Gary Nixon & Mel White
Photo courtesy of Sean Hiller, Press Telegram.
I continue a series of personal reflections on the LGBT Christian movement that is posting each Wednesday of June, Pride Month, extended to the first week of July, given my post on Orlando. For those unfamiliar with this blog, be assured that I will return to other topics next month!
Yes, the title is a play on the title of Rev. Mel White’s “coming out” book, Stranger at the Gate, which changed so many lives and landed him on 60 Minutes.
But when he came into my church office claiming to ghostwrite for many of the major evangelical Christian celebrities, I have to admit my first thought was that here was another gay man with delusions of grandeur. Only they weren’t delusions.
He told me of his work almost confessionally, but he did not seek absolution so much as understanding and conversation as to his next steps. He believed his work moderated the tone of what each wrote about homosexuality. His subsequent memoir also explained that at least a couple of those who breathed fire upon LGBT people did so disingenuously, to raise money and their media profile. Several knew they had gay people on their staffs and valued their work.
I also learned the truth about at least some ghostwriting. An “author” might give Mel a few pages of notes about an intended book and let him run with it. Mel did the heavy-lifting, but the “author” got the glory and the bigger check. He did well, but not so well that when sent a first class airplane ticket he wouldn’t cash it in and fly economy to better support his family.
This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He and his partner Gary Nixon had visited West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, where I served from 1977 to 1987 as founding director of the Lazarus Project, a ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community. It was toward the end of my tenure that we met, and my then partner, George Lynch, and I became friends with Mel and Gary.
We liked hanging out with them because both included George in our conversations. George and I had endured the irritating habit of people addressing me rather than him, given my various roles, though he had more education in religion and a longer commitment to the Presbyterian Church! (He had been “outed” on his way to ordination in the “southern stream,” the Presbyterian Church, U.S., in which he had been born and raised.)
I have been blessed with partners who were always more computer savvy than me, and it was George and Mel I thanked in the acknowledgments for bringing me into the computer age with my second book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians. Mel lent me his old computer, which worked fine until the ninth chapter, which kept disappearing before my eyes, forcing me three times to write it again one long evening! The next day I went to a discount store and bought my first computer.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. I typed my first book, Uncommon Calling, on an IBM Selectric Mel had given me, and showed the manuscript to Henri Nouwen, who because of his closeted state could offer advice but no publishing connections, and to Mel White, who liked the book and gave it to his wife, Lyla, to read. She “loved” the book and took me to a fancy lunch to celebrate, as she was an acquisitions editor for Harper & Row’s religion division in San Francisco.
Lyla passed it on to them with a high recommendation for publishing it, but the manuscript was summarily returned to me rather than to her, not the protocol, by what Mel and Lyla surmised was a homophobic and closeted homosexual editor. Six months of trying other publishing houses made me so frustrated I submitted it again to Harper & Row, explaining it had been declined but asking it to be reconsidered, and got a favorable reply from editor Jan Johnson, who had not seen it when it came through the house earlier. She had just edited John Fortunato’s AIDS: The Spiritual Dilemma.
Mel made a huge splash when his own book appeared in 1994, becoming a media sensation, including the stint on 60 Minutes, which ended with the interviewer asking the inane “magic pill” question: “If there were a magic pill that you could take to make you straight, would you?”
After the interview, I called Mel in Texas to congratulate him. He asked me if I thought he had lost fellow LGBT activists in saying “yes” to the magic pill question. I said absolutely not, that it was a stupid question anyway, and that he had replied honestly, which is all that is required of us.
A few years later, I was a guest in Mel and Gary’s home in Laguna, California, when both of us were speaking to an LGBT Christian conference in that seaside town. Mel received word that a huge shipment from India had arrived: everything Mahatma Gandhi had ever written. It was the beginning of Soul Force, the latest chapter in Mel White’s life.
Given that our finest times with Mel and Gary were often along the shore in Laguna, it pleases me to have a happy ending to this post. They now live in Long Beach near George Lynch and his spouse, Louie Tamantini, meeting for dinners and together attending last fall’s Pride celebration in Palm Springs. I only wish I could’ve joined them!
That All May Freely Serve recently made available a video of my personal account of the movement (11 minutes).
Earlier posts in this series:
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Photo copyright © 2008 by Sean Hiller.
Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, photographer, and blogsite. Other rights reserved.