by Shannon Brennan
The News & Advance
August 18, 1999
The Rev. Jerry Falwell agreed Tuesday to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric after meeting with the Rev. Mel White, a gay activist who plans to bring 200 gays and lesbians to Lynchburg in October to talk to Falwell and 200 of his followers.
"It’s historic," White said during an interview in his motel room in Lynchburg. "We are euphoric."
White said he told Falwell the purpose of the meeting was "not to stop you from preaching your conscience, but to lower the volume and shrillness of the rhetoric."
Falwell said the discussion was not new. He and White first discussed the same issues three years ago and Falwell noted that he has his own concerns.
"I speak constantly around the country and almost invariably some of the radical activists … disrupt the meeting or commit violent acts," Falwell said. "It has been getting more precarious with passing time … Mel sincerely wants to lower the rhetoric on both sides. That is exactly what we want."
White, who co-chairs Soulforce, Inc., said his group will be coming to Lynchburg Oct. 22-24, and had been prepared to demonstrate in front of Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, if necessary.
But now, instead of bringing 5,000 people to Lynchburg, he will invite only 200, including Lynchburg residents, who will be trained in non-violent discourse before a Saturday night dinner with Falwell. Soulforce is based on the principles of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
White said his group sees Falwell as a victim of misinformation and welcomes the chance to share stories with Falwell and his people.
White said Falwell has been issuing hate language against homosexuals for 10 years and that his group, Soulforce, Inc., is committed to stopping the language which leads to violence against gays.
"Speech has power … Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound ends in a deed," said Rabbi Abraham Heschel in one of White’s flyers. Those words describe the purpose of the meeting with Falwell, White said.
But Falwell said his anti-gay rhetoric is aimed only at the fringe activists who believe in same-sex marriages and commit violent acts. White disagrees.
"We have 10 years of horrible stuff," he said.
A letter signed by Falwell about Al and Tipper Gore entertaining 150 members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, for example, says, "I wonder how much of our tax funds were used to wine and dine these perverted homosexuals who absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for …
"Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom."
Falwell said "I do not think that our letters in any way are violence-oriented," but added, "We are most certainly willing to look carefully at what we write."
White knows Falwell and his writings well. He ghost wrote Falwell’s autobiography "If I Should Die Before I Wake!" in 1984 and until 1991, "was regarded by the leaders of the religious right as one of their most talented and productive supporters," according to the book jacket on White’s 1995 book, "Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America."
White, who also wrote for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Ollie North, finally came out publicly about his sexual orientation in 1993. For 25 years, White attempted to deny his identity through counseling and even exorcism and electric-shock. He said he attempted suicide before finally realizing he couldn’t change who he is.
White was subsequently interviewed on "60 Minutes" and "Larry King Live" and has received coverage throughout the country for his radical shift from a straight, married man from a fundamentalist background to an openly gay minister.
Falwell said any dialogue with White will never change Falwell’s opinion about homosexuality. "There’s no way I could ever change my view that homosexuality is a sin," Falwell said. "We both agree that violence on the part of gays and lesbians and non-gays … needs to be stopped."
While White said Falwell invited him and his group to dinner on Oct. 23, Falwell said nothing is firm yet. The two plan another meeting before then to finalize details.
White also asked Falwell to have members of his congregation house the 200 activists coming to Lynchburg, but Falwell declined, citing Biblical quotations about not showing hospitality to sinners, White said.
White said Falwell urged him to take one step at a time. White’s partner, Gary Nixon, said the meeting was a good beginning.
"You’ve both taken the first step together," said Nixon, who also attended the meeting with Falwell.
White said he believes Falwell is sincere about his belief that homosexuality is a sin and admits he shared it for most of his life.
"It took me 25 years," White said. "I have to give him a little time."