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'Still Dancing,' Rev. Steve Pieters Relives his Iconic Tammy Faye Interview

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 20, 2021
Originally published on September 17, 2021

Rev. Steve Pieters was diagnosed with AIDS so early in the crisis it didn't have that name. In the early 1980s, the acronym was GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and the term AIDS came in 1982 to help eliminate identifying the disease with only gay men. Still, the stigma remained, exacerbated by the slow government response to the crisis. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes even joked about it when asked about the "gay plague" by a reporter. It would be three more years before Reagan would mention the disease (September 1985), largely because of the death of his friend, fellow actor Rock Hudson. At that point, 12,529 Americans had died from the disease.

So it was surprising in 1985 to see Pieters, who is also a minister with liberal Metropolitan Community Church, on the most unlikely of TV shows — the Christian chat show "Tammy's House Party" — to talk about his illness.

His appearance was because of Tammy Faye Bakker, the perky, campy wife of evangelist Jim Bakker who chose to use her television program as a platform to educate her largely Christian, conservative audience about AIDS and to plead compassion for those suffering with it.

The touching sequence is recreated as it took place in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," Michael Showalter's new biographical drama based on the documentary film (by Fenton Bailey†and†Randy Barbato of World of Wonder Productions) of the same name, with Tammy sitting in a studio with Steve remote from San Francisco on a nearby monitor. By that point, Pieters was living with AIDS for three years, having survived a near-death experience.

"You know how sad that we as Christians want to be the salt of the earth. And 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 her arm around them and tell them that we care," Bakker tells him tearfully. "I know you were sick and that's the only reason we didn't have you come and sit in the studio next so today because you had your chemotherapy treatments, and you needed to get home quickly so you wouldn't miss them. But I want to tell you there's a lot of Christians here who love you, and who wouldn't be prayed and put their arm around you and tell you that we love you and that we care."

The moment is the film's emotional high point, touchingly recreating the connection between Pieters and Bakker. It is later punctuated by some wonderful news in the end credits where it is revealed that Pieters survived and, at 69 years of age, is working on his memoir and singing with the LA Gay Men's Chorus.

EDGE's Steve Duffy spoke to Pieters about his will to live, his memorable conversation with Tammy Faye, how he came to work for Playboy, Elizabeth Taylor, and how he discovered he was in the film.

EDGE: First, can you explain how you appeared on the "Tammy Faye's House Party" segment?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Sure. Well, she wanted to interview a person with AIDS, a gay man with AIDS, and in 1985. That was not happening in televangelists circles. So she wanted to be the first and they searched throughout the South and East to find somebody and couldn't. Nobody was willing to go on the show and so when they called the AIDS Project to Atlanta, the executive director there was a friend of mine and he he referred them to me. And so that's how it happened.

EDGE: And did you have any reservations about appearing on that especially with the stigma?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Yeah, But not about the stigma. I'd already been interviewed on CNN and a number of other local media outlets about having AIDS and being a gay man with AIDS in the early 80s, so I wasn't worried about that. But I was worried about whether she would try to convert me to heterosexuality and all that. but she didn't so it was all good.

EDGE: And I know you've had HIV/AIDS for such a long time and at the time that you were diagnosed, there were no treatments available. So how did you survive when so many didn't?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Well, bottom line, I don't really know the truth, I don't know whether it was a miracle, or an anomaly. But I was diagnosed with two kinds of terminal cancer and stage four lymphoma and Karposi sarcoma/ I was told I had eight months to live. That was April of 84 and my doctor said, 'Your mission is to stay alive long enough for us to find a way to manage HIV...' At that point she said, 'You know not everybody is going to die from AIDS. So if one in a million survive, why not believe that you're going to be that one in a million and act accordingly?' So I set out to do everything I could to take care of myself and create the conditions for healing in my body.

EDGE: What was life like for you after you appeared on the show?

Rev. Steve Pieters: For a couple years, nothing happened. And then, Reverend Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Churches, which I served, played the Tammy Faye Bakker interview as the opening of the International General Conference of all the MCC's in the summer of 87, and that put me on the map. Everybody wanted me to bring the video cassette of the Tammy Bakker interview, and show it what I came to speak.

EDGE: And, and, did you and Tammy Faye to ever meet in person.

Rev. Steve Pieters: No, we didn't know we exchanged greetings through mutual friends but we never actually met in person.

EDGE: And what are your thoughts on 'Stranger Things' actor Randy Havens betraying you in the film?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Oh well, I'm very flattered that they chose him to play me. I think he's a great actor. He's done a lot of good work. I saw the film last week and I thought he was terrific playing me. It's a little surreal to watch somebody saying my exact words. in the script they use both Tammy and my words word by word,

EDGE: Did they did they reach out to you for permission to have you in the film?

Rev. Steve Pieters: No. I don't think they knew that I was around when they made the film. It was only through Jim and Tammy son, Jay, that I found out that there was to be a film and that had already finished filming. So I wrote a letter I found contact info for the studio and I wrote to Searchlight Pictures and said, 'Hey, I'm still alive! I'm still here!.' And they've been wonderful, we've had a really good relationship.

EDGE: I got to ask you this, I mean as a gay man, and former clergyman like how in the world did you end up working at Playboy?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Well, you know, I was the director of AIDS ministry for the MCC denomination for many years until 1998, the beginning of 98, And I was burned out. The cocktail treatments changed everything. AIDS ministry and AIDS organizations all over the country wide were downsizing, so I couldn't find work in AIDS and I couldn't find work in the church because I was so associated with AIDS. They didn't think I could talk about anything else. So a friend of mine from my teenage years - we went to summer camp together was Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner's daughter, who was the CEO of Playboy and I was telling her about this. And she said 'Well, why don't come to work for me?' So, from the church to Playboy. you know, now for something completely different.

EDGE: And you haven't been struck by lightning yet right?

Rev. Steve Pieters: No, not at all. Not at all. Some of my lesbian friends were just fascinated. Others of them were quite offended but, you know, but it was my life.

EDGE: So, and I know you've met lots of celebrities, but can you just can you talk about meeting Elizabeth Taylor?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Sure, well she was really wonderful. She was such a great advocate for people with AIDS, before anybody else except for maybe Joan Rivers. But Elizabeth Taylor was bawdy and fun and down to earth and passionate about raising money and raising awareness about AIDS, and she was just a role model for all of us in being activists for AIDS.

EDGE: And you know as an AIDS activist, how exciting was it for you and how important is it for us and the community just to continue to get that message that U=U: Undetectable equals Untransmittable?

Rev. Steve Pieters: That is so important if we want to keep it in check. If we want to prevent it from becoming a firestorm of death and all of that, we need to make sure that people understand that if you're going to be sexually active taking PrEP is really important.

EDGE: Yeah, It's amazing how far we've come, not far enough, right, because, I mean, do you think we'll ever see a cure

Rev. Steve Pieters: You know, they, they're talking about the fact that all the research that's been done in the vaccines that have come out of the COVID-19 crisis pandemic are going to eventually create the pathway to a cure for AIDS. that this mRNA treatment or vaccine could very well lead to a vaccine for HIV, and eventually a cure, even I mean that's always off, but there's hope. Oh yeah, definitely.

EDGE: Boy, this 25 minutes from a long time ago has really stayed with you...

Rev. Steve Pieters: Oh. it's continued to reverberate through my life.

EDGE: What does it mean for you?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Oh, you know it's funny when I came back from the interview that day, I met with my neighbor and we both laughed uproariously about it and I told her I thought I did a terrible job. I should have said this, I could have said that. And I, and I remember saying to her, 'I'm so glad nobody I know will ever see it.' So, you know, this best laid plans right?

So I think that the Tammy Bakker interview is kind of how I'm going to be remembered. And I was despairing about that with a friends saying, 'Oh my god you know, I won't be remembered for the work I did as a hospice chaplain, or that I survived AIDS all these years, or any of my work as the director of AIDS ministry for the MCC denomination. It's all about Tammy Bakker.' The headline will be that gay pastor with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker finally died. That will be in my obituary.

And my friend said, 'No, it's really something to be proud of. it was a cultural shift that happened in that interview, and it changed a lot. And that's reflected in this new movie 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye.' The interview is a turning point in the film. Jerry Falwell was backstage going nuts that Tammy Faye is interviewing me in such a positive way. Tammy Faye's drug addiction was already happening, and Jerry Falwell's confrontation with her after my interview sent her over the edge apparently and she ends up in the ladies room taking a handful of Adavin. I had no idea that any of that was going on and I don't know if it's all hyperbole for the film or not, but, but it was a turning point.

Dave Bakker, their son, tells me that it was a turning point for the whole family. And that Tammy started taking Jay and his sister who were like 10 and 12 It's time to MCS and to gay pride parades and hospitals and hospices to visit people with AIDS. It changed all of them, change me too.

EDGE: As somebody who is retired now, like, how do you feel your days in Los Angeles?

Rev. Steve Pieters: Ah, well, I sing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, which I just love doing. I've sung with them for 27 years now, and you know of course we've had to change the way we sing over COVID times, but we're still singing, and it's very exciting to be a part of that community. And I just finished writing my memoir. And it's now in the hands of a literary agent that I'm hoping will sign me. And so I'm hoping to get my memoir out there begins and ends with Tammy Bakker interview, I learned a long time ago that that's what people want to hear about.

Watch the interview with Rev. Steve Pieters and Tammy Faye Bakker:

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is in theaters.