As a boy who was raised Catholic and attended parochial school, I often found myself clashing with the ideals that were presented as Gospel, especially when they reached beyond the sanctuary into other subject areas, such as Social Studies and Health. And try as I might, I couldn’t resist the sinful urges to fantasize about my fellow male classmates or my future career aspiration, which was to grow up and be Dolly Parton. From a conservative, religious perspective, things weren’t looking good.
Fast-forward fifteen years. A young, just-out-of-the-closet, 100% bonafide homosexual artist from the midwest made a wonderful discovery: Tammy Faye Messner. The name instantly conjures images of fur, feathers, flowing hot-pink fabrics, and most famously, mascara streaming from her trademark spider-legged eyes. And then there was the scandal – the PTL Club and Heritage USA, which landed her ex-husband in the slammer and ultimately put her on the path to becoming a gay icon. But how could a fresh-faced, spiritually-disconnected gay twenty-something find any connection to the pioneer of the electric church?
The answer had to do with mutual acceptance. “I refuse to label people,” Tammy once explained. “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk.” Likewise, I eagerly added her to the ranks of my bevy of diva obsessions in spite of her curious, televangical past. If you’re not sure why the gay-icon stiletto fits, look no further than her 2000 documentary, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” featuring narration by RuPaul and finger puppets. How could I resist someone so dynamic and unabashedly over-the-top, especially with a heart of pure gold beneath the fluff? In order to foster a relationship with her gay fans, both she and the gays had to kick down a big ol’ Christian wall of hate, the kind that makes you think if there really is a God, surely mascara must be streaming down his cheeks too.
Several years ago, I displayed a series of paintings depicting my friends in full-on drag make-up. I titled the show “Tammy Faye’s Tea Party,” and offered on the-spot Tammy makeovers to reception attendees. The paintings were made to look like sideshow banners, and appropriately enough, few guests escaped without at least slightly resembling glamorous clowns. One of my friends sent an e-mail through Tammy Faye’s website telling her about the exhibit, and even though the show was conceived with the most loving intentions, I worried that she might take offense to the outright wackiness of it all. In true Tammy style, she sent an e-mail back saying she thought the show was a wonderful idea, and if only she hadn’t been “such a busy gal” getting ready to film a new infomercial, she would have been first in line for the opening. The gracious letter was sent on pink e-mail stationary complete with illustrated cherubs.
Last Saturday, I went on a date with my partner. We held hands as we walked up to the restaurant, shared a heaping dessert, and talked openly throughout our meal in the crowded restaurant about our wedding plans (mostly focusing on what the bridesmaids would wear). This isn’t the same world that gasped as Tammy embraced a gay man on her Christian variety show in the early eighties, yet prejudice undeniably remains – the legacy of Messner’s contemporaries like Falwell and Robertson.
As we were leaving the restaurant, I noticed a red, faux-leather couch in the waiting area. It had an ornate gold frame that looked like it would fit more comfortably in the parlor of most mid-century brothels than in the somewhat elegant atmosphere of this Italian restaurant. I recognized it instantly as the Tammy Faye Couch. Several years ago, this was the very couch that Tammy sat on when she attended the Red Party, posing for pictures and signing autographs for her crimson-adorned gay flock. She was wearing her own smart little patent-leather number that night, and lipstick to match – as out of place in the Christian world as a tacky red couch in an Italian restaurant or a gay boy in a Catholic school.
Later, when we returned home, we heard the news that Tammy had lost her battle with lung cancer.
In my opinion, she demonstrated inspirational courage and surprising depth throughout her colorful life, from her open-armed embrace of those rejected by her evangelical peers to the self-deprecating humor that lasted until the end. When Larry King asked her last Thursday, the final night of her earthly journey, what she wanted to be remembered for, I stopped crying long to enough to smile as the gaunt, frail woman responded with a familiar twinkle in her eye, “My eyelashes.”
It is my sincere hope that her legacy will be more far-reaching.
“I’m trying to educate parents and the Christian world and tell them, these are wonderful people, allow them to be in your church, love them. Don’t be so judgmental. Christians are so judgmental and as a result of that they become very cruel. When I go and stand among those gay men and women, I tell them ‘I am a preacher of the gospel that loves you. And I accept you just the way you are.’ I cry when I say that but I mean that with all of my heart. Somebody’s got to love them and accept them.” ~Tammy Faye Messner