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Steve Pieters was born on August 2nd, 1952 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He grew up on the campus of Phillips Academy, Andover, where his father worked as a math teacher and varsity wrestling coach. Growing up, Christianity was significant in Steve’s life with several of his family members being involved in the church. But at an early age, Steve discovered that he was fascinated by the male body. When he admitted this to his father, his father responded with, “We don’t talk about that. That’s not appropriate.” Through this experience, Steve learned there was something wrong about his curiosity—which meant there was something wrong about himself. Clamping down on his sexual curiosity, Steve turned to singing. After high school, Steve sang for a time with the College Light Opera Company at Cape Cod. It was there he had his first taste of alcohol. Taste turned to habit during his years at Northwestern University, and the habit intensified after graduation.
 
Steve’s turning point came while lying on his couch one day in his Chicago apartment watching the soap opera The Young and the Restless. One of the show’s main characters, Kay Chancellor, managed to conquer her alcoholism. Steve was inspired, and on October 17th, 1975, he took his last drink. Next up was embracing his gayness. Steve found a community of sober gay men who in turn introduced him to Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Not only was Steve able to reconnect with his childhood faith, but he soon realized he wanted to make it his life’s work. After years of study, Steve became the MCC pastor for a church in Harford, Connecticut. 
 
But Steve’s greatest battle still lay ahead of him. In April 1982, Steve was diagnosed with AIDS. He nearly died, and his brushes with death continued on and off for decades. In 1984, he was given eight months to live; but Steve believed God was greater than AIDS. He clung to life. Steve later became one of the early recipients of suramin, the first antiviral tested against HIV. Steve improved on the drug, but most suramin recipients did not, and the trail was soon cancelled. While still recovering from the suramin treatment, Steve was invited to be a guest on the TV show of renowned televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Steve’s appearance moved Tammy Faye to tears, and electrified her audience. To this day, Steve’s conversation with Tammy Faye is regarded as one of the very first media events that depicted people with AIDS as warm and loving human beings, rather than monsters. Steve’s interview with Tammy Faye was recently recreated in the feature film The Eyes of Tammy Faye starring Jessica Chastain, with a red carpet premiere that Steve was invited to attend.
 
Today Steve lives in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and is still an active member of both the MCC and Alcoholics Anonymous. Whether or not the people Steve ministers to end up surviving AIDS, or dying from its complications, Steve believes his gift is helping people to heal. He has grounded himself in the Native American expression that “quality of life is not measured by length, but by the fullness with which we enter into each present moment.”
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Steve, thank you for joining us. If you could start by telling us your first and last names and spelling both.
Steve Pieters: Okay. My name is Steve Pieters, S T E V E. P I E T E R S.
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Please give us your place of birth and the date on which you were born.
Steve Pieters: Lawrence, Massachusetts, August 2nd, 1952
Mason Funk: Okey-Dokey. Great. We always like to start at the beginning, just like Maria Von Trapp.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] I've never used that line before. I kinda like it. [crosstalk] Can you just paint us a little bit of a portrait of your family of origin? In terms of who was there, who your parents were, just in general, the kinds of people there, siblings, if any. Just give us a little bit of a portrait there.
Steve Pieters: [00:01:30] My father was a prep school math teacher and wrestling coach, and my mother was a tax accountant for a major corporation. She did the taxes for 180 different companies every year. But that was before she got married. My parents were both in their late thirties when they got married.
Steve Pieters: [00:02:00] I have an older brother who is four years older than me. I have no other siblings. I grew up on the campus of Phillips Academy, Andover where my father was the varsity wrestling coach and a math teacher, and chairman of the math department for many years. My mother was delighted to be a homemaker.
Mason Funk: [00:02:30] In your prep interview, you mentioned that your grandfather had been, I think, a Presbyterian minister.
Steve Pieters: Yes.
Mason Funk: Was religion an important part of your family's kind of communal life?
Steve Pieters: Religion was an important part of my family's life. My grandparents were Presbyterian missionaries to Korea and my uncle was a very well-known Presbyterian pastor.
Steve Pieters: [00:03:00] He died in 1958, I think it was, as well as my grandfather. They both died within a week of each other. And thus my father, the younger of the two brothers, became the patriarch of the family, suddenly. But church was always important. Dad was a deacon and mom was chairman of the
Steve Pieters: [00:03:30] Christian education committee. We were in church every Sunday. That's for sure. Yeah.
Mason Funk: What style of religion was this? Obviously, religion has many flavors.
Steve Pieters: Right. Well, there weren't any Presbyterian churches in our town, Andover, so we went to a congregational church that, when I was like 10, became a United Church of Christ.
Steve Pieters: [00:04:00] The church that we belong to, the South Church in Andover, was a very old established church, congregational, Puritan. As a matter of fact, the pastor's wife was one of the women who was accused of, and then hanged for witchcraft back in 1690, whatever that was.
Mason Funk: [00:04:30] Anytime you say the word Puritan, it brings certain images to mind. Would you say that mentality was still kind of the dominant ...
Steve Pieters: Oh, the Puritan influence in New England was strong and the Puritan influence in my church was pretty strong.
Steve Pieters: [00:05:00] And it was very conservative. There were no paintings on the walls of the church or no icons or anything, but a plain cross upfront. It was plain congregational, you know?
Mason Funk: [00:05:30] I was charmed and could really relate to your stories of being a five-year-old
Mason Funk: [00:06:00] in the locker room of the wrestling team. Tell us about that, what you remember and kind of how that fit into your overall childhood. You're kind of coming to age of your awareness of yourself as a person who saw things that delighted him that may or may not have been appropriate, so to speak.
Steve Pieters: Right. Well, yeah, as I said, my dad was the varsity wrestling coach at Phillips Andover.
Steve Pieters: [00:06:30] Every Saturday, on the winter, there was a wrestling meet, and my dad sometimes took me to the wrestling meets. Before the meet happened, the boys had to weigh in to make sure that they were under the weight that they were supposed to wrestle at, or right at the weight. If the boys had had a few too many waffles that week or anything and they were a little heavy,
Steve Pieters: [00:07:00] dad would make them take off their clothes, piece by piece. Oftentimes they ended up naked. I was five, so I was not very tall, and these boys, as they weighed in naked, were amazing. I was fascinated. When I talked to my father about it afterwards and asked him questions about the boys' bodies
Steve Pieters: [00:07:30] and how they got to be so muscular and things like that, dad was like, don't talk about that. He was, No, we don't talk. This is not appropriate. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was really clear that I had done something wrong and that it was something to be ashamed of. I learned to be ashamed through moments like that.
Mason Funk: [00:08:00] Are there others that come to mind as well? Because, needless to say, this shame around our sexual fascinations and our interests is something a lot of people can relate to, sort of similar moments or themes.
Steve Pieters: Well, I was always fascinated by muscular men, which might not be a surprise to those who know that my father was a wrestling coach. But I had
Steve Pieters: [00:08:30] a fascination for Steve Reeves as Hercules, and I would check the TV guide every week, I would read it from forward to back, to see if there were any Steve Reeves movies on, that I could watch. I was fascinated by Superman and Superboy and all of that. When I was like five or six, I had just been learning to write,
Steve Pieters: [00:09:00] and my grandmother was visiting from Pasadena, and I wrote a story about Cubby on the Mickey mouse club show, how on Wednesdays, he played the weightlifter in the circus day. I was fascinated by that and I wrote a story about him playing the weightlifter. My grandmother, seeing that I was writing this story, said, Well, do you want me to type it up for you?
Steve Pieters: [00:09:30] And I said, Sure. I handed it to her and she started to type it. Not three minutes into typing, was like, No. She went ... Got up and walked away. No explanation, no words. But I could tell she was angry and embarrassed.
Steve Pieters: [00:10:00] That was another moment I learned to be ashamed of my feelings.
Mason Funk: I mean, do you remember what you wrote that might've been ... I assume there was nothing sexual explicit.
Steve Pieters: No, I mean, I didn't know anything about sex at that point, but I probably wrote about what a big muscular boy he was and how much I admired his muscles.
Steve Pieters: [00:10:30] I might've even said, Oh, I wish he'd take his clothes off like dad's wrestlers so I could see what he looked like underneath. I might have written something like that. I don't honestly remember, but there was something that set her off that something was wrong, as far as she was concerned, and I was embarrassed and ashamed.
Mason Funk: These things imprint us.
Steve Pieters: Oh yeah, definitely.
Mason Funk: [00:11:00] Well, thank you for sharing those stories. I guess the logical follow up would be, there's a lot that we're not gonna be able to cover about your childhood and your coming of age, but when did this kind of concretize for you? Like, Oh, this is more than a boy who had fascination. This is [inaudible].
Steve Pieters: [00:11:30] I remember I was first called a fairy when I was seven, and I wasn't quite sure what the other boys meant by that, but I knew they were right. I was a sissy boy. I was made fun of all through my elementary school years by other boys who looked at me and saw a sissy and a feminine boy,
Steve Pieters: [00:12:00] a boy who liked to play with the girls. I would much prefer playing hopscotch to soccer. I was the victim of a lot of bullying through my childhood, which was all about being a sissy boy and a fairy. I think I finally really realized what that meant when I was about 10 or 11.
Steve Pieters: [00:12:30] And I began to masturbate. I would fantasize about men as I masturbated. I knew that this was wrong, somehow. I would buy bodybuilding magazines and hide them in the secrecy of my bedroom, and secretly look at them to masturbate by.
Steve Pieters: [00:13:00] I was deeply ashamed and secretive about all of that. I knew that I was gay or a homosexual, but I didn't know anybody else. There were no images,
Steve Pieters: [00:13:30] nothing on TV, nothing in books or magazines that I could find about homosexuals. I went to the card catalog at Phillips Academy when I was maybe 12 and looked up the word homosexual in the card catalog and found a musty old book in the stacks. A psychology book that talked about homosexuals as being deviants and perverts and being destined to
Steve Pieters: [00:14:00] live in back alleys in major urban centers, and were oftentimes murdered, and things like that. I thought, Oh my God, I sure don't want that. I thought, I want to get married and have children, married to a woman and have children. I thought, well, I'll probably have to fantasize about men while I make love to my wife. I thought that was
Steve Pieters: [00:14:30] what my future held, if I was able to resist the temptation of being a homosexual in the back alleys.
Mason Funk: [00:15:00] This bullying, that's horrendous for any child. Did you have anybody who was on your side in those years? Whether it was your parents reassuring you that you were fine?
Steve Pieters: No. I mean, my mother was my best ... Well, I had a friend my age named Tripp.
Steve Pieters: [00:15:30] He was a great guy, and we're still friends today. We were always buddying around, and I had other friends, boys and girls, mostly girls. My mother was my champion, and went to bat for me any number of times on this, that or the other thing. I don't recall her going to bat for me
Steve Pieters: [00:16:00] around being bullied or being called a sissy or anything like that. She might have, behind the scenes, but I don't remember her doing that specifically, but she was my champion in terms of talking to my teachers. Oh, when I was old enough to start auditioning for plays, she would talk to the director,
Steve Pieters: [00:16:30] if I hadn't been cast, and say, Isn't there some way he could be on stage, just holding a spear or something. And that usually worked actually, that's how I first got on stage, children's theater and stuff like that.
Mason Funk: How about internally? Do you remember any ways, internally, you were able to process being called a sissy, being bullied?
Mason Funk: [00:17:00] Were you, even at that early age, kind of getting in touch with resources within yourself?
Steve Pieters: Sure. Yeah. I managed to look into myself as a source of comfort and strength, and I knew what I liked. I would handle my feelings of embarrassment and shame
Steve Pieters: [00:17:30] and all of that, all of my drives and desires, by singing. I discovered musicals really early, when my father sat me down to listen to his recordings of South Pacific and My Fair Lady, and I loved them. My mother says that I began singing at the age of two.
Steve Pieters: [00:18:00] I always used singing as an outlet. When I was a child, that was the only way that I could really express my feelings, in the privacy of my bedroom with my little record player, singing along with famous Sopranos of the time, Barbara Cook or Julie Andrews or Shirley Jones. I could match them note for note, my little boy soprano voice.
Mason Funk: [00:18:30] That's great to hear. It's always nice to know you like the singing, like such a thing, that universal thing that can carry us through really hard time.
Steve Pieters: Yeah, yeah. And I did children's theater too. The first role I ever played was Death, in the Emperor's Nightingale. I remember,
Steve Pieters: [00:19:00] I just had one scene, and I was really good. The director was really pleased with me, and would say things like, You all need to look at what Steve's doing with his part as Death, because he's doing it right. Then in the performance I routinely got applauded at my exits, and my mother said that that was because I've done such a good job.
Steve Pieters: [00:19:30] Every time I heard that applause happening as I exited, I went, yeah. Yeah. That's okay. I'm okay. And that's where I want to live.
Mason Funk: Well, what a fascinating role, first of all, how many children's theater pieces, even in company, even integrate the concept of death?
Steve Pieters: I know.
Mason Funk: [00:20:00] For someone who later, like, basically faced death head on, how fascinating that you played the role of death in your younger years?
Steve Pieters: It just occurred to me, and not all that long ago, that I had played death in my first role on stage. I was maybe 10. I've thought about that, and I thought,
Steve Pieters: [00:20:30] Oh my God, is that a coincidence or what? I mean, it certainly became my calling in later life to help people with their dying processes and facing my own death at an early age.
Mason Funk: Yeah. We will revisit that, plenty, because it's one of the key things that,
Mason Funk: [00:21:00] if we're able to give to the world now, it's this, like, we're going to talk about death. I'm going to embody death for people who are afraid to look at it.
Steve Pieters: Yes.
Mason Funk: Along the way, get us from high school into college, into whenever you discovered you had a problem with alcohol and you needed to get sober,
Mason Funk: [00:21:30] kind of. That's a complicated story, I'm sure. I'm sure you've told it in meetings, but give us a kind of an overview or a thumbnail of how that came to pass.
Steve Pieters: Okay. Well, I graduated from Andover. I went to Phillips Andover, and did all the musicals, and some of the Shakespeare plays and Gilbert and Sullivan. When I graduated, the director of the musicals recommended that I go and sing with the College Light Opera Company on Cape Cod.
Steve Pieters: [00:22:00] That's where I did summer stock for a couple of summers. That first summer, right out of high school, I was 17, of course, most of the people in this company were a lot older than me. A lot older, meaning one, two, three, four, five years older which to a 17 year old is like,
Steve Pieters: [00:22:30] they're all grown up. I remember my first drink being at a party at the College Light Opera Company, probably a rehearsal party or something, after a dress rehearsal or something. I had that sip of alcohol and it just, Oh, boy, it filled a hole I didn't know it was there. It made me
Steve Pieters: [00:23:00] comfortable in my skin, in a way that I'd never felt before. It really helped me just party and be a bad boy, when I had, all my childhood and high school years, tried to be the best boy, best little boy in the world. But I really wanted to be a bad boy, and drinking let me be that bad boy.
Steve Pieters: [00:23:30] I took the drinking really quickly. I drank all through college, but it wasn't really a problem. I went to Northwestern, in theater, and did all the shows. It was when I graduated from Northwestern, and I suddenly was on my own and I didn't have anything to do, I started drinking every day,
Steve Pieters: [00:24:00] all day, the way I really wanted to drink. Within a year, or 18 months, maybe, it got me in a lot of trouble. I was drinking a quart of whiskey a day and it was making me bloated and sick. I was vomiting blood, and I knew I needed help.
Mason Funk: Where were you living at this point and what did you do?
Steve Pieters: [00:24:30] By that point, I was living in Chicago. I had tried all kinds of geographic cures in that year of drinking every day. I knew that I was in trouble though, when I was living in Chicago, I moved back to Chicago and I had a little apartment. I didn't do anything all day except drink
Steve Pieters: [00:25:00] and watch TV, basically. I was watching the soap operas, of course, during the day, and one of them was The Young and the Restless. Kay Chancellor, played by the inimitable Jeanne Cooper, was the matriarch of this soap opera. She developed a real problem with alcohol and she got sober, she went, got help and got sober. I thought, Oh, wow, I guess I can do that too.
Steve Pieters: [00:25:30] I got help and I got sober. I had my last drink, that time, on October 17th of 1975. I realized sometime after that I had to deal with being gay. I had to get honest about that if I was going to stay sober. So, I sought out other gay men in recovery,
Steve Pieters: [00:26:00] which was hard to do in Chicago in that time, but I found some and they brought me to MCC for the first time.
Mason Funk: Okay, let's stop. I want to inject a couple of follow ups, because MCC, obviously we need to talk about that in depth, but it strikes me, this is the mid-70s, early mid-70s, and there was a leading character on a soap opera
Mason Funk: [00:26:30] who gets sober. That must've been kind of a big deal for the writers of that soap opera to forefront this story.
Steve Pieters: Sure. Yeah. I don't ever recall ever seeing anything else like that. I mean, there were movies, Days of Wine and Roses, The Lost Weekend, movies like that, that dealt with it, a couple of different Susan Hayward movies.
Steve Pieters: [00:27:00] I never seen any of those though, those were later, I watched them later. Kay Chancellor on Young and the Restless, that was the only image of an alcoholic getting well, getting sober, the only image I saw.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Was it getting sober according to the 12 step model? Or was it kind of more general? How did they depict?
Steve Pieters: [00:27:30] Kay Chancellor went to A.A., and they depicted that quite well, I think. That was very inspiring to me. I decided that I'm not really comfortable identifying as a member of A.A.,
Steve Pieters: [00:28:00] the anonymity and everything, but I did seek out help and I got it. I don't know how to talk about it without talking about A.A., but there was only one gay A.A. meeting in Chicago per week, and that's where I went to come out. That's where I met a couple of guys, one guy in particular, Fred, who took me to MCC for the first time.
Steve Pieters: [00:28:30] I knew I couldn't come out by going to the bars, which was basically the only thing that I ever heard about in the gay community. It was a welcome event to find a group of sober gay men, and have them take me and help me come out.
Mason Funk: Great. I think I hear a plane in your background.
Steve Pieters: [00:29:00] There is.
Mason Funk: Good timing on the plane. Now, what is MCC? Give us a thumbnail history, who founded it, of course, I know [inaudible]. For the person who's never heard of MCC. What is that?
Steve Pieters: MCC is the Metropolitan Community Churches. It's a denomination of churches that was founded in LA
Steve Pieters: [00:29:30] by the Reverend Troy Perry, as a safe place for LGBTQ people to worship together. It started with just 12 people in Troy's living room and grew to be a thousand member church, more than a thousand members, here in LA, at MCC LA, very quickly, like within a year or two.
Steve Pieters: [00:30:00] They bought a church and they moved in, and arsonists burned it to the ground. There were all kinds of events like that along the way that let us know that being gay and Christian was not an easy thing. But it was vitally important to a lot of people, including me.
Steve Pieters: [00:30:30] I first went to MCC Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago at Good Shepherd Parish, MCC, the pastor was Reverend Ken Martin, who is still holding forth in Austin, Texas now. He was my mentor, and an inspiration to me in so many ways.
Mason Funk: [00:31:00] I do take notes occasionally. I just jotted down Ken Martin.
Steve Pieters: Yeah, he'd be a good one for you to interview if you haven't.
Mason Funk: Yeah, we try, but [inaudible] important here. This'll come up again, of course, I rewatched your interview with Tammy Faye Bakker,
Mason Funk: [00:31:30] but it was so genuine, sticking your claim to being a Christian, you are not going to water that down, in that form. That's unusual, a lot of gay people, including myself, left the world of organized religion and the more traditional beliefs, and became a little bit more woo-woo about the whole deal. It was beautiful to watch you not water your proclamation
Mason Funk: [00:32:00] of your faith in Jesus as your savior down in any way, shape or form. Give us a bit more of an understanding of what that faith is to you.
Steve Pieters: Wow, that's huge. Well, I had every intention of being an actor, but my theater career was going nowhere. I was in church one time
Steve Pieters: [00:32:30] and Ken Martin preached a very wonderful sermon about the woman at the well meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John, and all of that. It was a powerful sermon with powerful imagery that he used. After the sermon was over and before communion, there was quiet time for prayers and meditation. I suddenly had
Steve Pieters: [00:33:00] what some might call a white light experience. where the room was dark, it was evening, but I was filled with a sense of light, and I had a clarity and a peace about suddenly knowing that I was meant to be a minister. I told Ken Martin that, and he said, Well, I've been wondering when you're going to realize that.
Steve Pieters: [00:33:30] I decided to apply to seminary, McCormick seminary in Chicago, at the university there. And all the doors flew open. Where, in theater, all the doors had been slamming shut, suddenly when I decided to go into ministry, all the doors opened and I got my Master of Divinity, and studied theology.
Steve Pieters: [00:34:00] And in seminary -- I loved seminary, it was such a great experience -- they tore apart my theology and rebuilt it. I rebuilt it, with their help. It became much more solid. I became the pastor of the MCC in Hartford, Connecticut right out of seminary. I was there for three years, and it was very intense and very difficult.
Steve Pieters: [00:34:30] It's quite different being the pastor of an MCC in a small city than it is being the pastor in New York or San Francisco or LA or Chicago, for that matter. That was really rough. I started getting sick in 1982 with what we now know is AIDS, but was then called GRID. I was diagnosed with GRID, April of 82.
Steve Pieters: [00:35:00] I went through a long period of severe illness, hepatitis, CMV, pneumonia, mononucleosis, herpes, shingles, variety of fungal infections. I had a fungal infection on the bottom of my right foot that caused these huge blisters that they would pop and spray. It was painful. It was awful. I went to nine different dermatologists to try and find an answer.
Steve Pieters: [00:35:30] One of those dermatologists said, Oh, I haven't seen this kind of fungal infection since I was a medic in the South Pacific in World War 2. This is a fungal infection that comes from walking barefoot in sheep dung in New Zealand. I had never walked barefoot in sheep dung in New Zealand.
Steve Pieters: [00:36:00] That kind of thing happens a lot to people with AIDS. We became infected with diseases that were unknown in otherwise healthy young men or women. Anyway, that led to my diagnosis, and the reason I tell all that is because I lived for two years with GRID, and then ARC, AIDS-related complex.
Steve Pieters: [00:36:30] Then in April of 1984, I was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma and full-blown AIDS, and I was given eight months to live by one health professional. My mentor, Ken Martin, who was now the pastor of MCC in the Valley in North Hollywood,
Steve Pieters: [00:37:00] I was now in Los Angeles. I moved here after I started getting sick. My pastor, Ken Martin, again, had me to dinner the night after I was diagnosed, and he invited me to preach the Easter sermon two weeks later. I said, No, you mean, good Friday, don't you? I'm dying. He said, No, you need to preach Easter.
Steve Pieters: [00:37:30] It was one of the most valuable gifts anybody could have given me, or anybody has given me, to really look at what it meant to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as a person who was facing a certain ugly stigmatized death. What I discovered was that if God is greater than the death of Jesus on the cross, as I believe, then God is greater than AIDS.
Steve Pieters: [00:38:00] I said that in front of the congregation and the congregation gasped, like, Oh God, Oh God, Oh, of course. You can see light bulbs going off all over the congregation. I said, If God is greater than AIDS, then I can face death from this horrible disease. And even though they told me the worst thing
Steve Pieters: [00:38:30] they could possibly tell me, I can still enjoy my friends, I can still laugh, I can still dance, I can still be fully alive, in the love of Jesus, in the resurrection of Jesus, because of that resurrection. When I said I can still dance, I did a little shuffle off to Buffalo across the altar,
Steve Pieters: [00:39:00] and the congregation roared their approval. I was the first person in many of my congregation, and many of my friends lives to be diagnosed with AIDS. There was so much fear around AIDS then that -- I'm going all over the place with this --
Steve Pieters: [00:39:30] when I was housebound in 1982 and 83, with all those illnesses that preceded the cancer and AIDS diagnosis, I couldn't find anybody bring me communion because everybody was so scared of going into the house of a person with AIDS, and I couldn't leave the house. I finally found a deacon at MCC in the Valley,
Steve Pieters: [00:40:00] a wonderful woman named Jerry, who came to my house. She was scared to death. She consecrated communion and then insisted that I serve myself because she did not want to place the wafer on my tongue. I did, and I was grateful that she came and faced her fear like that, and was able to do that.
Steve Pieters: [00:40:30] Speaking of women in those early days, it was my friend, Lucia Chappelle, who is still a pastor at MCC LA, she lived across the courtyard from me when I first moved to LA, and she was the one who brought me groceries and kept me company when she could. She brought in other women, other lesbians to come in
Steve Pieters: [00:41:00] and be with me in the course of that long period of time when I was housebound with all those illnesses. They taught me a lot, not only about what it meant to be a lesbian, but they taught me a lot about being sick, they taught me how to ride the waves of illness, and to remember that everything changes.
Mason Funk: [00:41:30] So much.
Steve Pieters: I know.
Mason Funk: If Jay were to watch this, he would be just crying his eyes out. Hes that kind of guy. I have to keep it together. But your story is so beautiful. Of course, it brings to mind Tammy Faye Bakker not being able to control her own tears.
Steve Pieters: [00:42:00] Oh yeah, we started there, didn't we? I haven't gotten back to it.
Mason Funk: We're still to get there. I have two things right now that I want to not forget to go back to. I'm fascinated by the idea of them tearing apart, dismantling your faith in a seminary, and then helping you to rebuild it. I want to know, specifically with regard to the death
Mason Funk: [00:42:30] and resurrection of Jesus, what changed in the course of you coming to this new, more nuanced, maybe more mature version of faith that sustained you? How did that get torn apart and rebuilt during seminary and in your [inaudible]?
Steve Pieters: In seminary, when they tore apart my theology, I came into seminary with a very basic understanding of God,
Steve Pieters: [00:43:00] and I was not at all sophisticated or analytical about my faith. It was just faith. It was just belief in something greater than myself. And it helped me survive and stay sober.
Steve Pieters: [00:43:30] I mean, I was very inspired by men of faith and women of faith that I knew, and I wanted what they had. When I went to seminary, they took apart my very basic understandings of God and Jesus, and they said, That's not good enough. Your God is too small,
Steve Pieters: [00:44:00] or your God is too this or too that. You need to reconsider this aspect of God. How did God play into your coming out to your parents? How did God play into the ability for you to to be the only gay student here at McCormick seminary, and openly gay?
Steve Pieters: [00:44:30] In seminary, you read all of these heavy tomes of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, all these heavy theologians that are brilliant and analytical, and make you really think about who God is.
Steve Pieters: [00:45:00] There was another course I took called Sexism and God Talk, taught by Rosemary Radford Ruether, who was a brilliant Roman Catholic woman theologian. She taught this course Sexism and God Talk, and once again, challenged my horrible beliefs and helped me to
Steve Pieters: [00:45:30] look at my own sexism and my racism and my own homophobia, my own internalized homophobia, and come out in a much healthier place with all of that. I can't really say that that education is what locked in place for me when I was diagnosed in terms of my faith and that Easter sermon.
Steve Pieters: [00:46:00] I remember I felt very abandoned by God through that period of severe illness in 1982 and 83, when I couldn't find a gay man to come near me, I couldn't find friends very easily, except for these women from De Colores MCC who were wonderful. But I was lonely for gay men. Anyway, I kind of rejected God through all of that. I just thought,
Steve Pieters: [00:46:30] how could God let this happen to me? And again, I had to reconstruct my theology, to allow for all of that, to understand all of that. I remember one time I was so severely ill, I had hepatitis, CMV, pneumonia and mononucleosis, all at the same time. I was really sick. In my own little house there, I didn't have health insurance anymore, I've lost it after moving to Los Angeles.
Steve Pieters: [00:47:00] I felt really sick and I had to get up and go to the bathroom. As I got up out of my bed and basically was crawling towards the bathroom, I suddenly had another of those brilliant light experiences where I suddenly realized, if I survive this,
Steve Pieters: [00:47:30] I can help people with this. I can help people. I can inspire people, perhaps. I can help people understand what it means to be this sick. Then the day that I was diagnosed with the two kinds of cancer and AIDS, I came home and I gathered my friends around me, and I had a chaplain who was paying a lot of attention to me at the time,
Steve Pieters: [00:48:00] Reverend Nancy Radclyffe, she was there, and I started crying. I just lost it. I lost control of my tears. I mean, I was just sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. I said, I am so scared. I thought, I hoped that Nancy would say, Oh, don't be scared. It's okay. We're here with you. She didn't, she said,
Steve Pieters: [00:48:30] You're right to be scared. You have a lot to be scared of. That plunged me off of this cliff of despair, and I just fell and I fell and I thought I'm going to hit and die. I'm going to die, soon. It was at that moment when I completely let go into the horror of it that I suddenly felt God.
Steve Pieters: [00:49:00] I felt God's love. I felt God's presence, through these people that were there with me, these friends, my chaplain, and my other friends. But deep in my soul, I had a new experience of God, even with all of the study that I'd done and all the preaching I'd done and all of that, I had this new experience.
Steve Pieters: [00:49:30] That's what enabled me to say yes to doing the Easter sermon, and what propelled me into that sense of God is greater than AIDS, and I can still dance.
Mason Funk: Amazing. That's a great story. Thank you. It may have felt like you went all over the place, but you brought it home. Thank you for tying all those pieces together. I have one more question, then I'd love to run, just take a little break,
Mason Funk: [00:50:00] because I want to refill my water bottle, but the question is about those women who taught you to ride the wave. The question that occurs to me is how did they know how to ride the waves of illness.
Steve Pieters: They knew because of ...
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt, set it up again a little bit, say these women who taught me how to ride the waves of world illness. They knew ...
Steve Pieters: [00:50:30] These women who taught me how to ride the waves of illness, they knew to tell me about that because of, one, their monthly periods and how they learn to ride that wave on a regular basis. Two, several of them had chronic health problems, like one had lupus
Steve Pieters: [00:51:00] and another had chronic back problems. They knew about riding those waves to enable them to tell me about riding the waves of AIDS.
Mason Funk: Just out of curiosity, I thought maybe you were going to say, had any of them gone through childbirth? Did that also help them?
Steve Pieters: [00:51:30] No, I don't think any of them had been through childbirth, but that certainly played into the women. I think even though they hadn't given birth to a child themselves, they certainly knew about childbirth, and had probably, no doubt, thought about it, in terms of whether they would ever do it or what it would be like for them when they did it, that sort of thing. That was another thing they taught me, was using breathing
Steve Pieters: [00:52:00] to ride the waves, taking a deep cleansing breath and feeling the calm that comes with that breath, and just paying attention to my breath. When I had pneumonia, that was pretty difficult, but I still was able to take comfort in just the regularity of breathing,
Steve Pieters: [00:52:30] and the wave of breathing, breathing in and breathing out. And that's a certain wave, in and of itself.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. Let's take just about five minutes, at the most. Literally 12:16 - 12:17. We'll be back here around 12:21 - 12:22. I'll turn my camera off and I'll be back in five.
Steve Pieters: [00:53:00] Okay, great. See ya. Bye.
Mason Funk: [00:58:30] Okay. Steve, I think there are two big stories that we have to cover, among the many others that we won't have time to cover, which would be, first of all, this, you call it, suramin trial. I think you've given us a pretty good picture of your journey with AIDS except for that piece, in the 80s. I don't even know how to pronounce it.
Steve Pieters: [00:59:00] suramin, it's pronounced suramin.
Mason Funk: Okay. So what was suramin, and what role did it play in your life?
Steve Pieters: suramin was the first antiviral they tried against HIV. It was a drug that was used in African sleeping sickness, and they gave it to those patients, six grams at once, and if it didn't kill them, it cured them.
Steve Pieters: [00:59:30] They found that it inhibited the replication of HIV in the test tube. My doctor, Alexandra Levine was the primary investigator on the drug trial for suramin. She invited me to be patient number one, the first patient to go on the drug. It was a chemotherapy, and so I took it one gram a week.
Steve Pieters: [01:00:00] Within six weeks, my KS lesions had disappeared, and my stage four lymphoma had gone into complete remission. That was just as wonderful a piece of news as a person could have gotten, Oh my God, she gave me my life back, or so I felt. They put 89 other people on the drug around the country,
Steve Pieters: [01:00:30] and unfortunately it didn't really work for anybody else. It actually killed a percentage of the people who took it. Everybody else, except one, died from the progression of AIDS over the next year or two. All of the patients that I took it with at LA County hospital died.
Steve Pieters: [01:01:00] There were five other patients on the drug there, five or six, and they all died within that year, one or two of them from the effects of suramin. The suramin very nearly killed me, well, I did die, at one point. They did not detect that my adrenal glands had failed,
Steve Pieters: [01:01:30] the suramin burned out the adrenal glands of all the patients who took it for a certain length of time. I was the first, of course, so I was the first to suffer that and they couldn't figure out, with my cancers and KS in complete remission, why I was dying. They finally figured it out and brought me in, one evening, into the hospital. That night was
Steve Pieters: [01:02:00] my first near-death experience. The suramin trial ended in December of 1985, but the suramin continued to cause severe toxic side effects in me for the next month, the next few months. I went blind. The nerves of my eyes became
Steve Pieters: [01:02:30] so inflamed that I could not see. I was paralyzed on the left side of my body. I wasted away to a skeleton with skin. I lost all my hair all over my head and my body. Everybody, again, was pretty sure that I was dying in spite of the fact that my cancers were still in remission. It was in the midst of all of that that I got the invitation
Steve Pieters: [01:03:00] to come on Tammy Faye Bakker's TV show and be interviewed about being a gay pastor with AIDS.
Mason Funk: Okay. That's a great transition. We're going to pick it up right there. For people who watch this, who may not know what KS was for Kaposi's sarcoma, just give us like a one sentence definition, KS is
Steve Pieters: KS is Kaposi's sarcoma, and that causes purple lesions initially on the skin,
Steve Pieters: [01:03:30] I believe, and then it can go and cause purple lesions on the internal organs. Kaposi's sarcoma is a cancer of the blood vessels, if I understand that correctly.
Mason Funk: Okay. That's all that we need on that, just in case, just a little working definition. Okay. When I rewatched the Tammy Faye Bakker interview yesterday,
Mason Funk: [01:04:00] I didn't realize that it was in the middle of this treatment protocol that you received this invitation. Tell us how the invitation came about, what you thought. Before we even really go into the whole story, who the heck was Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim Bakker?
Steve Pieters: Okay. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had the largest Christian television network
Steve Pieters: [01:04:30] in the world at the time. The network was called PTL, which stood for Praise the Lord. They had the flagship show, which was a two hour talk show that was called PTL, and Jim and Tammy held forth on that, preached the gospel and have inspiring people on, to talk about Christianity, their brand of Christianity.
Steve Pieters: [01:05:00] They were pretty typical conservative evangelists. I think they were Assemblies of God, originally. They had this huge network.
Mason Funk: How this invitation happened.
Steve Pieters: [01:05:30] Oh, okay. Yeah. They had scoured the entire Southeast and the Eastern seaboard to find a person with AIDS who was willing to go on the show, and they couldn't find anybody. One of their last calls was to the AIDS project in Atlanta, AIDS Atlanta. The executive director there was Reverend Ken South, who was one of my parishioners in Hartford.
Steve Pieters: [01:06:00] He seriously considered going on and talking about it himself, on Tammy's show, but he decided, no, it'd probably be better to come from a real live person with AIDS. Of course, he knew me and he knew my story. He told them about me and asked me if he could share my contact info. I said, sure. The producer called,
Steve Pieters: [01:06:30] and they were going to fly me and my chaplain, Nancy Radclyffe, because I was so sick at the time from the suramin trials, they were going to fly the two of us first-class to Charlotte to be on the show. Literally, as Nancy and I were headed out the door to the airport, she had come to pick me up to take me to the airport, as we were headed out the door, the phone rang, and it was Tammy's producer,
Steve Pieters: [01:07:00] saying Tammy is sick and she's decided to cancel the interview. Terribly disappointed, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. Nancy and I were both very disappointed that we had to send back the first class plane tickets and all that. Then Tammy's producer called the next day and said Tammy's feeling better, so we've decided that we're going to do
Steve Pieters: [01:07:30] PTLs first ever satellite hookup, a satellite interview. Never been done before. You will go to a studio in Ontario, California, about an hour and a half from my home, and there, you will talk with Tammy via satellite as she sits here in Heritage Village. I later found out that they probably didn't want me coming to Heritage Village, USA.
Steve Pieters: [01:08:00] Not because of Jim and Tammy, Jim and Tammy would have been very hospitable, from what I understand. What they worried about was that the camera crew wouldn't work if I came into the studio or that I might be treated badly by the hotel staff or the Heritage Village personnel. So they did this satellite hookup.
Mason Funk: [01:08:30] Because it seems like it was conveyed in the interview that the reason you didn't come was because of your own treatment. That was just kind of a gloss ...
Steve Pieters: Yeah. That was a gloss. I don't think she wanted to make her crew look bad, she didn't want to say, Oh, the people here at Heritage Village would treat you badly. So she said, it was because of your treatment.
Mason Funk: [01:09:00] Okay. It was about a 24 minute interview. What was the experience like for you? It adds that interesting wrinkle that you weren't in the same room with Tammy Faye, but here, you drive out to Ontario now. What was the experience like for you, the actual interview experience?
Steve Pieters: [01:09:30] Well, they put me in the studio that was all dark, except for the glaring lights right on me. I did not have a monitor. I could not see Tammy while we were talking, all I could do was look right into the camera and the little red button light in front of me. I had Tammy on this ear piece that kept falling off, and that was one of the funny moments when she said, Well, I'm a girl and I can put mine around my earring.
Steve Pieters: [01:10:00] And I thought to myself, well, gee, I should just go get one of my earrings then, but I didn't go there in the actual interview. That was part of what was going on throughout the entire interview was I was thinking, when I said, for instance, that she asked me, did you have a problem with girls? Did you just not like girls? And I said, Oh, no, I've always had plenty of girlfriends. I thought to myself,
Steve Pieters: [01:10:30] should I explain to her that girlfriends can mean other gay men? No, let's not go. And I didn't go. But I mean, that kind of thing was always going on in my brain about the tension between my gay lifestyle and the gay culture that I lived in versus the televangelist conservative Christian culture. For me, throughout the interview,
Steve Pieters: [01:11:00] I was consciously trying to be a good boy, and be a good Christian. When in Rome talk like the Romans. I had never held my hand up to say, hallelujah in my life, and yet at one point in the interview, she goes, Only a Christian can know that, and I said, Hallelujah. Where did that come from? Another point, she asked me
Steve Pieters: [01:11:30] why did I feel I couldn't make the commitment to a woman? And I said, because I thought it would have been disrespectful of the woman. I had never used that phrase in my life. Troy Perry said that that was the Holy spirit speaking through me
Steve Pieters: [01:12:00] that enabled me to come up with that phrase at that moment, that she would understand that. She would get it, that would speak to her and her audience. The stuff that was going on in my brain was not necessarily what you saw in the interview. When I came away from the interview, Nancy and I drove back to my house,
Steve Pieters: [01:12:30] my friend Lucia, Lucia Chappelle, came in from next door, and wanted to know how it went. Nancy left, and Lucia and I giggled and laughed and talked about, Oh, I got out of there without having makeup splattered all over me. I told Lucia, I did a terrible job. This was just awful. I should've said this and I shouldn't have said that. Oh my God, if only I'd answered it this way.
Steve Pieters: [01:13:00] If I'd had another three minutes, maybe I could've said that. Oh, I'm just so glad nobody I know will ever see that. Little did I know?
Mason Funk: Well, a couple of things come to mind. One is, I want to touch on what you told about being a good boy and the best boy, as compared to being a bad boy, and here on this show, you play the consummate role of the good boy.
Mason Funk: [01:13:30] Another thing that I can't help having come to mind, when Troy said that was the Holy spirit, one of the Bible verses I learned in high school that I still remember is, When they arrest you and you over, be not anxious beforehand about what you are to say, but say, whatever is giving you in that moment, for it is not you who speak, but is the Holy spirit. I'll never be able to forget that verse as long as I live, but I happen to love that.
Steve Pieters: Yeah, well, that's exactly what Troy was talking about. Yeah.
Mason Funk: [01:14:00] The thing is, I'm also very much a fan of the notion of the wounded healer, and what struck me yesterday was that you were ministering to Tammy.
Steve Pieters: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Does that resonate with you when you look back?
Steve Pieters: Oh, absolutely. There was a sense in which I was taking care of Tammy and her feelings. I've had many people say to me over the years that I ministered to Tammy as much,
Steve Pieters: [01:14:30] if not more than she ministered to me during the course of that interview. It's been suggested to me. I'm getting a lot of requests for interviews about the Tammy Faye Bakker interview right now. One of the reporters told me that he's friends with a fellow who's studied that interview, and believes that she may have been,
Steve Pieters: [01:15:00] particularly the first half where she was talking about my being gay, and she was trying to work out her own marital issues in doing that, because there were certainly rumors that Jim Bakker was a closeted homosexual. She might have very well been trying to figure out her own approach to Jim's problem.
Steve Pieters: [01:15:30] Through talking to me about being gay.
Mason Funk: For those viewers who might not know what eventually happened to the marriage of Jim and Tammy Faye, just give us a little bit of a brief overview.
Steve Pieters: Well, Jim and Tammy Faye were brought down by Jerry Falwell about 18 months after my interview, in early 1987.
Steve Pieters: [01:16:00] It was a mess, and Jerry Falwell took over their empire. Jim and Tammy divorced. Jim was, I'm not sure of the order of things, but Jim was sent to jail for, I believe, fraud, defrauding people of their money,
Steve Pieters: [01:16:30] selling too many timeshares in the heritage village vacation land that they created. I'm friends with their son, Jay Bakker, who was 10 years old at the time of the interview. Jay has told me that the interview not only changed Tammy in significant ways,
Steve Pieters: [01:17:00] but it changed the whole family. It was a turning point for them all. Tammy began taking her two children, Jay and Tammy Sue, who were 10 and 12, I believe at the time, she started taking them to MCCs and to gay pride parades and to hospices and hospitals to visit people with AIDS. Tammy suddenly realized
Steve Pieters: [01:17:30] that she had a ministry to the gay community, that she didn't even realize until my interview with her. It changed everything for her. And when everything fell apart around her, she turned to the gay community, and the gay community embraced her. She often said that it was the gay community that saved her through that horrible period for them.
Steve Pieters: [01:18:00] Yeah. And it all started with my interview, apparently.
Mason Funk: At the end, we're going to talk a little bit about the notion of queer superpower. I think that story goes to that notion as well as almost any story I can imagine. But we'll get there in a little bit. It's an incredible piece of our history, this particular interview.
Mason Funk: [01:18:30] Anything else that you just want to say about it? You've been talking about it a lot lately, but anything that resonates for you about that particular experience, either for you personally or culturally?
Steve Pieters: Well, it was really interesting to me. I mean, culturally, I think it had a huge impact, and I was not even really aware of that until the last year or two. Suddenly, all these people are telling me,
Steve Pieters: [01:19:00] Oh, yeah, it was a major turning point in the culture Wars between LGBT people and the conservative Christian community. It impacted both communities in its way.
Steve Pieters: [01:19:30] All of these interviews I've done about it, I'm just like, I still am shocked and surprised at the power of that interview, which to me ... After I recovered from AIDS in 1987 and from the suramin treatments, I got well, and I started traveling the world teaching and preaching about AIDS and trying to bring hope where there was all this hopelessness around AIDS.
Steve Pieters: [01:20:00] Everywhere I went, at least, in the United States and Canada, people wanted to see Tammy Faye Bakker interview. So I hauled around the videotape of Tammy Faye Bakker interview, which I would not have, if it hadn't been for the MCC pastor in Fort Worth, Texas who happened to record it that day and sent it to me. I carried around that videotape to all the different churches and conferences that I went to,
Steve Pieters: [01:20:30] and everybody always wanted to see it. They wanted to watch me watching it with them. And I couldn't stand watching it. I just thought it was awful. I was so embarrassed that I'd done it, and that I should've said, you know, once again, second guessing myself all over the place. Sometimes, I would just leave the room, because I couldn't stand watching it another time.
Steve Pieters: [01:21:00] One of the things that has amazed me is, and I've been aware of this for some years now, when I die, the headline will probably be, gay pastor with AIDS interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker. Rather than the field director of AIDS ministry for the MCC denomination, or he went to the White House and had breakfast with Clinton
Steve Pieters: [01:21:30] and talked with him about speaking truth to power in terms of the AIDS crisis. None of that. The people that I served, the Chris Brownlie hospice that I was a chaplain at for five or six years, I mean, it's like none of that ever happened, except for this interview. The suramin trial, I gave my body to science,
Steve Pieters: [01:22:00] as 90 other people did in that suramin trial. Luckily, I survived, but will I be remembered for that? Yeah. Maybe. But more likely it's the Tammy Faye Bakker interview.
Mason Funk: Well, I'm so glad that youre saying that with half an hour to go because it gives us the chance to say, okay, great, that's about it, but I really am interested in ...
Mason Funk: [01:22:30] It sounds morbid to say, but among the things you just ticked off, the suramin trial, having breakfast with president Clinton, the hospice, which of those things feels to you closest to the core of what you've been able to both experience and give to the world?
Steve Pieters: [01:23:00] Well, I think that the real gift that I have is in helping people die and helping people face their deaths. Helping people heal as they die. I think that grew out of the fact that I had that near death experience on suramin, that I saw so much death around me,
Steve Pieters: [01:23:30] and I knew what it was like to be on my deathbed. Not a lot of people could bring that to the deathbed of other people. With my chaplain training and ministry and my own experience of suffering and death. I think that the Chris Brownlie hospice,
Steve Pieters: [01:24:00] the work that I did, not only there, but in the hospitals around LA, and indeed all over the world, because wherever I would go, they would have me go visit AIDS patients, whether it be in the hospital or their homes. I didn't understand it. I don't understand it, still, but I had a gift for helping people with healing, whether it be healing into life or healing into death.
Mason Funk: [01:24:30] You say you don't understand it, which tells me that you've tried to understand it, perhaps.
Steve Pieters: Yes.
Mason Funk: What's your best guess as to the origins of that gift and the nature of that gift?
Steve Pieters: I think it's multifaceted. I mean, I think that is from personal experience ...
Mason Funk: [01:25:00] Do me a favor, start by saying, The gift I have to do
Steve Pieters: The gift I have for helping people heal into their deaths or heal into their lives,
Steve Pieters: [01:25:30] I think it comes from a multifaceted experience, both my own personal experience; my experience as a pastor; my experience of being on my deathbed; my experience of seeing other people die all around me, from the same thing I had; my education; my training;
Steve Pieters: [01:26:00] and bottom line, all that is undergirded by my faith in God. I think that God gives us all gifts, and there's such diversity of gifts in the world. I think God gave me the gift of knowing how to be there with people as they died, to help them ease into their death.
Mason Funk: [01:26:30] Well, when you take all that into account how many people you helped to ease into their own death, how do you feel about your own death now, even if it's a year from now or 20 years from now, does that mean that you're just magically immune from any anxiety and trepidation?
Steve Pieters: [01:27:00] No, I mean, I love life, and I don't want to let it go. I've been so close to death, even in recent years, in 2012, I was deathly ill, and came close, I had three near death experiences during that year. It took me a long time to recover from that, but I'm well now, anyway, where was I? I'm sorry, I lost my train of thought.
Mason Funk: [01:27:30] There was my question about how do you then feel about your own death?
Steve Pieters: About my own death. Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, first let me say that I was terrified of dying. I was terrified of dying alone. That experience of my first near death experience from suramin taught me,
Steve Pieters: [01:28:00] and I am still convinced, that there is nothing to fear in dying and that we are never alone. I'm not alone. I don't know about you, but I know that I'm not alone, that there are loving beings all around me, out of their body and in their bodies. I know that to be the truth and I still am afraid that,
Steve Pieters: [01:28:30] Oh my God, maybe I was wrong about that; maybe the atheists are right; or maybe my near death experience was simply chemicals firing in my brain as my brain died, which is how I've heard it explained by some doctors.
Steve Pieters: [01:29:00] For me, I'm scared of nothingness. I'm scared of just being launched out of this body into nothing. But that implies that there's a consciousness that is still aware of there being nothing, so there's still that consciousness. Maybe I just die and that's it,
Steve Pieters: [01:29:30] that's the end. I've worked with a lot of people in the hospice and hospitals who believed that, and I helped them by saying, maybe for you, the hope in death lies in the end of suffering,
Steve Pieters: [01:30:00] just the release from pain, the release from suffering, maybe it is all over. I've thought a lot about it and I sure don't want to die because I really love life, and I want to be here to see what happens next. Wow, life is great, and my life has been great. I'm almost 69
Steve Pieters: [01:30:30] and I've lived with AIDS for almost 40 years now, and HIV even longer, no doubt. I know that there's going to be an end somewhere along the line, and I worry that I'm going to drop dead of a heart attack before this, that or the other thing happens that I really want to live to see. God knows, in this last year, I've been worried that I was going to catch COVID
Steve Pieters: [01:31:00] and die from that because I have all of the underlying factors that add up to death from COVID, as I've seen at least one other friend die who had the same underlying factors I do. Anyway, I know that none of us have any guarantees about tomorrow. I have preached for many years that, the native American expression that means a lot to me,
Steve Pieters: [01:31:30] that tells me a lot is, the quality of life is not measured by the length of life, but by the fullness with which we enter into each present moment. I don't know what awaits me tomorrow, I don't know what awaits you tomorrow, but all either of us have is right now, this moment. And in this moment, I choose to feel alive and at peace
Steve Pieters: [01:32:00] and grateful and hopeful. One of the things I came back from that first near death experience with was the knowledge that what's really important is not the toys, God knows, it's the ability to really look at each other, to connect with each other, heart to heart,
Steve Pieters: [01:32:30] to see each other, even if we're not sighted beings, we can still see each other, understand each other, feel each other. That is what's eternal, that connection of the heart. That's what's eternal.
Mason Funk: Great. Thank you for sharing that. That's wonderful. Thank you. Two topics. One is the Gay Men's Chorus,
Mason Funk: [01:33:00] which I know is so important to you. And the other is the wand that you have somewhere nearby, let's grab that wand. Tell us what that means to you and the whole metaphor of fairies.
Steve Pieters: Okay, well I was first called a fairy when I was seven and I knew that it was not meant kindly. And yet I just loved fairy tales,
Steve Pieters: [01:33:30] particularly the story of Peter Pan and the fairy that accompanies Peter, Little Tinkerbell. Of course, in the story, Tinkerbell is dying from drinking the poison that Captain Hook left for Peter, and Peter turns to the audience and says, Tink is dying because people don't believe in fairies. If you believe in fairies, clap your hands, bring Tinkerbell back to life.
Steve Pieters: [01:34:00] Of course, for over a century now, people in the audience, homophobic or not have gone, Oh yes, I believe in fairies. Yes, absolutely, and Tinkerbell comes back to life and the play goes on. Peter's the hero, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, there were a lot of good fairies who were dying in the 80s and 90s, and I thought it was important to bring this wand to the hospitals and hospices and to the speaking engagements and preaching engagements
Steve Pieters: [01:34:30] that I did to talk about the importance of believing in fairies, believe in yourself as a good fairy, believe in yourself as a good person, believe in each other, but believe in yourself enough to do the work of healing, whether it be healing into life or healing into death,
Steve Pieters: [01:35:00] believe in yourself. This was such a powerful image for so many people. A couple of years ago, I was very honored along with Troy Perry, Troy was the primary person, the Smithsonian asked for artifacts and documents from our ministries from our history. Troy asked me to put together this big box of all the AIDS ministry resources,
Steve Pieters: [01:35:30] and newsletters, and all of this that I had done. At the last moment, I had another one just like this, except it had a pink star, and I thought, do I keep this on my shelf where I can see it and appreciate it, where it can gather dust, or do I give it to the Smithsonian? Hello. I put it in the box. And what do you know? That's the thing
Steve Pieters: [01:36:00] that the curator at the Smithsonian liked the best. She said it kind of crystallizes the whole experience of living through those years with hope. I still carry it with me. The pink one is in the Smithsonian now.
Mason Funk: All right, well let them have it.
Steve Pieters: Yeah. At least I have one like it.
Mason Funk: [01:36:30] Out of curiosity, how did you find the replacement [crosstalk]?
Steve Pieters: Oh, this was not a replacement. Back when I was going to the pleasure fair, the Renaissance, pleasure fair, they had these on sale there, and I bought two. I don't know why, but I must've had a premonition that I would need two.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. Now let's talk about the Gay Men's Chorus. Its such a huge topic,
Mason Funk: [01:37:00] and we haven't done much with the role of music and in our lives. We did some interviews this year with pioneers of the women's music movement, which has been incredibly important. Talking about the Gay Men's Chorus, what is it and why does it mean?
Steve Pieters: The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles was, I believe the second Gay Men's Chorus to be founded. The first was the Gay Men's Chorus in San Francisco, which first performed on the night that
Steve Pieters: [01:37:30] that Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated on the steps of city hall. Anyway, the gay men's choral movement, the gay LGBT choral movement has grown enormously in the intervening years. Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles was founded in 1979 and in its first rehearsal, it like a hundred men there.
Steve Pieters: [01:38:00] I first saw the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles shortly after I was given my terminal prognosis in the summer of 1984, I was given tickets to go see AIDS project, Los Angeles. AP LA gave tickets to events and concerts and things like that. They gave me a ticket to see the Gay Men's Chorus, and I went to see them and I sat there in the audience,
Steve Pieters: [01:38:30] beforehand, going [inaudible], and then they came on and they were so handsome and so beautiful in their singing and their spirit. I wanted to be up there singing with them, and I knew that I never would be able to, because I was dying from AIDS. I sat there and wept,
Steve Pieters: [01:39:00] for the beauty of their music, the pride that I felt, the gay pride that I felt, and the hopelessness that I felt about ever being able to sing with them. Well, obviously, I got well a few years later. In 1994, I was busy on the road, traveling all over the world. I went to a concert and at that concert, a friend of mine
Steve Pieters: [01:39:30] from my theater days Gary Holt was there with the director of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles at the time, Jon Bailey, who is an incredible, wonderful pioneer and leader of the gay community. Gary said, Jon, you really should get this guy into your chorus. He has a gorgeous voice. Jon said, Well, we're having auditions next week, as a matter of fact.
Steve Pieters: [01:40:00] Why don't you come? And I, Well, I travel a lot, I don't know. Are you here on Monday evenings? Well, I suppose I could be. I auditioned and I got right in. I have sung with them since 1994. I've had to take a few concerts off because of health issues, but it has been my joy to sing with them.
Steve Pieters: [01:40:30] It's not just the thrill of watching the curtain go up and feeling that applause coming over the footlights, it's not just that. It's not just the joy of making music, but it's the joy of the gay male community that we experienced in the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. Every Monday night, pre COVID, we would gather and it was always so good to see my brothers in the chorus.
Steve Pieters: [01:41:00] In the COVID period that we've had over the last year or so, it's been the chorus, as much as my church, that has been there for me as someone who dared not go out because, I'm getting older and I'm still a little immune compromised. Members of the chorus have brought me groceries and taken my trash out.
Steve Pieters: [01:41:30] All of that sort of thing, let alone keep me company and keep me entertained. We're still involved in each other's lives. We do these virtual concerts now, which is not the same, but it's still wonderful to make music and to see the finished product and to rehearse even virtually on zoom. Anyway, I love the Gay Men's Chorus. The Gay Men's Chorus has given me life in no small way.
Mason Funk: [01:42:00] Fantastic. Thank you for that. That's just wonderful, so uplifting. Really is. Two questions, and then I think we're going to do the so-called final four. You mentioned that one of the things that's been hurtful
Mason Funk: [01:42:30] is the erasure that accompanies [inaudible] you experienced as you've gotten older, younger LGBT men or people in general, [inaudible] they want to be your friend, but then they don't really show up. It's more like its something to say, but it doesn't get played out in reality. Talk about that bittersweet experience of getting older and experiencing some of that sidelining,
Mason Funk: [01:43:00] even within our own LGBT community, which is not immune from fear of death and so on.
Steve Pieters: Sure. As I started getting older and was moving into my fifties and sixties, I had a friend who's about 10 years older than I am,
Steve Pieters: [01:43:30] who said to me once, Welcome to the age of invisibility. There have been times, certainly, where, as an older gay man, I have felt invisible. I'm thinking of the chorus now, because we are a very intergenerational community, as I've gotten older, I've looked and, Oh my God, there are younger people here.
Steve Pieters: [01:44:00] They don't necessarily want to socialize with me or they may not even see me walk into the room. I go up to somebody for a hug and they're like looking elsewhere, you know? Ive rejected that notion, and just decided
Steve Pieters: [01:44:30] that I am a tribal elder now. I'm an elder of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, unofficial title, but I am taking it on. I'm delighted to make friends with younger men in the chorus. I'm amazed at how much they seem to respond to me ever since I've taken this notion
Steve Pieters: [01:45:00] of rejecting the age of invisibility and being visible as a tribal elder. I've also been amazed at how many of them really don't know their gay history. They don't know about the 70s. They think of the 70s as being this horribly repressive time when people were scared to death to be out and all of that. I tell them
Steve Pieters: [01:45:30] being gay in the 70s was a great ride. I mean, we had a ball, demonstrations, Harvey Milk, Anita Bryant, fighting against Anita Bryant, and Oh, the sex. Oh my God! Sex in the 70s before AIDS happened. Then everything changed with AIDS. They don't know about what AIDS was like for us. I've told young men sometimes,
Steve Pieters: [01:46:00] think about what it would be like for your circle of friends, to see three quarters of them get sick, including yourself, and die one by one, within the span of a year or two. How would that feel to you? As I tell them about my own experience of AIDS and living through AIDS,
Steve Pieters: [01:46:30] some of them just start crying, oh, I had no idea. I was honored to be asked to tell my story in a concert that we did at Walt Disney concert hall. It was a concert where we sang all these beautiful songs about religion, spirituality and being gay and the intersection of all of that. Number of us told our stories in between the numbers,
Steve Pieters: [01:47:00] and I was honored to be asked to be one of them. I told my story in like three minutes or less, but it got to the point, the younger men in the chorus heard my story and they came up to me afterwards and went, Oh my God, I had no idea. How did you And they're overwhelmed with what we went through as a community
Steve Pieters: [01:47:30] in the 80s and 90s. They're amazed to find out that we had a really good time being gay, even before that, in the 70s. I love being with men of other generations in the gay community. I don't expect anything from them. I think that may be part of why I'm able to be with them and just enjoy them.
Steve Pieters: [01:48:00] I'm complete by myself. I feel quite comfortable in my own skin, and I think that that reads to younger men as well.
Mason Funk: Yeah, yeah. You almost answered the next question I was going to ask, but also spend a minute on it. When we ask people what incorrect assumption would you like to sort of, in a way, correct, or have the opportunity to address,
Mason Funk: [01:48:30] and you said that you wanted to address the assumption that there's lots of people walking around who survived AIDS in the same way that you did when in reality theres very few. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Steve Pieters: Yeah. Sometimes, I get a little perturbed at the number of guys who will say, Oh yeah, well, I've had AIDS since 1979. I know because of the blood work that was stored in my doctor's office or whatever.
Steve Pieters: [01:49:00] Usually, I start to question them, I say, So, you've been HIV positive since 79? And they go, Yeah. And I said, Have you been sick with it? Some of them will say, No, I've never been sick with it. I'll go, Ah, that's different than what I experienced. Some of them will say, Yeah, Oh, I've been sick with it. And I said, When did you get sick? They say, Oh, 93, 94.
Steve Pieters: [01:49:30] I got sick in 82. It was really different then. So I get a little perturbed at all the guys who go around bragging that they've been living with AIDS for as long as I have, because it's different being sick with AIDS being near deaths door for so long,
Steve Pieters: [01:50:00] than it is living with HIV. It's a different experience.
Mason Funk: If you could put your finger on it, what is it that bothers you about that kind of conflation? Is it the minimizing?
Steve Pieters: It rankles me that they're minimizing my experience, that they're equating their experience with mine
Steve Pieters: [01:50:30] when they never went through what I went through. Anything like it. It rankles me that people don't realize the miracle that I represent, the miraculous fact that I'm still here, in spite of all of it. That's what rankles me.
Mason Funk: [01:51:00] Okay. Thank you. We have these final four questions that are intended to be quick. We're literally out of time so we're going to take no more than say three or four minutes to do the final four. First of all, if you, Steve Pieters, could tell 15 year old Steve Pieters anything, what would it be?
Steve Pieters: [01:51:30] It's gonna get really better. You're gonna be out ...
Mason Funk: Start by taking my question and rephrase it.
Steve Pieters: Sorry. Yeah, yeah, yeah. If I could talk to 15 year old Steve Pieters, I would tell him it's going to get a lot better. You're going to get out and proud. You're going to have friends. You're going to live. You're going to enjoy life. You're going to have a fabulous time and you're going to be quite fabulous.
Mason Funk: [01:52:00] Great. Secondly, it's this question about queer super power, by the way, I use queer interchangeably with LGBTQ. I know not everyone does, so pick whatever term you like better. But I have the notion that we, kind of, as people who have gone through this gauntlet, whether it's trans people, bisexual people, gay, lesbian, queer, it's a gauntlet to get through that and come to a better place. I think that that's due to some kind of what I like to call a super power, and it enables us to give something positive.
Mason Funk: [01:52:30] Do you agree in any way, shape or form with that idea? And if so, what would you identify as our queer superpower.
Steve Pieters: Our queer superpower, my gay super power is the ability to to work magic, to be fabulous, to spread fairy dust everywhere we go. My queer superpower is embodied in this fairy wand.
Steve Pieters: [01:53:00] Yes, I'm a fairy. I'm proud of being a fairy. Even the Smithsonian says this fairy wand and being a fairy as a wonderful thing, that's our superpower, is being able to transform what was devastating and a stigma into pride and life and fabulousness.
Mason Funk: [01:53:30] Great. Thank you for that. Why is it important to you, and God knows you're getting a lot of opportunities to do it these days. Why is it important to you to share your story?
Steve Pieters: It's important to me to share my story because, A, I believe that you can't keep it unless you give it away. I can't keep the miracle unless I give it away and tell people about it. I believe it's important to tell my story because people need to know our history.
Steve Pieters: [01:54:00] There aren't very many of us, and I don't know of anybody who was sick with AIDS in 82 and 83 and 84 and 85, who is alive to tell the story now. It's important for me to witness to what it was like to be a person with AIDS in the 80s, in the early 80s, it's important for our history.
Mason Funk: [01:54:30] Along those lines, OUTWORDS being an archive of interviews with people like yourself, all across the country, our elders, our tribal elders, I love that phrase, by the way, what do you see as the value of a project like OUTWORDS? If you could use OUTWORDS in your answer.
Steve Pieters: I think OUTWORDS is one of the most valuable assets we have right now because it collects and archives and maintains,
Steve Pieters: [01:55:00] for posterity, the stories of what it was like to come through the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s, that full gauntlet that we lived through, all those years. OUTWORDS documents it in video form and makes it available for history. I'm told historians will be interested to know
Steve Pieters: [01:55:30] what it was like, and here, OUTWORDS is preserving that.
Mason Funk: Well, you summed up our mission, very, very, very compactly and in a very true way. That's exactly why we exist. On that note, we're finished. I've enjoyed this so tremendously, and I thank you.
Mason Funk: [01:56:00] I thank you for bearing witness to your [inaudible], for sharing it with the world. You're not keeping, giving it away. It is a singular gift, what you've experienced, and people are going to be really, really blessed to be able to hear your story. The whole gamut, every single bit of it, including being in the locker room as a five-year-old.
Steve Pieters: Right. I'll never forget that.
Mason Funk: Nor should you.
Steve Pieters: Nor should I. Nor do I want to.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola
Date: May 06, 2021
Location: Home of Steve Pieters, Los Angeles, CA (Remote)