask, ‘How is it different from cancer?’” he said. “Well, most people with cancer aren’t asked not to use the bathroom in a friend’s house or served dinner on paper plates. I’ve had more meals on paper plates in the last year than I’ve had in my whole life.”

One appearance he made that year had a particularly profound impact: In November 1985 he was interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker on the PTL (Praise the Lord) television network, which reached millions of Christian viewers, most of them conservative.

It was a sympathetic interview in which Mr. Pieters spoke forthrightly about being gay and about his illness, and Ms. Bakker (who was then married to the televangelist Jim Bakker) urged her audience to be governed by compassion rather than intolerance and fear.

“How sad,” she said, “that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, and we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.”

The PTL network had an audience of millions, and in the years since, that interview has been credited with helping to change at least some viewers’ perceptions of gay people, AIDS and faith. Some televangelists had been implying or stating outright that AIDS was divine retribution for homosexuality. Ms. Bakker (who after a divorce and remarriage was later known as Tammy Faye Messner) called on Christians to instead show empathy.

Among those impressed with her stand, many years later, was the actress Jessica Chastain, who won an Oscar last year for her role as Ms. Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” in which the interview with Mr. Pieters, portrayed by Randy Havens, was a pivotal scene. (A stage musical, “Tammy Faye,” which opened last year in London, also incorporated the 1985 interview.)

“That interview was why I needed to make the movie,” Ms. Chastain told Variety at the movie’s New York premiere in 2021. “It was rebellious and brave and courageous and badass. I’m 100 percent convinced that there were people — conservative Christians watching at home — who realized that they had judged their family members unlovingly. I’m convinced that that interview saved families and saved lives.”

If Ms. Bakker defied expectations with that interview, Mr. Pieters long defied AIDS, surviving for decades despite repeated health struggles. He died on July 8 at a hospital in Glendale, Calif., near Los Angeles. He was 70.

His spokesman, Harlan Boll, said the cause was a sepsis infection.

Mr. Pieters, who had continued his ministry and since 1994 had performed with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, was looking forward to the publication next year of his book, “Love Is Greater Than AIDS: A Memoir of Survival, Healing, and Hope.” In it, he said he was often asked why he thought he survived AIDS when so many others didn’t.

“Whatever the reason,” he wrote, “I feel deeply grateful to be alive. So many gay men of my generation did not get to grow old. What a privilege to have reached the age of 70, still dancing with joy.”

Albert Stephen Pieters was born on Aug. 2, 1952, in Lawrence, Mass. His father, Richard, was a mathematics teacher and wrestling coach at Phillips Academy, and his mother, Norma (Kenfield) Pieters, was a tax accountant and homemaker.

“I knew that I was different from the time that I was about 3,” Mr. Pieters told Ms. Bakker in the 1985 interview, “and I grew up feeling like I didn’t quite fit in.”

When he was a teenager, he said, he recognized that he was gay and talked to his pastor at a Congregational church about it.

“He was freaked out,” he said. “He told me, ‘Don’t tell anybody; never say anything to anybody about it.”

He said that after graduating from Northwestern University in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in speech, he joined the Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago and felt called to a ministry focused on gay people, that church’s main audience. He earned a master of divinity degree at McCormick Theological Seminary in 1979, then became pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, Conn., before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. There he took a post at the Metropolitan Community Church of North Hollywood and, in 1984, received a diagnosis of AIDS, although he had been showing symptoms as early as 1982.

He faced numerous health problems over the years, but just being around to face them was something of a victory: He said he’d been told in 1984 that he wouldn’t live out that year. The next year he spoke before a task force on AIDS in Los Angeles convened by Mayor Tom Bradley and Ed Edelman, a county supervisor, urging officials not to write off those who had already been diagnosed.

“If I had succumbed to the hopelessness I constantly hear about AIDS,” he said, “I might have given up and not lived to see 1985.”

Mr. Pieters is survived by a brother.

At the 2021 opening of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Mr. Pieters commented on the impact of his 1985 interview.

“I’ve had so many people over the years come up to me and say, ‘I saw your interview live, because my mother always had PTL on, and it changed my life because I realized I could be gay and Christian at the same time,’” he said. “Or, ‘It changed my life because I realized that AIDS was a reality, and I had to start taking care of myself.’”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

Content Source: www.nytimes.com


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