fbpx
+TALK

+TALK: REV. STEVE PIETERS, Pt. 1

Karl Schmid speaks with legendary Reverend Steve Pieters about faith, his HIV diagnosis, and Tammy Faye Bakker.

The following is a transcript of the conversation between Karl Schmid and Reverend Steve Pieters.

KARL

Welcome to +Talk on +Life where we’re all about turning positive into a plus. My guest today is Reverend Steve Pieters. He is openly gay and has been living with HIV since 1982. 36 years ago he appeared on fame televangelist, Tammy Faye Bakker’s talk show, Tammy’s House Party. We talk about that and a whole lot more.

Steve, thank you for joining us. Where are we? What is this place?

STEVE

This is Founders Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles. And it is the founding church of a denomination that was founded in 1968 as a safe place for gay and lesbian LGBT people to worship together.

KARL

I love that because for so many of us, faith and religion is such an important thing.

STEVE

Absolutely.

KARL

And as LGBTQ+ people, we go to our respective churches and growing up and we’re told we’re sinful

STEVE

That’s right.

KARL

and were bad and were wrong. And I feel like so many people feel they have to turn their back on religion

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

in order to sort of not feel that guilt and shame, but this is a place where people can come and still have that and still have that connection, right?

STEVE

That’s right. It’s a beautiful place. And I’ve been a member of the MCC, Metropolitan Community Churches since 1975, I think 1976 maybe. And it helped me come out in the seventies and it’s been at the forefront of political activism in so many ways. And more than that it’s a home for people, LGBT+ people who can benefit from community here, they don’t find elsewhere.

KARL

Do you guys ever get pushback from other denominations who say, “How could you do this? This is not in line with the teachings.”

STEVE

Oh, of course.

KARL

And how, I mean, it seems absurd to me because, you know, spirituality, religion, it’s what we feel inside.

STEVE

Yes. Well, we have a lot of people who, a lot of more conservative churches who are very critical of MCC and feel like we shouldn’t exist or that we are an abomination. And there are so many people who buy into that, but there are increasing numbers of denominations and churches that welcome LGBTQ+ people.

KARL

To me, that’s what church is all about.

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

It’s welcoming people.

STEVE

It’s inclusion, it’s community, everybody. God loves everybody.

KARL

Tell me about your HIV diagnosis. How old were you? Where were you? What did that moment do for you?

STEVE

Well, HIV hadn’t been discovered yet. So I was diagnosed in 1982 with GRID, Gay Related Immuno Deficiency, what they were calling Aids back then. And I was very sick in ’82 and ’83 and into ’84 with hepatitis, CMV, pneumonia, mononucleosis, herpes, shingles, variety of fungal infections. And finally, stage four lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. And in April of ’84, they told me I had eight months left to live, so.

KARL

And here we are celebrating your 69th birthday.

STEVE

That’s right. I’m delighted to have proved them wrong. I wasn’t supposed to see 33, so 69 feels damn good.

KARL

How much of your faith do you think played a role? Obviously modern medicine and science, amazing. But how much of your faith played a role in this, do you think?

STEVE

I think a great deal. My faith played a great part in my surviving all these years. Two weeks after I was given my terminal prognosis, my pastor then invited me to preach the Easter sermon. And it was an incredible gift to look at what it meant to believe in the Easter message, as a person who was told he was dying from this horribly stigmatized disease. And I discovered that what it meant was they told me the worst thing they could possibly tell me, and I could still laugh. I could still talk. And with my friends, I could still enjoy life. I could still dance. And I did right across the pulpit, you know. I’d have danced and did a little shuffle off to Buffalo. And I, more importantly, I think that my faith enabled me to do the work of healing. And it helped me to believe in the possibility of healing. I was also very fortunate to have a doctor who told me that not everybody is gonna die from AIDS, which is what we thought back in the eighties. But if there’s one in a million chance that if there’s one in a million chance that you’re gonna survive, why not believe that you are that one in a million and act accordingly?

KARL

And I feel like that is a message that still resonates for somebody who’s diagnosed in this day and age.

STEVE

That’s right, that’s right. It’s still scary as hell to be diagnosed with HIV. And it’s important to know that you can live with this disease and live an active, full, joyous life with HIV.

KARL

How did it come that you appeared on Tammy Faye Bakker’s show? How did that all happen?

STEVE

Well, I had been doing a lot of interviews about being a person with AIDS about being a gay man with AIDS through AIDS Project Los Angeles and through the Metropolitan Community Churches and the Tammy Faye decided I’m told, I was told later, that she wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS. So they looked all over the East and found nothing. They looked all over the Southeast and found nobody willing to go on the show and talk about it. And they called AIDS Project Atlanta, and there they talked to somebody who was a friend of mine, Ken South. And he referred them to me and I said, “Sure, yeah, it’d be a chance to talk to an audience. I would never get to reach otherwise.”

KARL

But you were giving sermons at this point, you were still in the church?

STEVE

Oh yeah, I was a pastor

KARL

Right.

STEVE

for five or six years.

KARL

Just backtracking a little bit before I get to Tammy Faye, I should have said… What prompted you in your position to speak publicly about this at a time, let’s be honest, even today it still shocks people. When, you know, when I spoke my story three years ago, my boss at ABC television said, “Well, this shouldn’t be a news story.” And I said, “But it is.”

STEVE

Yeah

KARL

it’s sadly there was concern.

STEVE

Absolutely.

KARL

 There you are in the height of the AIDS crisis,

STEVE

Yes.

KARL

standing up, a man of faith, talking about this.

STEVE

Right.

KARL

What was the impetus to do that?

STEVE

Well, because I felt the stigma so strongly, there was such a stigma about having AIDS. And I knew that stigma was reduced by putting a human face on what was stigmatized. And so right away, I went public about having this disease. I wrote articles for Journey Magazine about monthly reports on how I was doing and what I was up to. And I preached and did interviews through AIDS Project Los Angeles and the church. And I just thought it was really important ’cause nobody was talking about what it was like to be a person with AIDS. And I thought it was important that somebody do it. So, if not you, then who?

KARL

Were you scared?

STEVE

In what sense? I mean…

KARL

In the sense that, to the point of you were in the church.

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

We’ve already established that, you know, a lot of conservative parishes frown upon anyone who’s gay or, you know, and now on top of this, you’ve got, as you were GRID, otherwise sort of colloquially being touted as the gay man’s disease.

STEVE

Right.

KARL

Were you scared that you could lose what you did in the church and your position in that respect?

STEVE

Well, no, I was scared for a while that this would spell the end of my career as a minister. I mean, you know, if I died, I wasn’t gonna have any more career as a pastor. And I really wanted to be a pastor again, to try and see if I could get it right the next time, you know, and I was scared that, I would be stigmatized and that I would die alone. There was a period where I was really afraid of that. I was really afraid of dying alone, but then I had an experience, a near death experience where I was alone, except for the medical staff around me. And I discovered that we’re not alone. I was not alone in that experience. There were all these loving beings around me, that gave me peace.

KARL

And it’s so interesting to hear you say that from 1985 to 2018,

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

when I was scared, I was gonna lose my job. Isn’t it just shocking to you that we still haven’t crossed that bridge

STEVE

It is shocking.

KARL

for those of us to get diagnosis?

STEVE

I know, it continues to shock me to hear stories like yours, yes. And I heard a lot of those stories back in the eighties and nineties. I can’t tell, when I was an AIDS hospice chaplain, I can’t tell you the number of times that a patient asked me, “Am I going to hell, because I’m gay.

KARL

And what do you say to that?

STEVE

This is God’s punishment.” And I said, “No, honey, no, you’re not. You’re not going to hell. God loves you just the way you are. And God is there for you and will be there for you when you die.”

KARL

I love it. So Tammy Faye’s producers find you.

STEVE

Yes.

KARL

And you’re invited onto the show. And what’s remarkable to me is throughout the interview, the original interview, Tammy says, numerous times, “We wanted to do this in person.”

STEVE

Right.

KARL

But I think this is around the time you had your near death experience, right?

STEVE

That’s right. It was two weeks after that.

KARL

Yeah.

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

What was the pushback? Was it your health? Where there restrictions in travel? Tell me about it.

STEVE

It wasn’t restrictions in travel. I was weak from the chemotherapy, the experimental chemo I was on, but I was healthier than I’d been in a long time because of their discovering the problem that I was dying from. And they were able to treat that pretty successfully. But so I was weak, but I was recovering. The real problem I have since learned as to why they didn’t have me come there was because they were afraid that the crew wouldn’t work and that I would not be treated well by the staff at Heritage Village Hotel, and the studio and that sort of thing. And indeed, there were so many interviews I did back in those days, in the alley, beside AIDS Project Los Angeles, sitting on a chair, outside in the alley, while there were doctors and other people being interviewed in studio. And I was connected with an earpiece, and that’s it.

KARL

How did that make you feel at the time?

STEVE

Well, I kind of understood the fear, but I thought it was pretty ridiculous because by then they knew that it was transmitted sexually, through blood products. And so they knew that it wasn’t transmitted through the air or because of you touching something and then people touching it. So I was frustrated with the fear that still existed around catching HIV, because it was silly, they knew better by them.

KARL

Well, and we still know better,

STEVE

Yeah.

KARL

but they still to this day, people are fearful.

STEVE

Absolutely.

KARL

Well, that’s all the time we’ve got for this first part of my sit down with Reverend Steve Peters. Don’t worry, there’s more to come next time. So be sure to tune in again, in the meantime, remember you can turn positive into a plus and be sure to follow +Life Media, across social media platforms we are @pluslifemedia and visit the website pluslifemedia.com Until next time, for the second part of my interview with Reverend Steve Peters. See you soon.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: