Tammy Faye at a pride event
A lot of folks outside of the Bible Belt have trouble understanding Tammy Faye Bakker’s status as a gay icon. I mean sure, the make-up is befitting the most punk rock of drag queens (the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye is narrated by RuPaul), but her affiliation with Evangelical Christianity would seem to preclude her from “queer ally canonization.”
What most people either don’t know or don’t remember is that prior to Jerry Falwell’s near-monopoly on white working class Christian evangelism in America, celebrity churches were actually quite diverse, socially and politically and far less judgmental. It was Rev. Falwell who founded the Moral Majority, the organization that jump-started the extreme right-wing politicization of the Evangelical movement during the Reagan era, and it was Falwell who publicly accused Tammy’s husband Jim Bakker of homosexuality and of embezzling from his ministry. While Jim most certainly misappropriated funds (Tammy was legally determined to be ignorant of his misconduct) and had an affair, Falwell’s character assassination seemed entirely motivated by his plan to consolidate power.
Prior to the scandals, Tammy Faye Bakker ran a cable-access children’s puppet show, preaching messages of acceptance and love. As their ministry grew, she and Jim started the Christian talk show, The PTL Club, and eventually a world-wide Christian cable network of the same name. Far from being the right-wing cabal we now associate with Christian TV, The PTL Club was more about spreading the love—and passing the collection plate, natch. Below, you can see one of the very first television interviews with an AIDS patient, and a gay man, at that. Far from being a mere spectacle for gawkers, the interview is a frank discussion and a plea for acceptance and sympathy. (Steve Pieters, by the way, has had AIDS for the last 30 years, he’s a minister himself, and he is still singing in the acclaimed Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.)
The Tammy Faye backlash was in many ways a reaction to the shyster churches that scandalized the era. But it was also partially snobby bullshit. For all the make-up and crying and and bad taste in men, Tammy Faye truly seemed to be, at her core, a sweet, loving person who stood beside the maligned and took risks to live by the principles she espoused.
More after the jump…