Evangelist who urged compassion for AIDS patients in 1980s succumbs to cancer
Tammy Faye Messner, who rose to fame as Tammy Faye Bakker, the woman with the outrageous eye makeup who helped her husband, Jim, build the multimillion-dollar evangelism empire called PTL, has died. She was 65.
Messner had battled colon cancer since 1996 that more recently spread to her lungs. She passed away peacefully Friday, July 20, at her home near Kansas City, Mo., said Joe Spotts, Messner’s manager and booking agent.
A family service was held Saturday in a private cemetery, where her ashes were interred, he said, adding that the family is considering holding a public memorial service in the near future.
Although an evangelical Christian speaker and singer would seem an unlikely candidate to become an icon in the LGBT community, that’s just what Messner managed to do.
Many in the community saw her as another “love the sinner, hate the sin” Christian who talked about acceptance without ever truly accepting gays and lesbians. But to many others, Messner was a model of non-judgmental love and acceptance.
While it was her heavily-mascara-ed eyes that may have first gotten the attention and often jeers from the LGBT community, Messner began earning the community’s respect when, in the 1980s, she invited a person with AIDS to appear on the PTL show and encouraged her viewers to treat people with AIDS with love and compassion. The number of gay Tammy Faye fans grew through the years as she spoke often of her affection for the community, eventually co-hosting a TV talk show with gay actor Jim J. Bullock and appearing at gay Pride celebrations around the country including the Celebration in Lee Park following Dallas’ 2001 Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.
A Dallas Voice article about her appearance at the rally quoted Messner as saying, “I love of all of you. God loves all of you . God will accept you just the way you are.”
Although some members of the audience said they objected to the evangelical tone of the entertainment, she was warmly received by most and enjoyed loud applause and cheers. The appearance of Messner, who was recruited by the Rev. Bob Barker, of Crossroads Community Church, a local gay pastor with a background in evangelical healing, turned out to be the most controversial in the parade’s history.
Barker, who gave the Dallas Tavern Guild $10,000 to help pay for the entertainment, arranged for a group of local gay pastors to march together in the parade and to make an appearance on the rally stage.
In an interview last week on Larry King Live, just days before his mother’s death, Messner’s 30-year-old son, Jay Bakker, said gay people loved his mother because she loved them.
Jay Bakker is a young man with multiple tattoos and piercings. He is a pastor and co-founder of the Revolution Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., for people who feel alienated by traditional approaches to Christianity.
Jay, however, lost his position and funding for a similar church in Atlanta after he announced that he rejected traditional interpretations of the Bible that condemn homosexuality.
On King’s show, Bakker recalled his mother’s efforts to encourage a compassionate response to the AIDS epidemic: “[President Ronald] Reagan didn’t even mention the words AIDS in the “’80s, and here my mom is, talking about it on Christian television,” he said.
He also noted that Messner was one of the first evangelical leaders to reach out to the mostly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
“She had one of the first MCC pastors she did an interview with them, and she might not have agreed on everything with them. But she loved them, and she built a bridge,” Jay Bakker told King.
“I was just at a huge conference for MCC, and hundreds of people said to me, “‘Your mom built a bridge between Christianity and homosexuality, and we love her and pray for her every day,’” he said.
Jay said his mother “never changed when people tried to make her change, and she always stood up for the underdog and for those who were hurting . She won’t be forgotten, not just by the gay community, but all communities.”
Messner herself appeared on Larry King Live in the last week of her life. The interview was taped on the morning of July 18, two days before her death.
In that interview, “When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”
In “A Tribute to Tammy Faye,” published online this week at GayWired.com, Dylan Vox remembered meeting Messner at the premiere of the documentary “Tammy Faye: Death Defying,” about her 10-year-plus battle with cancer.
“Honey, God loves everybody. It’s human beings who mess things up,” she told him then.
“To Tammy Faye, all men were created equal, no matter what their color, religion, gender or sexual orientation, and in her mind, not only was she not to judge other people, she was to accept them the way God intended her to,” Vox wrote.
Messner had frequently spoken publicly about her medical problems, saying she hoped to be an inspiration to others.
“Don’t let fear rule your life,” she said. “Live one day at a time, and never be afraid.” But she told well-wishers in a note on her Web site in May that the doctors had stopped trying to treat the cancer.
In the interview with King, an emaciated Messner still wearing her trademark makeup said, “I believe when I leave this earth, because I love the Lord, I’m going straight to heaven.”
Asked if she had any regrets, Messner said: “I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 27, 2007