Tammy Faye Messner: How a Christian TV personality became a queer icon

Faye sent shockwaves through the evangelical Christian community when she invited Steve Pieters, a person living with AIDS, onto her TV show in 1985.

RuPaul and Tammy Faye Messner pose with ice-cream cones.
Image: Twitter: @TheRachelFisher

Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) was a televangelist and, surprisingly, a highly impactful ally of the queer community. Although these two things rarely go hand in hand, Faye was instrumental in proving how Christian values and hatred should not coincide.

At its peak, The PLT Club (Faye’s show) was seen in 13 million households through the Praise the Lord network. She captivated audiences with her vibrant personality and unique style, and made ministry fun for those tuning in.

Her emergence as an LGBTQ+ icon and ally started in 1985 when she invited Steve Pieters, a person living with AIDS, to appear on her show. Not only was this gesture groundbreaking in the first place, but the kindness and compassion she showed Steve Pieters was unheard of in the religious community, and also the wider American population.

AIDS became a horrifying crisis in the ‘80s, and yet the US Government chose to remain ignorant and uncooperative. Faye approached the situation in a way that most didn’t, providing Pieters with a platform to discuss his diagnosis, faith and sexuality without judgment.

Pieters, who was recovering from chemotherapy at the time, described coming out to his parents, to which Faye responded: “No matter what happens to a young person in their life, they’re still your boy, they’re still your girl.”

She added, teary-eyed, “I think it’s so important that we as mom and dad love through anything.”

She challenged her viewers and Christian counterparts during the interview, saying: “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?”

Almost 20 years later, she remembered the episode, stating: “I was probably one of the first-ever to have a gay man on my show. And so I think [LGBTQ+ people] remember that. They knew that we accepted them.”

Although some questions she asked may seem ignorant and inappropriate today, Pieters commented in 2021 that, “for her audience, they were the right questions.”

Tammy Faye Messner further displayed her allyship after her first husband, Jim Bakker, was convicted of defrauding churchgoers of over $150 million, and the couple divorced. Seen as a somewhat disgraced televangelist, the queer community welcomed her and she regularly attended the Washington Capital Pride Festival throughout the ‘90s and 2000’s, assisted gay advocacy groups, and formed relationships with queer frontrunners such as RuPaul, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. 

In 2002, she spoke with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, saying, “I think I have a lot in common with the gay population because they’ve been made fun of and put down and misunderstood and have really had a rough row to hoe in life.” 

She gave the interview before performing a live show for a primarily queer audience, and added: “They identify with me and I certainly identify with what they’re still going through.”

At the time she also felt that Christians had “become condemning” and “gotten far away” from the church’s teachings of acceptance and love. 

However, she never spoke about political issues such as same-sex marriage, and many suspected that her allyship had its limits. Even so, she made a great impact, and in her last interview before her death in 2007, she stated that when at her lowest, “it was the gay people that came to [her] rescue,” and she would always love them for it.

A biopic of her life entitled The Eyes of Tammy Faye had its official Irish release earlier this month, and has thus brought her story back into the public eye. Starring Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, the feature has been nominated for several awards, including two Oscars. Check out the trailer for the film below.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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