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He entered Emory University in 1978 to pursue a master's of divinity, serving as pastor at various churches for eight years as he sought his degree. In seminary he began to deal with his homosexuality -- for a while, with considerable pain.
"I prayed, fasted, worked three jobs to pay for therapy, attended Oral Roberts University, went to faith healers and deliverers, and tried everything I could think of to persuade God to change my orientation," Piazza wrote in his 1995 book Holy Homosexuals, which was part autobiography and part manifesto. "None of it worked, and each time I was feeling more depressed and hopeless."
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches had come to Piazza's attention in seminary through friend and fellow student Paul Tucker, a minister at Cathedral of Hope for nine years. Piazza says Tucker was the first openly gay man he had ever met.
"We went out to get a hamburger together, and I told Mike my story," Tucker recalls. "He seemed surprised to find someone who was fairly comfortable with being gay in himself, although it's true I was terrified of what would happen to me after I'd told people in the seminary. Mike was having trouble at the time, very much processing his sexuality. But he started to meet other gay men and lesbians. He met his partner, Bill, and slowly he came to the conclusion that there were many other gay Christians too and that God didn't hate us."
The more Piazza populated his world with lesbians and gays, the more he was determined to hang on to both his sexuality and his faith.
"I've talked to many, many Methodist ministers who're gay," Piazza says. "And they've chosen different ways to reconcile it -- getting married, being celibate, being gay 'on the side.' I wasn't able to live that way. The dishonesty would've killed me. Even before I officially came out, I knew that if someone asked me, 'Are you gay?' I'd have to say yes."
Piazza moved to Atlanta in 1980 and was assistant pastor at Haygood Methodist Church, which was just a few blocks down from the city's MCC congregation; it was a conscious move, he says, to begin building a lesbian and gay support network for the life he knew he couldn't deny. Although he tried for a short while to be both an ordained minister in a heterosexual church and active in Atlanta's gay community, it didn't work.
Piazza says the mostly older, middle-class congregation at Haygood probably sensed he was gay -- he was a single man who didn't go to great lengths to hide the work he had begun with the Atlanta Gay Center. His sexuality didn't become an issue until clean-cut young men began coming in large numbers to Piazza's Sunday-night sermons. Haygood's largest donor, who annually raised about $300,000, got wind of it and wasn't pleased. Church elders hinted they would act. Piazza left Haygood and became the assistant pastor of the MCC down the street.
When the Atlanta MCC was firebombed in 1981, the still semi-closeted Piazza came out to family, friends, and the world in a story about the firebombing on the Sunday front-page edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Only then was he beginning to get a sense of himself as an activist, as part of a movement, but it was still an uncertain fit.
"I'm not sure I was aware of the gay rights movement until Anita Bryant in '76," Piazza says. "After that, I was still living in a small town in South Georgia. It seemed a purely urban phenomenon."
While Piazza was dealing with his own sexuality in Georgia, Dallas' gay community was undergoing a transformation. Unlike San Francisco or New York, there had never been a crescendo of chants like "2, 4, 6, 8, Fuck Family, Church, and State" in conservative Dallas. But in the early '80s, as young men were dying of something then called GRID (Gay Related Immune Disorder), Dallas activists became radicalized.
Bill Hunt, Bill Travis, and William Waybourn created the Gay Urban Truth Squad -- it later became the local ACT-UP chapter -- and throughout the '80s and early '90s, a fair number of outrageous protests were taking place. There were break-ins and die-ins at insurance providers. Protesters carried caskets through downtown to decry budget cuts, chalked body outlines on the City Hall sidewalk, and erected a potter's field of crosses on a vacant lot to symbolize AIDS deaths.
Even before Piazza came to Dallas in 1987, he couldn't ignore that young men were dropping, bony and lesioned, all around him. He had been director of education for the Atlanta Gay Center and later helped start a clinic for AIDS patients in Jacksonville, Florida. When he arrived in Dallas from Florida to pastor the Metropolitan Community Church, he says, William Waybourn (a Dallas Gay Alliance co-founder who later organized the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation into a national force) dragged him all over town to speak at rallies and functions.
Nevertheless, Piazza normally refrained from dusting it up with the police in street demonstrations; Waybourn refers to him as "our resident collar for image purposes" at public gatherings. "What better way to skew the image of being ungodly," he says, "than having Reverend Piazza at a press conference in full uniform?"
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