In October 1985, controversial TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker invited Steve Pieters, a young gay pastor with AIDS who just weeks earlier had been close to death, for a live interview on her show Tammy’s House Party.
Known for her and then-husband Jim Bakker's traditionalist views, Bakker's clear compassion for Pieters’s sexuality, faith and illness before an audience of millions was seen by some as radically out-of-step with her fellow conservative Christians—and that of a population gripped with stigma and fear of a still little-understood disease. To others, including the LGBTQ+ community and those with AIDS, it was seen as a milestone in acceptance and representation.
Tammy Faye later remarried, and died of cancer in 2007. For Steve Pieters, 2022 marks 40 years since he was diagnosed with AIDS. With a dramatised version of his interview forming a pivotal moment in the new film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, here Pieters recalls the backdrop—and aftermath—of his watershed interview with Tammy Faye.
I grew up feeling deeply ashamed about being gay. As an adolescent I would wear rulers up my sleeves to try and teach myself not to let my wrists go limp. I come from a very religious family, not conservatively religious, more liberal. But even so, I didn’t see any positive images of homosexuality. In the 1950s and the 60s when I was growing up, there weren’t any.
I managed to drink myself into oblivion in the first year or so after college. When I got sober I realised—at the age of 23—that I was going to have to get honest about being gay if I was going to stay sober. So I came roaring out of the closet. I became a gay activist shortly after, and also decided to go to seminary, so I could study for the ministry of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC)—the primarily LGBTQ+ Christian denomination.
The Presbyterian seminary I attended in Chicago was really interesting to me. I'd found a community of LGBTQ+ people at the city's MCC and immediately took a shine to them, and they to me, and I became part of the crowd there. The faculty were pretty uniformly supportive of me as a gay man studying for a ministry in the gay community—but there were a lot of students who were very homophobic. They would try to argue with me about what we call the ‘clobber passages’ in the Bible, or just the ethics or morality of being gay. It was a wonderful way for me to cut my teeth and learn how to deal with those arguments.
I was the pastor first of the MCC of Hartford, Connecticut, where there were some virulently anti-gay groups. I would find myself on TV arguing with homophobic priests or ministers that I would later see in the gay bars in Hartford around the same time. So I learned early on how to handle myself in the media around issues of being gay.
The ‘70s was a wonderful time to be gay in America. Harvey Milk was in his prime, and there were so many people who came out at his urging, to put a human face on being LGBTQ+.
Then came the 1980s. I’d read initial reports of this new ‘gay cancer’ and ‘gay pneumonia,’ as they were calling it then. It soon became known as Gay Related Immuno Deficiency (GRID). When I began to develop symptoms, I was horrified—and terrified that I was going to be diagnosed. And sure enough, I was.
I was horribly sick throughout 1982 and 1983. Hepatitis, CMV, mononucleosis, strep throat, herpes, shingles, awful fungal infections and skin problems. It was just a horrible time as there was so much fear around any gay man who had AIDS, as it would soon become known.
I was finally diagnosed with two kinds of terminal cancer in April of 1984. It was discovered I had stage-four lymphoma and Kaposi sarcoma. One health professional had read my chart and told me I had eight months to live. She said I wouldn’t see 1985.
Being sick as I was, it was horribly demoralising. I became housebound. There was a huge stigma about having AIDS. People were afraid to be in the same room as me, breathe the same air. To touch me, certainly—that was not going to happen. So I became very lonely very quickly.
I had learned early on that putting a human face on it helped lower the stigma. So I began doing interviews about having AIDS. In early ’84, there was so much fear that I wasn’t allowed in to the TV studios where they were holding panel discussions, and they wouldn’t come in to the AIDS Project in Los Angeles. They wanted to include me, so I had to sit in an alley to be recorded that way for the TV show. When the interview was over and I took out my earpiece or lapel mic and handed it to the sound person, invariably he or she went ‘oh, no, no, no, no—you keep it or throw it away or do whatever you want with it, we don’t want it any more.’
I was asked to preach an Easter sermon in April 1984, two weeks after I had been diagnosed with the cancers. And because of my faith, even though I was facing a horrible, stigmatised death I realised I could still enjoy my friends, I could still laugh, I could still be fully alive—I could still dance! And I did a little soft-shoe right there in the pulpit to show them.
I had no reason to believe I would survive. There was nobody surviving AIDS in those days. But I was fortunate to have a doctor, still my doctor to this day, who said: ‘If one in a million is going to survive AIDS, why not believe that you’re that one in a million and behave accordingly?’
So I set out to create the conditions for healing. To create a wellness program for myself to increase my chances of surviving past my prognosis, and for the medicine to work when one became available. But I always harbored the fear that I was going to die shortly.
I knew of Tammy Fae. When I was housebound, I watched a lot of TV. My neighbor and primary caregiver was a fellow clergy person, Lucia Chappelle; she would watch Jim and Tammy with me. We would laugh uproariously at their antics, and be left slack-jawed at their conservative theology. We were fascinated. It was like watching a traffic accident or something. Even in the 1980s she was a figure of caricatures, and many people had a view of her as this ditzy, crazy lady with all the makeup. So when I was invited to go on her show, I thought, ‘oh well, OK—I’m trained to do this. I will be able to reach an audience I wasn’t going to be able to reach otherwise.’ It was a wonderful opportunity.
I negotiated that it would go out live. I didn’t want them to have the ability to edit it to their purposes. I also had a reservation that she would try to pounce on me for being gay and try to convince me that I should convert to her brand of Christianity and be ‘saved’, and become heterosexual. But she didn’t. That wasn’t her motivation.
They sent me two first class plane tickets to fly to Charlotte. One for me, one for my companion, Rev Nancy Radcliffe, who was my chaplain. As we were headed out the door for the airport their producer called and said, ‘Don’t come—Tammy’s sick. We’re canceling the interview.’ So we were terribly disappointed. And then the next day the producer called back and said, ‘We’ve decided to do the interview anyway because Tammy’s feeling better and we’ve decided to do the first satellite hookup in PTL history.’
She’d say on air that I was having chemotherapy. That I was being interviewed from Los Angeles because the journey would be ‘too hard on me.’ I think she thought this was true, maybe. What I heard later was that they were afraid that I might not be treated well, that the camera crew wouldn’t work if I was in the studio.
I got to chat to Tammy for about three minutes before the interview started. I couldn’t see her, there was no monitor, but she could see me—and so she was this little voice in my ear. And when we said hello, she fell all over herself to thank me for being courageous enough to come on her program. And she assured me this was not going to be a program where they were going to talk about Jesus. But then she started talking about Jesus, so I joined right in.
She was just so sweet, and so sincere. So compassionate in those three minutes before the interview began. All of my worries vanished, and I was sure it was going to be just fine. And it was.
I knew that it was going out to tens of millions of people. People who watched their programs on the PTL (Praise the Lord) network. I didn’t know what kind of impact it would have on their general audience, and no idea what kind of impact it would have on the LGBTQ+ population.
I remember coming back from the interview thinking that I had done a terrible job. I told my neighbor Lucia, ‘I’m so glad that nobody I know is ever going to see this.’
There had been colleagues who had warned me not to go on her show. That it would wreck my reputation as a liberal gay activist preacher. But it didn’t—it put me on the map. I think it helped her too, in terms of her being known as someone who didn’t let stigma or taboo get in the way of her natural compassion. She got into a lot of trouble for my interview with her.
We never did meet. I regret that to this day. We did exchange greetings through a mutual friend occasionally, but they were no more than, ‘Hi, I’m still alive—how are you?’
I think my interview was really well-used in the film. I might have chosen different passages from it, but I think they chose the right ones. They did quote me directly in the film: I said, ‘Jesus loves me just the way I am, Jesus loves the way I love.’
Looking back on it now I can see how this was a big step in people dealing with AIDS and people’s attitudes towards it. I’ve heard from so many people throughout the years, people who were transformed by that interview. Their attitudes changed, their beliefs and theology changed because of it. I’ve heard from LGBTQ+ Christians, who came out after that. It really rocked the conservative Christian world. And I had no idea at the time that it did that.
I guess to give people courage is what I trained to do. I just had no idea that it would happen through Tammy Faye. Even after the interview was done I was not at all convinced that it would have any kind of impact anywhere. But it’s still having an impact, which continues to astound me.
I recovered from AIDS in 1987, against all the odds. When nobody was thought to survive, I managed to get well. And that was a miracle. Or, in the medical world, an anomaly. What an amazing thing to have had happen to me, and to the AIDS community, and the community of people who are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. If I could survive AIDS, back at a time when there were no treatments, then why not believe that you can survive whatever you’ve been diagnosed with that the doctors say is going to kill you.
When talk turns to COVID-19, I’m fond of saying, ‘This is not my first pandemic.’ I think the AIDS pandemic has a lot to teach us about this pandemic—not least around dealing with the fear surrounding it. I heard a great American preacher, William Sloane Coffin, once say: ‘Fear is a natural response. But we have a choice with what to do with that fear. We can be scared to death, or we can be scared to life.’ Which to me means we do everything we can to create the conditions for healing in our bodies, and be a community for each other—even in the face as something as horrible as COVID.
Five or six months ago, a gay man like myself was interviewing me for Poz, a magazine for people living with HIV. And I remember telling him that I was dismayed that the headline for my obituary was probably going to be ‘Gay pastor with AIDS that Tammy Faye interviewed dies, finally.’ And he said, ‘That’s absolutely the wrong attitude—you should be proud that’s what you’ll be remembered for.’ And since then, I’ve thought about it. And you know, that’s not such a bad legacy to have.
This story was adapted from the National Geographic U.K. website.