Man of the Cloth
|AIDS Survivor Reverend Steve Pieters Sees the Light|
"So many people's self-hatred and homophobia is based on religion," says Reverend Steve Pieters in Life magazine, December 1990. When I read these words—uttered by a clergyman—I knew I had to interview this hero.
I contacted him and before I knew it, I was sitting in his unpretentious office in Hollywood. I am attracted to the unframed, taped posteres on the white walls: The Wizard of Oz, the English countryside, British royalty, and safe sex. Hung in a somewhat haphazard manner, they bring to mind memories of my teen-age bedroom. There are a few knick-knacks scattered about, a full bookcase, but otherwise the office appears bland and utilitarian. Expectations of meeting a "man of God" were colored by my Catholic upbringing—an authority figure dressed in a black frock with white collar, and glasses. He has a reddish-brown mustache, short cropped curly hair and he's dressed in a T-shirt and khaki-colored army fatigues. What a relief! He welcomed me with his broad, sparkling smile and his warm demeanor. He is medium height with pumped chest and arms. Did this guy really have AIDS?
Steve started getting sick in 1982. He was diagnosed with AIDS, and he developed two terminal cancers: Kaposi's sarcoma and stage-four Lymphoma. At one point, his doctor told him that he wouldn't live to the following year—that he was a "walking time bomb." Thereafter, he had almost every variety of opportunistic infection imaginable, and even lost his eyesight. His weight dropped to 125 pounds. Near death several times, he contemplated suicide. AIDS was not yet a household word—there were no organizations, no support groups. Miraculously, he has been in remission since 1986. The "walking time bomb" is still here, fifteen years after his diagnosis.
Steve is the Director of AIDS Ministry for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), and an AIDS survivor. Since 1986, he has been on the international lecture circuit, speaking about AIDS and survival. He has appeared on talk shows, and he has been interviewed by newspapers and national magazines, receiving many awards for h is ministry to people battling AIDS.
Steve was born in 1952. He and his brother, Rick, who is four years older, were raised in Andover, Massachusetts in a twenty-room colonial house. Their father was chairman of the math department at Phillips Academy and their mother was a homemaker.
Steve's upper middle class lifestyle was "loving, traditional and conservative." As a family, they traveled around the world. As a child, Steve wanted to be a doctor, and Rick aspired to the ministry; the opposite occurred.
Steve attended private schools, including boarding school in France. AFter graduating from Phillips, he studied theater at Northwestern University, and received his degree in 1974. He worked in dinner theater and summer stock, and began attending the UFMCC as a way of coming out, in 1975, when he was twenty-three years old. He decided to attend McCormick Theological Seminary, in Chicago, and was the only openly gay student at the time. The closetted gays would have nothing to do with him. "It was interesting to me though, that the faculty in general was more supportive of me, as a gay man, than the students were." He graduated in 1979 with a masters in Divinity, and received credentials as a clergy member of UFMCC.
He then took a pastoral position in Hartford, Connecticut for three years before moving to Los Angeles in 1982. For Steve, it was a very interesting, growth-filled period. He learned not only about being a pastor for a church, but about living a gay lifestyle. Even though he came out before attending the Seminary, he was too busy with studies to explore the gay nightlife until his move to Hartford.
While in Hartford he met John Andy, the manager of the Club Bath there. They became best buddies. John introduced Steve to the New York and Boston nightlife. However, parishioners at his church were shocked that Steve would date someone who ws connected to the sex club. They would tell their critics: "Well, Mary Magdalene went out with Jesus...!"
After Steve left Hartford and moved to California he was diagnosed with AIDS. In the early eighties the belief was that a person with AIDS would die. There were no medical treatments. There was no hope. "I decided there was a lot that I could do..." Steve decided he would take the responsibility for his illness, and create his own program. His doctor told him that if he was going to pursue these alternative methods, he should do them as if they were medication. He did. He learned how to meditate; he listened to healing tapes; he prayed and asked others to pray for him. He studied nutrition and began eating healthy, following a regimen of vitamin therapy, acupuncture to quit smoking, and Norman Cousins' treatment of laughter therapy twice a day—"I watched I Love Lucy religiously!" In 1985. Steve participated in an experimental drug trial of Suramin. Out of ninety patients, the drug killed fourteen and the rest developed severe side effects. Steve also became ill on Suramin, but eventually it did work. He was the only one. His cancers went into remission.
Steve, who lives on a hill in Silverlake, an older section of Los Angeles, ran to the top of the hill and screamed to the City of Angels "I did it!" when his doctor phones and gave him the good news. He continues with his arms stiffly stretched outward, and looking upward, "That was a great moment. On the next morning, I woke up crying I was so relieved. They handed me my life back."
Soon after he went into remission he asked one of his doctors if he could exercise. The doctor told him that under no circumstances was he ever to exercise again because he would break down the muscles, and they would never rebuild. "And I chose not to believe him." Steve went back to the gym the next day and slowly began his regimen. "Now whenever I see that neurologist...I go, 'Hi, Doc!' and flex my biceps." And he gets very upset; turns and walks the other direction. I made him wrong."
An important concept that Steve learned during this ordeal was that he and his physician were partners in creating wellness." He also learned that when something is diagnosed, it is not one hundred-percent fatal, and that the doctors do not understand all there is to know about any disease. He tilts back in his desk chair and looks off into space for a moment. Steve is cooperative and generous in providing details of his life because he has an appetite for helping people. He returns from space with a thought.
Steve reports that he can't just give a formula to how he has survived AIDS. "I think there are so many factors involved. It's just impossible to pinpoint. It could have to do with genetics; it could have to do with the strain of the virus that I happened to carry; the hard work that I did; the faith that I have; the medicine that I was on; the combination of all of it. Who knows?" He knew other people who did more on themselves than he did through various activities, and who believed much more in the possibility of survival than he, who, in the long run didn't make it. Steve adds that whatever path a person chooses, it is important that they truly believe in it.
On one of his near-death episodes, Steve had an "out-of-body" experience that brought him a lot of peace about dying. "It was a life-changing experience...I just realized that there was nothing to be scared about being dead...I was just in absolute peace. I felt a wholeness about my life. I finally understood everything that I've never understood about myself. I wish I could remember what I understood, but I remember understanding that there was a reason for everything. And that my life was whole and complete." He explains that he came out of this experience realizing that the single most important thing in his life was his relationships with people. He feels that people's relationships with each other here on earth are the cornerstone of human life.
Steve's relationship with his family has always been important. He came out to his parents when he was twenty, while attending seminary school. The family was sitting in their living room watching Anita Bryant on the Phil Donahue Show. "I couldn't help reacting negatively to her...That night at dinner my father asked me if I thought I might be homosexual. And so I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'I don't understand it, but you're my son and I love you.' And he wrote me this beautiful letter after I'd gone back to the seminary in which he said the same thing." Parents always seem to know. Steve indicates that he knew he was gay as far back as he could remember.
Steve's own father accepted the situation better than his mother. "She felt guilty and cried a lot." Later, Steve talked with
his brother about his gayness. His brother felt threatened. Even after Steve's AIDS diagnosis, Steve says his brother wasn't
sure he wanted him near his daughter. Steve relates a story. A year after coming out to his brother, his brother said to him:
"And I thought, God, he thinks I'm butch. Oh geez. If he could only see me scream at the disco! People can have such ignorant stereotypes, even one's own kinfolk."
In time, though my family came around. But not everyone did. Steve did lose one close heterosexual friend after he came out to him. It can be difficult for some people to accept the truth.
When Steve was very sick in the early eighties his parents had difficulty accepting his illness. "My parents never came to visit me. They were scared. They sent me money but they wouldn't come to visit. And I would have much preferred them visiting than sending the money, although I was grateful for the money." He appreciated their thoughtfulness and support in his time of need.
Steve has a special connection with his family. So in 1992, when his father died, he went through a traumatic time. He believes this has played a factor in being diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenia, a condition whereby HIV destroys the platelets in the blood. He chose to go on AZT as a treatment. Today, his viral load is undetectable and his T-4 cells are in normal range.
He leans his elbows on the desk, and rests his head on his cupped hands and says in a perky voice, "Oh, I have to tell you this story. This is fun." Steve recently found a letter from his father that was written to Steve's grandmother when Steve was one year old. At the time, Steve's father was Varsity Wrestling Coach at Phillips Academy.
"Dean Mom, We're so excited because little Stevie said his first words today. We had the wrestling team down for the annual banquet, and as they started to arrive, Stevie sat up in his high chair, and said just as clearly as could be, 'Boys! Boys! Boys!'"
Steve leans back in his chair and howls with laughter, then adds, "I remember being desperately attracted to Cubby on the Mickey Mouse Club Show." He continues and articulates each word with precise diction, "Just thinking he was the neatest thing I have ever seen!" Steve also recalls being called a "fairy" at about the age of seven at school. He didn't know what it meant at the time, but he realized that it was unkind. He used to be self-conscious of his wrists in high school, saying to himself constantly, "I've got to keep my wrists stiff." The antics one has to keep up for image...
A devilish smile comes over Steve's face as he reminisces about past sexual attractions. He says that he first experienced someone physically when he "fooled around" with a couple of guys separately in college. He says that he wouldn't call it sex. In high school he necked with girls, "But I couldn't figure out what I was suppose to do after kissing her." Then in a low, exaggerated stage whisper he admits that he did hold a girl's breast once when he was performing in summer stock. He chuckles.
"I've never been good at dating," Steve says. He contines with a tone of disappointment in his voice, "That's a big issue...by most heterosexual standards I'd probably be considered to be pretty promiscuous, but by the gay standards I'm pretty celibate." He indicates that he has had one involved relationship back in the early eighties, but it was more of a "fuck buddy" situation. They met in Hartford, and moved in together in Los Angeles. It lasted about three weeks. Steve discovered that he was living with an alcoholic and a drug abuser. He solemnly adds, "The thing I want more than anything in my life is the companionship of having a lover."
Although he doesn't have a lover, he has many good friends and this is success to him. When Steve talks about success, he says it means "wholeness—the wholeness of life." A part of him does measure success by monetary, material possessions, but a deeper part of him knows that things don't matter one iota when the time comes to face the real issues of life. He says he also has a Protestant work ethic which makes him feel good to work and to accomplish things. He reiterates, "Real success is in relationships with other people."
Steve also believes in a firm bond with a divine being. Steve's strength and confidence come from his "faith in God," and belief that God loves him and that he is a worthwhile human being. His drive comes from wanting that relationship—still wanting to experience love; knowing that he has been through an absolutely remarkable experience and wanting to share that with others; and knowing that he has been privileged, and wanting to share that, as well with others.
Happiness to Steve is the wholeness of the moment; being present in the moment. "Being able to really connect with another person and see who they are and let them see who you are, just by looking in each other's eyes. Happiness is that kind of communion." Fear is a choice. You can be "scared to death, or scared of life." His main fears are of getting sick again; scared of being alone the rest of his life; of the bigotry, the "campaign of hate" that surrounds him daily.
Steve attributes the "campaign of hate" to the right wing politicians of our country. He feels the greatest problem we have facing America today is "the narrow-minded rigidity of right-wing politics. That is the source of gay bashing...the problems we have with AIDS...the economic problems...the health care problems...," and with a serious, stern look on his face he continues, "It is the way the right wing has organized itself, specifically around right wing religion."
Even though Steve believes hatred is rampant in America, it doesn't decrease his belief in mankind. He still looks up to people. Many of Steve's heroes are active in the AIDS movement. Dr. Alexandra Levine at the University of California School of Medicine, who has assisted him in being healthy; the late Michael Callen, singer, author, AIDS activist; Father John McNeil, who wrote, The Church and The Homosexual, and dared to come out as a Catholic Jesuit; Wade Hampton, who was Steve's "buddy" at AIDS Project Los Angeles and because "he has quietly done the work without accepting anything, and just giving himself away year after year without being HIV infected; Michael Kearns and Jim Pickett of Artists Confronting AIDS, who organize and produce plays around the subject of AIDS; Shevawn and Iaden Avila, who are active in the organization, and are an African-American couple whose child died from AIDS; and Alison Arngrim, an actress who played Nellie Oleson on Little House On The Prairie (Alison's TV husband died of AIDS, and she got involved.) As for Alison, Steve claims "she gives the best AIDS education I've ever seen anybody give. She gives herself completely."
After the interview, Steve leaves me thinking abot how heroic he has been in his fight against AIDS, not only with himself but in the universal fight of AIDS. Walking back to my car one thought keeps crossing my mind. If only we had clergy like Steve around when I was growing up, instead of the so many people who used religion to prey on the weaknesses of others. It is people like Steve who bring the name "religion" back to its original meaning of spirituality and altruism.