Mel White has marched down a winding path. Once a ghostwriter for evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, White burnt through more than $100,000 trying to "cure" himself of his homosexuality. He tried psychotherapy, electroshock, exorcism. None of it worked.
White ultimately came to terms with his reality: He is an evangelical Christian and a gay man.
In 1993, he became the head of the largest gay Christian congregation in the United States, the Dallas Cathedral of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. Upon his retirement, White and his partner of 24 years, Gary Nixon, moved to Lynchburg, Va., across the street from Falwell's ministry. The couple now attends Sunday services headed by the firebrand whose demonization of homosexuality is legendary. And when Falwell starts preaching his anti-gay rhetoric, White and Nixon stand up and, in silent protest, remind the rest of the congregation of the gays among them.
Earlier this year, White, 65, and Nixon co-founded Soulforce, a movement that, using the principles of nonviolence as practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, is countering attacks against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. In two weeks, the organization will descend upon Colorado Springs to confront Focus on the Family and its founder, James Dobson, for propagating what the group contends are false claims and lies about gays and lesbians -- including that homosexuality is a mental disorder, that gays want to destroy families and that they are unfit to parent.
Soulforce activists hope to draw thousands of supporters from around the country for the rally at Focus' headquarters in northern Colorado Springs. In addition to engaging in acts of civil disobedience, protesters plan to encircle the ministry, holding hands.
It's been 11 years since White last came through town. At that time he staged a several-day hunger strike in front of Focus on the Family, in part to protest the ministry's key involvement in the passage of Amendment 2, Colorado's 1992 law designed to prohibit gays and lesbians from seeking protected status. The law was ultimately declared unconstitutional.
The ministry did not respond to a call seeking comment about White's upcoming visit. But in a letter sent last week to Soulforce, Focus on the Family's new president Jim Daly rejected a request to meet with White's group and called Soulforce's charges against the ministry "frankly composed of an appalling list of errors and distortions." Daly offered instead a public debate between the two groups, which Soulforce has dismissed.
"The debate is over. The verdict is in: Homosexuality is not a sickness, and not a sin," White said. "The only discussion we could have with [Dobson] now is, when will he quit telling those lies?" (Read Focus on the Family's letter.)
We caught up with White shortly after he returned from Kansas, which last week became the 18th state in the union to adopt an amendment prohibiting gays from marrying each other.
Indy: What are you hoping to accomplish here?
MW: At the heart of it is the model of intervention. When a family finds a family member who is destructive to herself or to her community, they have to intervene. They simply take that person aside and say, "Since you can't see that you need help, we're going to have to help you get help."
And so we're intervening here because Mr. Dobson leads a double life. His rhetoric has gotten so irresponsible and so destructive; he says one thing to certain publics and he says a total other thing to others. He will say, for example, to a rally in Washington, D.C., that we've videotaped recently, that we need to treat gay people with dignity and respect. And everybody cheered. And then he goes on to say to "you moms and dads" that we homosexuals are the worst possible threat to your children. That we are child molesters, that we shouldn't be allowed to teach or coach or foster care or adopt.
You can't say both things. His rhetoric leads to hatred and he is not being held accountable for it. We are coming to Colorado Springs to try to help him to understand the tragic consequences of his hyperbole and his half-truths and his lies. We're trying to hold him accountable and say this area, this part of Colorado Springs, this world headquarters, is a source of toxic rhetoric that is poisoning the national discourse. He's poisoning the air against millions of innocent Americans who do not in any way reflect the lies that he tells about us.
Indy: But Focus on the Family purports to want to help gays; they promote the idea that homosexuality can be cured. They've got a whole gender issues department devoted to this issue ...
MW: And that is perhaps the worst lie of them all. Why can't Dobson listen to any of his colleagues in the American Psychological or the American Psychiatratic or even the American Medical Association [who have all roundly rejected the notion that homosexuality is either an illness or can be "cured"]?
I have to bury the kids who kill themselves after going through reparative therapy. I have to counsel their parents after kids run away from home because they have been forced to have electroshock or reversive therapies or go through exorcism or excommunications -- like they do in the Mormon Church where the church takes the hand of God off their lives and sends them out into the darkness.
This notion that you can be cured -- I went through it and I know so many endless people who have gone through it and it leaves you far worse then if you hadn't gone through it. Conservative Christians have been lied to, to the point that they persecute their own children.
Indy: What about claims by people who say they are no longer gay?
MW: Dobson will be able to find endlessly, year after year, people who say they are ex-gay. Because we know sexuality is on a scale. But then they crack up or then they simply walk away. If Dobson would just look at his own history of leaders that he's hired and see what path they've gone ... instead he just hires somebody new, who keeps the lie alive.
Indy: What do you mean he needs to look into his own organization?
MW: He needs to check out the people that he's interviewed in his radio broadcast over the last 15 years who are "ex-gays" and find out where they are, what they are doing now. The fact is, you can find people who have been out of the, quote, "gay lifestyle" for 20 years; there's no question about that. You can find examples of people who have been miraculously "cured" by Pat Robertson too, I suppose.
But the fact is that most of us have to learn to celebrate our sexuality and live it with integrity. And for those of us who are on the end of that scale, where we are gay as gay can be, we need the church to say, "God has given you this as a gift, celebrate it, live it with integrity." And instead Dobson creates this tremendous fear and doubt.
Indy: Do you think James Dobson experienced a public setback with his stance on SpongeBob?
MW: No, no, no. They never lose when they get publicity at all. With Jerry Falwell, we thought that Tinky Winky would bring him down, and in fact he got over 1,000 Tinky Winkys sent to him and he gave them to children's homes and to orphanages all over the country. These guys are absolutely Teflon in terms of their ability to survive that kind of crisis. They know too that everything that puts their name into the public eye louder and brighter only helps enforce them. The people who don't like Dobson anyway laugh, but I'm always afraid when they do a SpongeBob or a Tinky Winky that people will stop taking them seriously.
Indy: What about Fred Phelps, of "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for 9-11" fame, who is planning to come back to Colorado Springs while Soulforce is here? One of their announced stops is in front of Focus on the Family to protest the ministry's empathy for gays.
MW: I spent an hour and a half, two hours, with Fred in his office in Topeka and talked to him about his theology. He believes that God wants homosexuals dead. And any kind of tolerance, any kind of discussion less than that is not fulfilling the call. So [according to Phelps] anybody who says anything less than what the Bible says -- and the Bible makes it clear that a man who sleeps with another man is an abomination and should be executed -- is a traitor to the Bible and should be executed.
So Phelps is an extremist, but he gives this insight into the stealth of people like Dobson who say they're biblical literalists but then refuse to go all the way. Phelps says that while Mel White is obviously doomed to death, Dobson, just by being a selective literalist, is also dooming himself because he's not taking the stand that homosexuals should be killed.
Indy: Why did you spend two hours with this man?
MW: Because nonviolence demands that we take our enemies seriously, that we hear them. Fred Phelps has an earned Ph.D., he has a major library in both Greek and Hebrew texts, he is a long-term biblical scholar who, like John Calvin, is consistent. He has gone all the way with those texts; he takes them literally. So I wanted to see really whether he was a nutcase or whether he had an analyzable theology, and he does. He's very articulate.
Indy: So how did the conversation go? I'm trying to envision it ...
MW: Oh man, he was concerned about my soul and I'm concerned about his. For me, the Bible is not inerrant, the Bible is inspired and trustworthy in all those areas to which it was called to speak -- but it's not trustworthy in terms of science.
[Phelps] and I debated all these issues that a literalist would debate with a person like myself, who loves and respects [the Bible] but isn't a literalist. So we had a great time, and then I went out and held up signs in front of his place saying, "God loves fags, God even loves Fred Phelps."
Indy: I've heard people raise the question of, well, if we allow gays to marry each other then we're opening all kinds of doors, like to polygamy. How do you respond?
MW: Polygamy is a sign of weakening marriage, because it's not love and loyalty and commitment to one; it's beginning immediately to water it down. The notion that gay marriage opens the doors, well, the domino theory has never worked. It was the same thing that happened when they said, "What happens when we give women the right to vote? The next thing you know, we'll have to give them to black people."
To allow gay people to marry would, in fact, strengthen marriage. When gay people want to take on that responsibility and that duty and that commitment and that long-range togetherness of marriage, we should celebrate it, especially when at this point promiscuous sex is such a problem both in the heterosexual and homosexual world.
Indy: Last month, a couple of Republican lawmakers from Colorado were heartily laughed down when they tried to argue during a press conference that if gays are allowed to marry then we are just opening the door to people wanting to marry their dogs or their horses. They were serious, but it came off as theater of the absurd.
MW: But Dobson says that all the time, so someone must be taking it seriously.
Indy: Yet here in Colorado, that kind of talk was dismissed as ridiculous at the state Capitol.
MW: Ahh ... that's the irony. There's so much hope on the table, and so much fear that that hope won't be realized. I'm going up and down like somebody on a pogo stick because there are these great moments when people take a stand on our behalf, and then suddenly whole communities turn against us. Fundamentalists play the blame game; they've got to find villains and we're the top villain right now.
Indy: How did this happen?
MW: It has quite a historic, easily followed timeline. In 1973, Jerry Falwell went to Rev. Francis Schaeffer and said, "[Fellow evangelist] Billy Graham's nice but he'll never get the country changed. We've got to save this country; we've got to Christianize it and take it back."
And so Francis Schaeffer suggested this notion of co-belligerency, finding those issues that people will sign onto. And of course the evil communist empire was the first one. Jerry [Falwell] took it to all 50 states and to the Capitol and up rose the Moral Majority.
At the same time Karl Rove and Paul Weyrich and all these guys were desperately in need of something that would keep the money flowing to keep them on the air. They began to test demographically what co-belligerancy issues rang true to more people, and abortion and homosexuality were really winners in certain zip codes areas. So when the wall fell, homosexuality had proven to be the issue that made most people afraid.
Indy: Afraid of what?
MW: Suzanne Pharr in her book, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, details how, as fundamentalists work to reinstate the human male into their position of leadership and of dominance, homosexuality undermines that. Homosexuality's a real threat to that macho role type. And now marriage, the idea that two men could live together in harmony and love and raise families -- that is so disgusting to people. The "ick" factor is really big.
Indy: Among which people?
MW: Among everybody who fears or misunderstands or hates homosexuals. "What do they do in bed?" That's the first question that will be phoned in on talk shows. When I was on Larry King Live, someone asked that question and he hung up on them and said, "It's not their business." And I said, "Yeah, it's their business," and even Larry King was afraid. So I said, "My partner Gary and I have been in the same bed for 24 years. We're like everybody else -- we sleep in bed." And Larry King said, "You know, once they discover you're as boring as we are, it's all over."
Their notion of what we do in bed is absolutely gross to people who don't understand it. And now, of course they're tying it in with pedophilia and the Catholic Church [pedophile scandal] and Michael Jackson and all that stuff.
Indy: Marilyn Musgrave, the congresswoman from Colorado who introduced the federal marriage act designed to prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying, does not seem to have a clear-cut connection with Focus on the Family. Have you met with her? What do you think is her agenda?
MW: I think she's a sincere, well-meaning evangelical fundamentalist Christian and I think she's simply translating into her arena what she's heard in her church. I think her agenda is, if she has an agenda and it's political, to stay in office.
Their long-term agenda is to make sure we have no rights, and then if we have no rights then where do they want to go next? They will obviously want to take away our children and prohibit adoption or foster care or even co-parenting. Then what will they want? They will want to censor the media so that we don't have programs anymore that honor us or even show us in any positive light. Then they will start closing down public arenas; they will not want us to have parades or celebrations or conventions. They will try to use the power of the government to close down public areas for us.
Indy: Do you really see that happening?
MW: Absolutely. It's happening now. Look at what's happening with public broadcasting; there's this wonderful family show that showed a lesbian couple and their child, and the new secretary of education said we can't have that on PBS. The FCC raised the fine from $4,000 to a quarter of million dollars for outrageous, outlandish speech. We already have a state, Florida, where adoption by homosexuals is no longer possible. All of these things are being tested in city and statewide laws.
Nothing that I'm saying is extreme. If Mr. Bush stays in power and Mr. Dobson stays at the right hand of power, the very worst things that we imagine will come true.
Indy: Given that bleak outlook, where do you see the gay civil rights movement in 10 years?
MW: In the last five years the major mainline denominations -- the Presbyterians, the Lutherans then the Methodists -- started turning against us. We can't be married, we can't be ordained -- which is the same thing as Dobson is saying, that our relationships are not worthy, that our spirituality isn't genuine.
What's going to happen to us is we will have absolutely no voice in church and state alike. And so our movement is going to have to go underground. We will have to create resistance movements, working to get their faith renewed.
Thank God that the Metropolitan Community Church is already in place; thank God for the few welcoming congregations across the country; thank God for the priests and for the pastors and for the rabbis for even getting kicked out of their religious communities because they are taking a stand for us. We have all of these examples, where local congregations are simply saying quietly, we will not vote with the majority on this issue because we think the church is wrong.
Our job now with the civil rights movement is to help gay people celebrate that they are really God's children, and that they are really Americans. That the Constitution and the Bible are for them, too.
Mayday! Mayday! Picnic and rallies to protest Focus on the Family's claims about homosexuality
Sunday, May 1, and Monday, May 2
In front of Focus on the Family headquarters, off Interstate 25 and Briargate Parkway
Go directly to Soulforces booklet about James Dobson: www.soulforce.org