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O.C. RELIGION

A Surprising Odyssey

Mel White went from writer for famous evangelists to gay rights activist. Now he crosses the nation, staging sit-ins and getting arrested, to increase churches' acceptance of homosexuals.

February 17, 2001|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a sunny morning at a seaside taco stand in Laguna Beach, the Rev. Mel White was yapping on his ever-present cell phone, griping about his prostate while on hold, then bickering with the cops over the script of how to get himself and his devotees arrested.

White, 61, an affable gay minister ordained in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, clutched a Tecate beer. It may have been 11:20 a.m., but he'd been up since 4 a.m., so he figured he'd earned it. That's got to be in the Bible somewhere.

"Hey, you want to get arrested on Sunday?" he asked the waitress. "You'll be out of jail in time to take care of your kid."

She passed on the offer with a laugh, thunking a burrito on the table. "By the way," she asked, "what would that accomplish again?"

White cringed, then chuckled. It was a good point: What, exactly, has he accomplished?

For the last year, he has traipsed across the country with other activists, staging sit-ins to protest what he believes are the anti-gay policies of Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others, carefully choreographing his own arrest, bailing himself out and moving on to the next stop.

On this day he was piecing together a planned protest at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., where leaders of the denomination would be crafting a "statement of faith" opposing women as senior pastors and gay sex.

White's life has been a curious metamorphosis from darling of the religious right to gay rights leader. It crested in 1993, when he stood at the pulpit of one of the nation's largest gay congregations and declared that God loved him "without reservation."

He became a famous front man for the gay rights cause. When 200 people were arrested during a protest at the United Methodist Church conference last year in Cleveland, for example, his arrest was the shot for the evening news.

But recently, White had an epiphany: "It's not about Mel anymore." Today, he feels that he has established enough of a foundation to push others into the spotlight as he crusades to secure a place for gays in America's churches--a notion many of his contemporaries gave up on long ago.

That's why Dignity USA, a Washington-based support group for gay Catholics, took center stage earlier this year in a protest at the Vatican, rather than White. It is why the Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for uniting two men at a ceremony in North Carolina, is the new chairman of the board of White's organization, Soulforce. It's why White, who now has allies in virtually every major church in the country, can step up his campaign from talk to action, encouraging supporters to withhold tithes until churches change their bylaws regarding gays, and encouraging gay organists to quit in the middle of services.

"I had this weird connection with the religious right, so it started out kind of about Mel," White said. "But we have reached a new place."

Raised by Evangelicals

His mother thought he was some sort of apostle.

Raised by evangelical parents in Santa Cruz, he moved to Southern California in 1963, taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and quickly became the hidden voice behind the most powerful icons of Christian conservatism. He churned out a speech for Oliver North, and "first-person" books for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But White had a secret: He was gay. He vacillated wildly, cruising gay bars in Laguna Beach, then seeking aversion therapy that delivered him an electric shock every time photographs of men aroused him. After years of turmoil, he pinned his demons to the mat and defected. He became an icon in his own right--of the gay rights movement.

His work reached a milestone, ostensibly, in late 1999, when he traveled to Lynchburg, Va., and urged Falwell to tone down his rhetoric about gays. But that meeting ultimately left White feeling betrayed. Falwell, White says, was able to play the populist without making any substantive changes to his ministry. Since the meeting, for example, Falwell's popular and agenda-setting Web site has called American Airlines' support of gay rights "astounding."

White was left in an awkward position: one of the few people with a foot in both camps. He claimed a stake in the church, much of which showed little interest in opening its arms to gays. And he was an integral part of the gay community.

It has hardly made him rich. He and his life partner, Gary Nixon, each earn about $3,000 a month as the directors of Soulforce. He does a few speeches at colleges that fetch him $2,100 a pop. He brings his own cup to the taco stand to save a quarter.

He has devoted his life to raising tolerance in people like Fred Phelps, a Kansas-based Baptist minister who has mocked the funerals of gay men. How well has that gone?

"The hottest spot in hell is reserved for the likes of Mel White," Phelps said recently after a meeting with White.

Many gays regard White as a gay version of Uncle Tom.

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