By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The closest Piazza ever came to outright disruptive action was when he was arrested in 1991 for interfering with the duties of a public servant; he intervened at an arrest in the parking lot of his church. This was when cops handed out jaywalking tickets like Halloween candy on the Cedar Springs strip, and police tailed anyone they suspected of cruising. Piazza's arrest prompted a televised protest outside the county jail, and a judge quickly dismissed the charges.
Other veteran Dallas activists remember the anger with which they went about protesting during the height of the AIDS crisis.
"I can remember throwing dummies off the roof of the county health department so they'd fall and disrupt a press conference below," says Jamie Schield, executive director of programs and services for the Resource Center of Dallas. "We were out there fighting the system hard. And suddenly, we began to get things we wanted. And we discovered the only way we could sustain these things was to become part of the system."
Deb Elder, former president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance (now renamed the Resource Center), says the shift in attitude was subtle. The people who were her role models in the '80s were those who had relinquished professional lives, who worked part-time jobs to support their activism. "We were into the fervor of the chants," she remembers, "but we didn't notice that white-collar and blue-collar workers were coming out and feeling safe being gay in the street. They weren't radical, and that felt to us like complacency. It's like when the children wind up being different from the parents, and the parents are disappointed and angry."
The word "anger" comes up often in Elder's recollections, but she notes that sustaining a movement on anger is difficult over the long haul. With experimental drugs slowing the pace of AIDS deaths and gays and lesbians gaining wider acceptance in American culture, the style of activism is bound to change.
Even establishment churches have begun to adjust to the cultural tide. The Roman Catholic Church issued a statement to parents telling them, essentially, to love their lesbian and gay children as much as their straight offspring. The councils of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, as well as the Anglican Church, have begun to debate homosexuality like no issue since slavery. There's arguably less to be angry about these days, and the former radicals have begun to pull up the tents of their itinerant protest caravans and pour concrete foundations for more permanent gathering places.
With Cathedral of Hope and the proposed new Johnson building, Piazza insists he has combined and will continue to combine elements of old-guard cage-rattling with civil rights-era church advocacy. It's a melding of movement and institution. His talk, both on and off the pulpit, is peppered with references to racism and sexism and words like "diversity" and "inclusiveness" and "respect for difference," as if he's oblivious to the fact that "liberal" has been a dirty word since Ronald Reagan was elected president.
"Because of the religious right, people now think if you're a Christian, you must be a conservative," Piazza says. "People in the South define Christianity as Southern Baptist or evangelical Methodist, and people around the country associate conservative values with Christianity because Southern televangelists are so visible. But Lutherans or the United Church of Christ or Episcopalians are more likely to be identified as liberal and fighting for social justice issues. I don't want to be up there inveighing against abortion and supporting gun control. I want to talk about social justice issues like poverty and racism. We want to reclaim historic progressive Christianity as a force."
It's all very grandiose, but it's unclear whether the reverend has amassed the foot soldiers and the artillery to reach the center-to-left-leaning establishment churches he hopes to transform.
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has tried off and on since 1982 to join the National Council of Churches, the New York-based ecumenical, mainline Protestant organization that took the Anglo Christian lead in civil rights activism in the '60s. In 1982, the council decided not to vote on the issue of MCC membership, essentially denying them entrance. Talks between the denomination and council still happen on occasion, but the Rev. Donald Eastman, second vice moderator of the worldwide Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in Los Angeles, says his church has been made to understand the possibility of membership is a dead issue.
Mainline Dallas churches of several different denominations did not return calls for this story. Only an individual at the National Council of Churches in New York, who asked not to be identified, would speak at length on church attitudes toward MCC.
"We have 35 different members, and they literally have 35 different stands on homosexuality," she says. "There's been a real tension at [the council] between trying to keep up that reputation of being prophetic on civil rights issues and respecting the opinions of our orthodox and conservative members. The press talks about these denominational splits [over homosexuality] being very passionate, but when you see the meetings, they're usually banal. They talk about it, and then vote to talk about it some more later. It's so divisive, they just want to keep prolonging it."