Rev. Stephen Pieters, interviewed by Tammy Faye Bakker about AIDS, dies

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday July 26, 2023
Share this Post:
The Reverend Stephen Pieters. Photo: From Pieters' FB page
The Reverend Stephen Pieters. Photo: From Pieters' FB page

The Reverend Albert Stephen Pieters, a gay man living with AIDS whose interview by televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1980s opened people's minds about the disease, died July 8 in Los Angeles. He was 70.

Brad Bessey, the director of communications and talent relations at nonprofit Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, shared in a Facebook statement that Reverend Pieters had been battling gastrointestinal cancer that metastasized.

November 1985 was a time of fear, false information, and ruinous stigma around AIDS. With a diagnosis of Kaposi's sarcoma and stage four lymphoma, Reverend Pieters' physician told him he had less than a year to live, though the same doctor asked him, "If one in a million survived AIDS, why shouldn't you be the one to defy the odds?" according to an unattributed piece from the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, of which Reverend Pieters was once a member.

Reverend Pieters, known widely as Steve, had been the first pastor in the predominantly LGBTQ Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches to come out as HIV-positive. In September 1985, in response to a reporter's question, then-President Ronald Reagan had first said the word "AIDS," which had already killed thousands of Americans. In October of that year, actor Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to die of the disease, raising public awareness. This was the setting for what was, at the time, the most consequential interview about the HIV pandemic that would help change public perceptions on AIDS.

Reverend Pieters had been approached by the producers of the show "Tammy's House Party" starring Pentecostal televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker of the PTL (Praise the Lord) Television Network. Reverend Pieters had volunteered to come to their Charlotte, North Carolina studio, but soon after having received the plane tickets, Bakker's team called to cancel, worried about how close contact might spread the disease.

Instead, as a compromise, a satellite link was established. Reverend Pieters insisted the interview be live so that it couldn't be edited or jettisoned later. He recognized he could talk about AIDS and his religious faith before an audience of 20 million viewers - people that he would not normally reach.

Bakker was empathetic from the start, asking Reverend Pieters if people "feared to breathe the same air as you breathe." He replied, "I was asked not to use the bathroom in somebody's house. I remember going to a party once where, every time I finished my soft drink, the host took the glass to the kitchen and steam cleaned it."

It was toward the end of the interview, with tears in her eyes, that Bakker looked into the camera and cried, "How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth and 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 arms around them and tell them that we care."

Reverend Pieters replied, "Jesus loves me just the way I am. I really believe that. Jesus loves the way I love. ... Your courage in doing this interview is bringing me to life. It's giving me life."

Reverend Pieters would later write of this interview, "It really rocked the conservative Christian community and kind of rocked the gay and lesbian community as well."

In various interviews he commented, "I was amazed at how those 25 minutes reverberated throughout my life more than anything else I've done. I've had any number of people come up to me through the years and say that my interview with Tammy Faye helped them come out or even saved them from suicide, by helping them realize they could be gay and Christian, or that God was not punishing them with AIDS for being gay."

The following Easter, he preached to his MCC congregation in Los Angeles, "God is greater than AIDS." From 1987 to 1998 he served as field director of MCC's AIDS ministry. He also volunteered as chaplain at an AIDS hospice also in L.A. In 1993, he was a guest at the first AIDS Prayer Breakfast at the White House, hosted by then-President Bill Clinton.

He sang with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles as a bass beginning in 1994 and served on its board of directors from 1994 to 1999. Last year he received the group's Humanitarian Voice Award.

In a statement, GMCLA Executive Director Lou Spisto summarized Reverend Pieters' legacy: "There was no one like Steve Pieters. Our lives were made better by what Steve did with his time on earth. He lifted us all. He fought so hard and for so long, for his life and for all of ours. He will never be gone though, as his spirit will be with us always and his impact will live on."

He accomplished all these feats despite fighting many illnesses for the rest of his life. In fact, a few months after his Bakker interview, he went blind and started wasting away. He said listening to Bakker's song "Don't Give Up (On the Brink of a Miracle)" inspired him to persevere, especially the last line, "Come on people, don't you dare give up!"

In a 2022 interview with National Geographic he remarked, "If I could survive AIDS back at a time when there were no treatments, then why not believe that you can survive whatever you've been diagnosed with that the doctors say is going to kill you?"

Reverend Pieters emerged as a nationally known spokesperson for AIDS, in essence becoming the nation's minister/comforter-in-chief for those suffering with HIV, helping to rid them of the shame and humiliation often hurled at them by other religious leaders.

Immortalized in film

Reverend Pieters' watershed conversation with Bakker would be immortalized in the 2021 film "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" starring Jessica Chastain (in her Oscar-winning performance as Bakker) and actor Randy Havens playing Pieters. The interview was also a scene in the Sir Elton John musical "Tammy Faye," which opened in London last October.

Reverend Pieters, a long-term survivor of AIDS, was first diagnosed in 1982 of having what was then called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency).

Chastain wrote her admiration on X (formerly Twitter): "Steve Pieters was an inspiration and advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS for over 35 years. He was a constant reminder that God is LOVE. Rest in Peace sweet angel Steve. You made a difference in the lives of so many and you will be missed."

Born on August 2, 1952 in Andover, Massachusetts, Reverend Pieters first joined the MCC church in Chicago in the mid-1970s, and then, after receiving his Master's of divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary, he became pastor at the MCC church of Hartford, Connecticut. After receiving his AIDS diagnosis, he moved to L.A. Right before the Bakker interview, he was patient No. 1 on an experimental antiviral drug suramin, which was later recalled due to its toxicity, but for Reverend Pieters it did result in putting his cancers into remission.

The Reverend Stephen Pieters made history when he was interviewed by televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in 1985. Photo: Courtesy People magazine  

UFMCC issued a statement after Reverend Pieters' passing.

"Yes, we've lost many pastors and supporters to HIV, particularly in the early years of the pandemic," it read. "Steve was an outlier, and he persevered against many life-threatening ailments over the years. He almost died many times. But God had other plans. In Steve, we had not only a tremendous voice for Christ, but an amazing advocate who gave peace, hope, and grace to people with HIV/AIDS."

The Reverend Jim Mitulski, a gay man and former pastor of MCC-San Francisco, as well as a long-term AIDS survivor and a close friend of Reverend Pieters, noted in a public remembrance, "It was an act of bravery to be as open as he was, because prejudice against people with AIDS could be as strong within our community as it was from those outside it. ... His blend of personal experience, activism, public speaking, and preaching were just what we needed, as a person living with AIDS, not a victim of AIDS. He was a pioneering AIDS liberation theologian fusing an analysis of race, class, and gender within Christianity. He challenged notions of masculine identity in ways that were liberating for all."

Mitulski, now with the United Church of Christ denomination and senior pastor of the Congregational Church of Belmont on the Peninsula, also commented that Reverend Pieters was a lot of fun, always making people laugh, "encouraging us to explore and enjoy our sexuality, which challenged another stereotype - that people living with HIV were post-sexual - and our needs for affection and touch were just as strong as they had always been. ... Steve taught me to live life as a proud, gay, sexually active person living with AIDS."

The Bay Area Reporter asked Mitulski how Reverend Pieters was able to persist in the face of so many trials.

"He was always candid about how he was feeling, talked a lot about it, and we listened," Mitulski wrote in a text message. "He believed not only in the healing power of prayer, but its motivational effects. He was also an entertainer and performer, who so enjoyed opportunities to share his story and sometimes those continuing opportunities seemed to keep him alive."

Mitulski also referenced Reverend Pieters' fairy wand (as mentioned in "Peter Pan"), which he would wave, asking congregations if they too believed in fairies when so many good fairies were dying.

"He made us believe in ourselves to do the work of healing," Mitulski wrote. That wand is now archived in the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection. "Sometimes I think it was the spirit that kept him alive and sometimes I think it was magic," he added.

Reverend Pieters' articles on his experiences with AIDS penned for the MCC Journey magazine were published, along with other writings, in his 1991 book "I'm Still Dancing." His second book, "LOVE is Greater Than AIDS: A Memoir of Survival, Healing, and Hope," will be published posthumously by Rowman & Littlefield in spring 2024.

Bessey wrote on Facebook, "I spent time with him as his story was featured in our 'Lead with Love' special on KTLA 5 News in June. He told me, 'The quality of life is not measured by the length of life but by the fullness with which we enter into each present moment and, as long as we are alive, we are called to love.' And he personified love."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.