Steve Pieters

Remembering Steve Pieters, Pastor and HIV Survivor Who Discussed AIDS in a Groundbreaking 1985 Televised Interview

The Rev. Steve Pieters, an HIV/AIDS-positive activist, made a significant impact in 1985 when he participated in an interview with televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Their remarkable conversation played a crucial role in challenging the fear and homophobia that surrounded the disease during the 1980s.

Despite receiving terminal diagnoses related to HIV from doctors and facing the stigma associated with AIDS during the early years of the epidemic, Pieters defied all odds for four decades. On July 8, at age 70, he died of gastrointestinal cancer in a hospital in Los Angeles County.

“His remarkable story of recovery served as an inspiring example of healing and hope to many across the country and around the world,” Pieters’ spokesman, Harlan Boll, told Riley Farrell  in an article published by Religion News Service.

During a period when experimental medical treatments were at their most intense, Bakker, subsequently known as Tammy Faye Messner, engaged in a conversation with Pieters on the talk show “Tammy’s House Party.” The show was broadcast on the PTL (Praise the Lord) network, which belonged to her and her then-husband Jim Bakker, and boasted some 20 million viewers at the time.

Pieters insisted on a live 25-minute interview to ensure that his responses could not be edited or omitted. He connected to the show via television from Los Angeles, utilizing a live satellite feed to the PTL set.

Bakker displayed an empathy toward Pieters that was groundbreaking for her listeners and even for Americans generally. Upon learning about Pieters’ faith, Bakker was moved to tears and expressed her desire to embrace him in a warm hug.

Asked by Bakker at what point in his life he thought he was “different,” Pieters replied that he was about three years old when he realized he wasn’t like most other people he came across, and grew up feeling that he “didn’t quite fit in.”

He added: “I never was much into sports and I played the piano a lot and I listened to musical comedy albums a lot—Peter Pan was my favorite story.”

Bakker’s interview of Pieter marked one of the earliest instances where an HIV-positive gay man in America was brought into the spotlight on national television.

In a 2021 interview for the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which the interview scene was recreated, Pieters said that Bakker had a desire to become the first televangelist to interview a gay man with AIDS.

Pieters acknowledged that it was a daunting period, marked by widespread fear and apprehension toward AIDS and those affected by it. Despite the challenges, Pieters recognized the unique opportunity to connect with an audience that he would not otherwise reach, making the experience too valuable to forgo.

During the 2021 premiere of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Pieters reflected on the profound influence of his 1985 interview. “I’ve had so many people over the years come up to me and say, ‘I saw your interview live, because my mother always had PTL on, and it changed my life because I realized I could be gay and Christian at the same time,’” he said. Or, “‘It changed my life because I realized that AIDS was a reality, and I had to start taking care of myself.’”

Pieters was born on August 2, 1952, in Massachusetts. After graduating from Northwestern University in 1974, he became a part of the Metropolitan Community Church in Chicago, feeling drawn to a ministry centered around the church’s primary audience, the LGBTQ+ community.

He pursued his passion and earned a master of divinity degree at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1979. Subsequently, he served as the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, Connecticut, before relocating to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. In Los Angeles, he took on a position at the Metropolitan Community Church of North Hollywood.

Pieters was excited about the upcoming publication of his book, Love is Greater Than AIDS: A Memoir of Survival, Healing, and Hope, scheduled for release in 2024. In the book, he addresses a question he often encountered about why he survived AIDS while many others did not. “Whatever the reason, I feel deeply grateful to be alive,” he said. “So many gay men of my generation did not get to grow old. What a privilege to have reached the age of 70, still dancing with joy.”