As a publicity and marketing coup, having Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) host Drag Bingo's opening night at the Durham Armory seemed, well, heaven-sent.
But some of the former televangelist and pop icon's recently stated--and unstated--views on homosexuality and gay marriage raise significant questions about her true opinions on the gay community.
After drawing capacity crowds at Unitarian Universalist churches in Raleigh and Durham, the Alliance of AIDS Services--Carolina invited Messner to usher the popular monthly fund-raiser, hosted by a bevy of drag performers, into its new digs at the Armory in downtown Durham, 220 Foster St., Friday, Jan. 2, at 8 p.m.
The choice isn't as strange as it might at first seem. In the early 1980s, Messner and then-husband Jim Bakker broke ranks with fundamentalist televangelists by publicly embracing people with AIDS and having them on television shows affiliated with their Christian broadcasting network, the PTL Club. "Twenty-five years ago, people wouldn't even walk into a room where an AIDS person was," Messner recalls. "And that really hurt me because I thought that's wrong. Here we are saying we're Christian and we're not willing to help a part of society that's really suffering... I felt Jesus would have been there. That's why I jumped in and did that."
Members of the gay community apparently remembered--and reciprocated--the gesture. Indeed, gay good will has arguably been a major part of Messner's recent rehabilitation as a cultural icon. Gay filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbain's sympathetic documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a surprise hit at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, arguably fueled her recent reentrance into the celebrity realm.
And that upward swing may be about to get another push. Messner appears--alongside other yesteryear icons Erik Estrada, Vanilla Ice and porn star Ron Jeremy--in the WB network's reality show, The Surreal Life, starting Jan. 11.
For her part, Messner has clearly credited gays for their support during her career's ebb tide and her second husband's prison sentence for bankruptcy fraud.
In her latest biographical book, I Will Survive...and You Will Too, Messner devotes an entire chapter to her relationship with the gay community. In it, she says gay men did more than help pay her bills. "They sent me gifts on special occasions and for Christmas. They sent me beautiful things--clothes, jewelry, flowers. They overwhelmed me with the love I no longer felt from the Christian community... I will love them forever."
But what isn't as clear at this juncture are Messner's fundamental views on gay marriage and homosexuality itself. They're not clear because Messner chooses not to clarify them.
In our interview, Messner says she has ministered to "thousands and thousands" of gays. But when asked about the specifics of that ministry, after a moment's silence she said, "Well, I'm an ordained minister so I minister all over the country. And I do a lot of ministry now on secular television. Every show I go on I talk about God."
When asked about her stance on gay marriage, the outspoken televangelist suddenly went opaque: "I'm not going to comment on that. I'm not getting into any controversy in anything I'm doing. That's between me and the gay community, and I'm not getting into any controversy on it. So that's that. I'm not going to answer."
But when we dug, we found Messner did answer Daniel Kusner, in an Oct. 3 interview for the Texas gay and lesbian community newsweekly, The Dallas Voice. In the story "More Christian Controversy" (www.dallasvoice.com/articles/dispArticle.cfm?Article_ID=3556), Messner said,
"I don't think there should be gay marriages. I think that marriage is between a husband and wife. I think the Bible decided that many years ago. I feel sorry for the gay people, but I think that there can never really be a marriage between gay people. That's just my opinion and a billion other people's."
When Kusner questioned whether the Bible actually prohibited marriages between people of the same gender, Messner replied, "I just think that that is not how God meant it to be -- as far as getting married."
In that interview, Messner admits, "The gay community knows I have a disagreement. I got right on Larry King and I told him, 'The gay people and I have agreed to disagree.' " Never does she articulate what that disagreement is.
In I Will Survive's chapter on the gay community, Messner says, "My gay friends still know my stand on homosexuality. We are able to discuss it openly."
Perhaps, but Messner never discusses it openly in I Will Survive. She "differs" with gays, presenting her views at best elliptically, from the mouths of others: "Jim J. Bullock, the man I did a TV show with for a year, is a gay man. He loves me and I love him. He says publicly, 'I know Tammy doesn't agree with our lifestyle, but that doesn't affect our friendship.'"
Messner's chapter on the gay community appears in a section of the book sub-titled "Lessons Worth Learning." A different section of I Will Survive bears the sub-title, "God Loves You Just The Way You Are--He Really Does."
The dance of words continued in the Dec. 29 News & Observer. When asked for her view on homosexuality, Messner focused instead on the divisions between the gay and heterosexual communities, and advocated for gay-inclusive churches. When asked to clarify the "many things that the homosexuals and I don't agree on," she again refused comment.
Historically, Messner has clearly emphasized inclusivity and tolerance to a greater degree than most of her televangelical brethren. And her support for AIDS benefits in cities including Louisville, Charlotte and Washington has been substantial.
But is Messner's reluctance to unambiguously state her beliefs concerning homosexuality and gay marriage a stance born out of ecumenicism--or merely a reluctance to offend the main demographic group that's given her career any buoyancy in recent years?
Perhaps she'll clarify matters Friday night at the Durham Armory.