The Re-Invention of Tammy Faye

Former Christian Broadcasting Queen Has New Gay Following

NPR News/June 20, 2002

Tammy Faye Bakker, once the teary-eyed darling of the "electric church," has been born again -- but in a way that her former Christian broadcasting colleagues probably never anticipated.

She and her husband Jim Bakker once ruled over an empire that included lavish homes, the Heritage USA theme park and a Christian broadcasting network with its own satellite. But an adultery scandal and accusations of fraud brought the Praise the Lord empire down, and also ended the Bakkers' marriage.

She now calls herself Tammy Faye Messner -- taking her new husband's name -- and she's been appearing at gay pride events across the nation. Despite some doubts about her credibility, Tammy Faye has become an unlikely icon for the gay community. For All Things Considered, Neda Ulaby reports.

"Whoever thought that a televangelist would become a gay icon?" asks renowned New York City drag queen Lady Bunny. "But somehow it happened." At a recent Tammy Faye look-alike contest held at a gay nightclub in Washington, D.C., Lady Bunny introduced the real Tammy Faye to a raucous crowd. And even at this over-the-top contest, surrounded by men in falsies and pancake makeup, Tammy Faye Messner is impossible to upstage.

Messner's smooth stage style comes from 35 years of experience on live television, singing and sermonizing to a global audience of born-again Christians. But her unlikely rise in popularity within the gay community got a huge boost a couple of years ago from a largely uncritical documentary about her life's saga, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The documentary, narrated by cross-dressing icon RuPaul, focused on Messner's camp appeal and her connection with some members of the gay community. Since the documentary's release, Messner has communicated a message of forgiveness at gay pride events from Dallas to Boston. And she says she has no problem reconciling her current role with her evangelical past.

In fact, Messner insists that the PTL network and theme park were actually "gay-positive" places. But she won't comment on political issues important to gays and lesbians, such as gay marriage or military service. And she says she doesn't like being where gay people flaunt their sexuality -- aside, of course, from drag-queen contests and sweaty dance parties.

"I won't be in gay pride parades... I don't think they need them," she tells Ulaby. "I believe in class -- I believe that people should have a bit of class about them."

Kate Clinton, a comedian and gay rights activist, says the gay community's embrace of Messner may reflect a deeper shift in cultural attitudes. "Maybe this is the beginning of a voice," Clinton tells Ulaby. "Wilder things have happened."

But others remain unconvinced. Randy Shulman, publisher of a gay newsweekly in Washington, D.C., says Messner falls neatly into a tradition of divas in distress who aggressively market themselves to gay men. "She was in search of a group to possibly adore her.... She found one and she clung to it."

Shulman is also skeptical of Messner's true feelings about gays. "It comes back to this forgiveness thing -- she's saying to me, 'I forgive you for being gay, and once you go off and die, it's going to be between you and your maker,'" he says. But Shulman admits that despite her motivations, Messner's embrace of gay culture is a step forward.

"We could all stand to learn a lesson from (Messner), because if you can find it in your heart to love everybody, no matter what their flaws, then how is that a bad thing?"

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