She interviewed a gay AIDS patient
The HIV/AIDS epidemic had barely been discussed by the US government, let alone a televangelist couple like the Bakkers, in the 1980s when it reached its peak. But in 1985, Messner invited AIDS patient and minister Steve Pieters onto her show to discuss his diagnosis, his faith and his sexuality.
When speaking to Pieters, who was recovering from chemotherapy, Messner started to tear up over his parents’ reaction when he came out as gay.
“No matter what happens to a young person in their life, they’re still your boy, they’re still your girl,” she said. “And I think it’s so important that we as mom and dad love through anything.”
After telling Pieters she wanted to “put [her] arms around him,” she went on to ask him about his sexual relationships with women and whether he thought he just hadn’t given women a “fair try.”
“I’ve had so many people tell me over the years those were such stupid questions or such silly questions, but for her audience they were the right questions,” Pieters told KABC earlier this month.
She teared up again during the interview after Pieters discussed losing his friends, asking her live audience and the viewers, “How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, 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?”
“I was probably one of the first ever to have a gay man on my show,” she said of the episode with Pieters. “And so I think they remember that. They knew that we accepted them.”
She showed up for gay supporters
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, she was a regular attendee at Washington’s Capital Pride Festival, even co-judging a Tammy Faye lookalike contest with raucous drag queen Lady Bunny. She assisted gay advocacy groups at charity events and befriended notable gay figures like RuPaul and the filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and the pair eventually directed the 2000 documentary about Messner’s life.
That documentary was largely sympathetic toward Messner and highlighted her popularity among gay fans — and it helped reshape the image of Messner from a disgraced televangelist to a pillar of accepting Christianity.
“I say everybody must be who they are,” she said, speaking to the camera like she did for so many years on the PTL Network. “Young people, don’t ever let anyone make you something that you’re not.”
She called out anti-gay Christians
“I don’t think of them as homosexuals, I just think of them as other human beings that I love,” she tells a stunned Jerry Falwell, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. “You know, we’re all just people, made out of the same old dirt. And God didn’t make any junk!”
In her interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Messner said Christians had “gotten far away” from the church’s teachings of acceptance and love for all people.
“[Christians] have become condemning,” she said after reasserting her love for her gay fans. “It’s just sad to me what has happened to Christians today.”
The limits to Tammy Faye’s support of gay rights
“It comes back to this forgiveness thing,” Shulman told NPR. “If you read between the lines, she’s not saying to me, ‘It’s OK that you’re gay; she’s saying, ‘I forgive you for being gay and when you go off and die, it’s going to be between you and your maker.'”
In a 2002 interview that same year with Metro Weekly, Messner was asked what advice she would give to a young gay person whose parents haven’t accepted them.
“Don’t throw your gayness in anyone’s face, just live your life,” she told Metro Weekly. “But I also think honesty is always the best policy.”
Messner’s recognition of the LGBTQ community was still significant during her lifetime. Though he was skeptical about her motivations, Schulman told NPR “we could all stand to learn from” her, adding, “If you can find it in your heart to love everybody, no matter what their flaws, then how is that a bad thing?”