AIDS Activist Remembers His Landmark Interview with Tammy Faye: 'I Was Struck By Her Compassion'
In 1985, Tammy Faye Bakker partook in a landmark TV event when she held the first interview done via satellite, with AIDS activist and pastor Steve Pieters, on her and husband Jim's Christian television network PTL.
The new movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye recreates the iconic moment, which came as a shock to many people in the Christian community at the time.
"She wanted to be the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS," Pieters, 68, tells PEOPLE. "It was a very scary time and there was still a lot of fear about AIDS and about being around a person with AIDS. And I thought the opportunity to reach an audience that I would never otherwise reach was too valuable to pass by."
That fear was actually the reason the interview took place over satellite. Pieters says the Bakkers (portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield in the biopic) offered to fly him from California to their studio in North Carolina, but they worried the PTL crew wouldn't be welcoming to an AIDS patient.
"Tammy and Jim would have been quite hospitable to me," Pieters says. "But they were afraid — from what I've heard — that the crew would not be comfortable with my being there and that I might not be treated well by the staff. So they decided to do it by satellite."
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Still, Tammy Faye preached that God's love applied to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and she wanted that message to come across in her interview with Pieters, who was undergoing treatment for AIDS. "I was struck by her compassion and supportiveness and affirmation right away," he said. "She had a ministry to the LGBTQ population and to people with AIDS that was very different than your typical televangelist."
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Pieters feels that the interview did ultimately make an impact on PTL viewers and Tammy Faye herself — and "it keeps reverberating through my life," he says.
"I've had people come up to me in restaurants and tell me, 'That interview saved my life. My mother always had PTL on and I was 12 and I heard your interview, and I suddenly knew that I could be gay and Christian and I didn't have to kill myself,'" Pieters recalls.
As for Tammy Faye, the televangelist started going to AIDS hospices and hospitals, attending LGBTQ-friendly churches and attending gay pride parades with her two kids Jay and Tammy Sue. "She made sure that they were exposed to people that they otherwise would not be exposed to," Pieters says, "and taught them to be loving and compassionate and supportive."
Because of Tammy Faye's strong support of the LGBTQ+ community over the years, they stood by her when scandal brought down her megachurch and turned her into the butt of jokes in the media and on Saturday Night Live.
"She said that it was the LGBTQ community that embraced her and helped her through that time," Pieters, who's since recovered from AIDS, says. "And so it all began with my interview with her."
Tammy Faye lost her battle with cancer in 2007, but Pieters formed a friendship with her son and Revolution Church founder Jay, 45. (Tammy Sue, 51, became a Christian singer like her mom.) They connected over Instagram in 2019 and now talk on a weekly basis.
"Tammy's legacy is most seen in her children," Pieters says. "I think their mother would be very proud of both of them."
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is out now.
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