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The Rev. Steve Pieters, who changed minds about AIDS, dies at 70

His vanguard interview with Tammy Faye Messner (Bakker at the time) aired in an era when fear and false information about HIV/AIDS ran rampant in conservative Christian communities.

Stephen Pieters. Photo courtesy LGBTQ Religious Archives Network

(RNS) — The Rev. Stephen Pieters, a minister and HIV/AIDS activist best known for his exceptional interview with televangelist Tammy Faye Messner in 1985, died Saturday (July 8) at age 70.

After four decades of defying doctors’ diagnoses of terminal conditions related to HIV, as well as the stigma associated with AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, Pieters died from gastrointestinal cancer in Los Angeles, after being hospitalized for an infection, his spokesperson, Harlan Boll, told Religion News Service.

“His remarkable story of recovery served as an inspiring example of healing and hope to many across the country and around the world,” Boll’s statement read.

It was during the depths of experimental medical treatment that Messner, then Tammy Faye Bakker, spoke with Pieters on “Tammy’s House Party,” a talk show broadcast on her and her then-husband Jim Bakker’s PTL (Praise the Lord) network that at the time drew some 20 million viewers. Messner died of cancer in 2007.

Pieters negotiated for the 25-minute interview to be live, so his responses would be impossible to edit or scrap altogether. Pieters joined the show via television from Los Angeles, with a live satellite feed to the PTL set.

The vanguard interview aired in an era when fear and false information about HIV/AIDS ran rampant in conservative Christian communities, as preachers and broadcasters such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson perpetuated AIDS disinformation.

Some of Messner’s questions come across as antiquated to modern ears — she inquires, for instance, if Pieters “gave girls a fair try” — but she displayed an empathy toward Pieters that was unprecedented for her listeners and indeed for Americans at large. Hearing of Pieters’ faith, Messner wept and declared she wished to wrap her arms around him in a hug.

“How sad that we as Christians — who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone — are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care,” Messner implored her viewers.

“Jesus loves me just the way I am. I really believe that. Jesus loves the way I love,” Pieters told Messner, after sharing his experience of coming out as gay and being hospitalized multiple times.

Appearing in November 1985, the interview followed President Ronald Reagan’s first public use of the word AIDS, which came in response to a reporter’s question on Sept. 17, four years after the crisis began and after thousands of Americans had died from the disease.

Born Aug. 2, 1952, in Andover, Massachusetts, Pieters attended Northwestern University, graduating in 1974, and in 1979, earned a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He soon moved to Hartford, Connecticut, as the pastor of  Metropolitan Community Church, an outpost of the Protestant denomination founded to affirm LGBTQ Christians.

In 1982, he resigned from his Hartford church and took an MCC church in Los Angeles, where he was diagnosed with AIDS-Related Complex, known then as GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. In April 1984, he was given diagnoses of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and stage four lymphoma. The prognosis was grim. Pieters’ doctor told him he had less than a year to live.

Two weeks later he preached an Easter sermon on Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion on Good Friday. “God is greater than AIDS,” Pieters proclaimed to his congregants, reassuring them about his own seemingly imminent demise. Gasps were nonetheless reportedly heard in the pews.

Pieters survived long enough to be the first patient to participate in an experimental trial for suramin, the first antiviral drug for AIDS, which was subsequently recalled for its severe toxicity. But for Pieters, suramin put his cancer into remission.

Fluctuating between extreme illness and activism for the rest of his life, Pieters raised awareness about AIDS and acceptance for those who suffer from the disease. He served from 1987 to 1998 as field director of the MCC’s AIDS ministry. He volunteered as a chaplain at an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles.

The watershed conversation with Messner transformed Pieters into a nationally recognized figure and launched Messner’s reputation as an ally of the queer community. The interview with Pieters has been valorized in pop culture in the 2021 film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” in which Pieters was played by Randy Havens (and for which Jessica Chastain, a producer on the film, won the Academy Award for Best Actress).

“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,” Jessica Chastain posted on Twitter.

The Pieters interview was also portrayed in Elton John’s musical “Tammy Faye,” which opened in London in October 2022.

Pieters, one of the longest-term survivors of HIV in the United States, sang with the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus since 1994 and served on its board of directors from 1994 to 1999.

“There was no one like Steve Pieters,” said GMCLA Executive Director Lou Spisto. “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, that this seems unreal. He will never be gone though, as his spirit will be with us always and his impact will live on.”

Pieters’ memoir, “LOVE Is Greater Than AIDS: A Memoir of Survival, Healing, and Hope,” is set to be published in 2024, according to a GMCLA statement.

In an interview with ABCNews last fall, Pieters said, “Quality of life is not measured by the length of life, but by the fullness with which we enter into each present moment. And so, in this moment, right here, right now, I choose to feel joy. I choose to feel gratitude. I choose to feel just incredible peace about my life and all the ways God has used me in this life: to spread the Word of God’s healing love for all people,” repeating, “for all people.”

by Riley Farrell, Religion News Service