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The Rev. Steven Pieters, a longtime HIV survivor and activist who became famous when interviewed by televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in 1985, died Saturday of complications from cancer at age 71.
Pieters had gastrointestinal cancer that had metastasized, the Los Angeles Blade reports.
Pieters was a minister and administrator in the Metropolitan Community Church. He was pastor of the MCC in Hartford, Conn., from 1979 to 1982, then moved to Los Angeles, where he eventually became field director for the denomination’s AIDS ministry. There, he was diagnosed with AIDS and two forms of cancer, lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. In 1984 one doctor predicted he would not live to see the next year.
But he did, and in 1985 he became the first patient in a clinical trial of the first anti-HIV drug, Suramin, which sent his cancers into remission. Use of the drug for treatment of HIV and AIDS eventually ceased due to its toxic side effects.
That year also saw his interview with Bakker on Tammy’s House Party on the PTL network, which she ran with her husband, Jim Bakker. It came at a time when most evangelical Christian leaders either ignored AIDS or called it divine punishment for being gay. But Tammy Faye Bakker had a more accepting attitude, and “she wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS,” Pieters told People in 2021.
The interview was conducted via satellite; the Bakkers were willing to have Pieters in their North Carolina studio, but they feared their staff would be uncomfortable around a person with AIDS. That indicated how the disease was stigmatized at the time, and Pieters told Tammy Faye Bakker about other incidents of stigma — someone he knew was afraid to let Pieters use the bathroom in their home — and about receiving support from other people and organizations, such as the MCC. She assured him that God loved him, and so did many Christians.
“I was struck by her compassion and supportiveness and affirmation right away,” Pieters said in the People interview. “She had a ministry to the LGBTQ population and to people with AIDS that was very different than your typical televangelist.”
His interview with Bakker was re-created in the 2021 film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, for which Jessica Chastain won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Bakker. Randy Havens played Pieters. Chastain met the real man, though, and she tweeted a remembrance of him.
Brad Bessey, director of communications at Project Angel Food, an AIDS charity in Los Angeles, posted this tribute to Pieters on Facebook: “Oh man. Rev. Steve Pieters, activist, inspiration and sober brother has passed away after a journey with GI cancer that metastasized. I spent time with him as his story was featured in our Lead with Love special on @ktla5news in June. He told me, as we sat in his house, ‘The quality of life is not measured by the length of life but by the fullness with which we enter into each present moment, and as long as we are alive we are called upon to love.’ And, he personified love. What a gift it was to get to know Steve in his final days on earth before this amazing man took flight in the heavenly plane.”
Pieters’s AIDS activism continued throughout his life. In his field director position at MCC, which he held for 11 years, he “traveled the world, teaching and preaching about hope, grief, and surviving AIDS,” the Blade notes. He was a volunteer chaplain at an AIDS hospice in Los Angeles, a member of the Los Angeles AIDS Task Force, and a board member at AIDS Project Los Angeles and the AIDS National Interfaith Network.
He was profiled in national magazines and appeared on many television shows. In 1993, he was a guest at President Bill Clinton’s prayer breakfast, and Clinton mentioned him in his World AIDS Day address that year.
Last August, he received the Humanitarian Voice Award from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. He had endured many health complications over the years, including pancreatitis, but when he accepted the award, he performed a song that highlighted his long-term survival, the Los Angeles Times reports.
“Now many years have passed and I’m as healthy as a horse can be / It’s certainly a miracle for anyone with faith to see,” he sang to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. “But still in journals medical, in science and oncology / I am the very model of a medical anomaly!”