Edifice complex

Michael Piazza wants his proposed $20 million cathedral to send a message to the world -- gays can go to heaven too

Walk into the Cathedral of Hope during Sunday services, and the first thing you will likely notice is the number of couples holding hands as they worship together -- women locking fingers with women, men with other men. They do so rising and sitting, singing, and approaching the altar to take communion. They seem especially determined to maintain this connection in a house of God.

Next, your eyes might turn to the windows above and on either side of the pulpit. The stained glass glows with images of intertwined gender signs -- male with male, female with female -- the Spanish word esperanza (hope), an African ceremonial cloth, and an iris, a symbol of lesbian sexuality. The altar is a pink marble triangle -- the insignia worn by lesbians and gays gassed in Nazi death camps.

Symbols are clearly important at this church, located beneath the flight path to Love Field at Cedar Springs and Inwood Road. Indeed, they rise almost to the level of fetishes, flashing out messages of inclusion, diversity, and sexuality alongside traditional Christian images.

The Rev. Michael S. Piazza wants the Cathedral of Hope to be a center of inclusiveness and community service.
Mark Graham
The Rev. Michael S. Piazza wants the Cathedral of Hope to be a center of inclusiveness and community service.
The proposed $20 million Philip Johnson cathedral would sit under the flight path of Love Field and arguably be Dallas' most architecturally ambitious church.
The proposed $20 million Philip Johnson cathedral would sit under the flight path of Love Field and arguably be Dallas' most architecturally ambitious church.
Saturday-evening services at the Cathedral of Hope are more sparsely attended than others, but they have replaced the bar scene for some lesbians and gays.
Saturday-evening services at the Cathedral of Hope are more sparsely attended than others, but they have replaced the bar scene for some lesbians and gays.
Deb Elder is an old-guard, grassroots lesbian activist whoís happy to see gay rights shift from movement to institution.
Jamie Schield, director of services for the Resource Center of Dallas, used to throw dummies off the roof of the county health department. Now he presides over an institution that purchased its current space from Cathedral of Hope.
Jamie Schield, director of services for the Resource Center of Dallas, used to throw dummies off the roof of the county health department. Now he presides over an institution that purchased its current space from Cathedral of Hope.
David Taffett, president of the board of Beth El-Binah, the largest lesbian and gay synagogue in the Southwest, says his congregation is dwarfed during interfaith services with Cathedral of Hope.
David Taffett, president of the board of Beth El-Binah, the largest lesbian and gay synagogue in the Southwest, says his congregation is dwarfed during interfaith services with Cathedral of Hope.

Then there's the man in the pulpit, a breathing, preaching example of the blend of the traditional and contemporary that rules at the Cathedral of Hope. This Sunday, the Rev. Michael S. Piazza mixes Catholic and Protestant styles as he delivers his sermon in a soothing Georgian lilt. Blond and elfin, he strolls lightly from one side of the stage to the other, and he can't help but toss a little evangelical urgency into the mix. But more often, his voice is filled with humility, its strains plaintive, imploring, even self-deprecating -- qualities not typically associated with sermons delivered with Southern accents.

You also don't expect to hear a preacher's Dixie drawl discussing, say, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Piazza is famous for playing pop culture off Christian doctrine and vice versa. "I want a raise of hands to see how many people skipped work to see the new Star Wars on opening day," he asks the assembly. "And keep in mind that even in this church, lying is a sin."

Cathedral of Hope is a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation, and with 2,700 members, it's the largest in the world. It's affiliated with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), the international denomination of lesbian and gay churches based in Los Angeles.

Since the 44-year-old Piazza arrived in Dallas 12 years ago to become resident pastor at Cathedral of Hope, the church's membership has quadrupled and its influence as a ministry and as a political and religious icon has gained international attention. Now, Piazza is preparing to extend its influence by building a grand symbol cast in concrete -- the new Cathedral of Hope. He is the primary spokesman to raise money for a project that's his brainchild -- a 2,300-seat, $20 million edifice designed by 92-year-old Philip Johnson, considered America's most famous living architect.

Piazza's plan comes at an ironic juncture in the troubled relationship between gays and organized religion. Leaders of the religious right are retrenching, withdrawing from politics, struggling with schisms in their ranks. Then there's Piazza, author of a book called Rainbow Family Values, who is attempting to domesticate and institutionalize gay and lesbian life through a network of church programs that deal with relationships and parenting, prayer fellowship, counseling work, and community-service programs.

The power of presiding over a huge church institution has won him national exposure for everything from excoriating the Republican's top presidential contender to successfully suing a cable superstation after it reneged on a contract to air a Cathedral of Hope infomercial. Piazza's position also has garnered him surprising affirmation from his own community: In July, the Advocate, America's lesbian and gay newsweekly of record, will name Michael Piazza one of the top national gay activists of 1999.

It is indeed a sign of changing times when the not-so-long-ago-radical Advocate gives a nod to a man of God trying to build a mega-church in the conservative capital of American mega-churches.


The Cathedral of Hope's resident pastor isn't afraid to call himself an activist. Yet he insists the tone of lesbian and gay politics has shifted from movement to institution, from rootless individuals scampering from issue to issue to fortresses of influence where officials who want support do the calling.

"The establishment used to be nervous when we'd show up at public events, because it would mean we'd try to make them feel uncomfortable," Piazza says. "Now they come to places like Cathedral of Hope looking for support. It's a different kind of power."

Making the establishment nervous is a familiar role for Piazza. In the '80s and early '90s, while gay activists protested what they saw as government inaction during the AIDS crisis, Piazza didn't raise Cain as much as he stirred up discomfort with a nonverbal mixed message -- a homosexual wearing a cleric's collar.

Piazza could understand the straight establishment's confusion. Reconciling his ministry and his emotions was a long, difficult process for the man himself.

Marriage and kids were once very much in the plans for Piazza, who grew up in the tiny Georgia town of Statesboro. Since childhood, he had wanted to become a Methodist minister -- all his social connections (including numerous girlfriends) revolved around the Methodist church in his hometown.

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?"

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."

She notes that MCC has recently been granted observer status, which means they can attend most events but can't vote or have other privileges that members do. When an MCC official, Gwynn Gybord, spoke at the National Council of Churches general assembly last November, the response was mixed.

"It was a perfect symbol of the divisiveness," the National Council worker says. "Some people gave her a wild standing ovation; others stayed seated and didn't even clap. [MCC] members are not shunned when they talk with other denominations after the meetings. But I don't see a move toward unqualified tolerance...by most of the mainline churches, even the more progressive ones. Their conservative members are too vocal. They'd rather hold more meetings to 'study the issue.'"

Eastman, former pastor at Dallas' Cathedral of Hope, thinks the National Council of Churches' discomfort over admitting MCC comes down to one simple fact: Mainstream churches would rather ignore the fact that they have lesbian and gay members. Eastman recalls taking part in a radio debate in 1983 over MCC's effort to become part of the council. His broadcast adversary was Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College and currently president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"A male caller [to the radio show] asked Patterson what he was going to do with the gay men in his church choir," Eastman says. "Patterson said, 'There are no gay men in the First Baptist church choir.' The caller said, 'Yes, there are; I've slept with two of them.' Patterson had nothing to say for a minute there."

If the ecumenical body that is Christianity would rather pretend that devout members cannot also be homosexual, then many homosexuals would rather ignore Christianity altogether. In that case, the Philip Johnson design could become a more successful secular symbol than a homo Mecca, more of a place for lovers of architecture to drool over than a Gay Canterbury for homosexuals worldwide to seek solace. The possibility that the larger lesbian and gay population would discount this structure because of its unease with Christian doctrine chaps Piazza's hide a little.

"I think the gay and lesbian community has discounted us as assimilationist," he says. "There is also some hostility from within simply because I'm a Christian and I'm a preacher."

Given the self-hatred that Christian upbringings instilled in many gays and lesbians as children, it's perhaps inevitable that some unease would exist with Piazza's family-values rhetoric, revamped and unabashedly leftist though it is. William Waybourn admits some impatience with lesbians and gays who would ignore the good Piazza is doing for the larger community because of anti-Christian bias.

"One's religiosity is irrelevant to the importance of the Cathedral of Hope," Waybourn says. "The church is an extremely powerful social and cultural institution in America. Churches have traditionally been the bastions of support for the downtrodden. But during the height of AIDS in the '80s, many of them closed their doors to us. During the early days of the civil rights movements, racist America knew how important churches were to African-Americans, and burned them down. But the black community would hold services in an open field if they had to. The church was a unifying center for them. We've never had that. AIDS sort of unified lesbians and gays for a while, but having death and devastation as your rallying point drains you."

But can any church -- even one designed by a world-renowned gay architect with a minister who promotes outreach programs in almost secular terms -- provide a new rallying point for gays and lesbians? Piazza insists that his monument will break ground by 2000, although he's raised only about a third of the $20 million cost. You have to wonder whether a community that's understandably wary of Christian doctrine thinks that's the best use of funds in a world of anti-gay adoption bills and multimillion-dollar newspaper and TV ads that exhort gays to bury their sexuality.


Deb Elder calls the new post-grassroots activist era "slow for me, like watching an iceberg grow." It's an appropriate metaphor, because the proposed Philip Johnson building looks like an iceberg, a giant frozen mass with jagged corners, lines, and edges. Piazza jokingly calls it a "bargain-basement cathedral," and Waybourn refers to it as a "chicken-wire shape covered with sprayed concrete." The existing building will be connected to the new one by an open walkway. The new cathedral's main sanctuary will be 32,000 square feet and seat 2,200; the 3,000-square-foot chapel will seat 134. Johnson's plan calls for "smooth concrete on steel construction" for a cathedral that, at its peak, is 111 feet high. There will be a bell wall that stands 78 feet and contains an electronic registry of the names of AIDS fatalities.

Almost all of the $7 million raised so far by Piazza and his assistants has come from three sources. First is the congregation itself. Next are Dallas arts patrons excited at the prospect of Philip Johnson's last big project being built here -- and a church, no less, in a city where gigantic worship spaces tend to look like malls or convention centers. The last group of contributors is made up of wealthy patrons who are sympathetic with the Cathedral as a humanitarian cause but who, for the most part, don't want their names on the record. (The only one who doesn't mind his name being mentioned in association is Stanley Marcus, who's Jewish.) Piazza has tried to raise money by allowing donors to dedicate parts of the building as memorials, but so far well-meaning financial supporters don't want their surnames anywhere near a plaque inside the world's largest lesbian and gay congregation.

Although national and international attention is certainly a part of the motivation for the new Cathedral of Hope, Piazza insists that his pursuit of Johnson and his desire to build a grand church is not just a matter of ego.

"I wouldn't need to have Philip Johnson build our new cathedral if all I wanted was publicity," Piazza notes. "The Cathedral of Hope and I have already been covered by almost every major newspaper in America, and several papers overseas, just because of who we are and the region where we're located. The goal here was to build something that would last longer than a 30-second Superbowl commercial. People don't tend to donate large sums of money to media campaigns, but they love the idea of contributing to great architecture. We wanted to build something so when people thought about lesbians and gays, they'd think 'great church architecture' first instead of [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell's The Gay Agenda."

But might the $20 million Piazza proposes for what he calls a "psychological center for gay and lesbian Christians around the world" be better spent elsewhere? AIDS Resource Center board member David Taffett, incoming president of the board of Beth El Binah, the largest lesbian and gay synagogue in the Southwest, says that's not really an issue.

"To be honest, I'd love to have $20 million to spend on more AIDS services," Taffett confesses. "But would that extra $20 million have come in for anything besides Cathedral of Hope? Probably not. Donations to the AIDS Resource Center have not slacked off since the Cathedral started its campaign, and they offer a variety of AIDS-related services themselves, independent of us. It's not like all the money they get pours into this proposed building. They put a lot of money back into the community too."

The community has responded in kind. Membership in the Cathedral of Hope has grown from 600 when Piazza arrived in 1987 to a current list of 2,639. Randy Sprayberry, director of development at Cathedral of Hope, has been an employee there for eight years and a member for more than 10. He says that while Piazza's mixture of the ancient and the contemporary in his sermons attracted members, much of the growth is an issue of timing. The terror of HIV brought a desperate need for community, and the grieving from mass deaths needed a spiritual outlet.

"One of the things Reverend Piazza has always emphasized in his sermons is service," Sprayberry notes. "And this is a community primed to have that sanctified, with women and men attending to so many dying because family or other churches wouldn't. That, combined with the fact that Piazza is a real professional. He takes great pains to put together well-thought-out, well-executed services. He doesn't quote harsh passages in King James language, but compares Biblical text to today and reminds us that these stories were about people."

If the Johnson cathedral is intended to stand as the timeless monument that Piazza hopes, the current building at Inwood and Cedar Springs looks and feels a lot more intermediate. Maybe it's because of that peculiar mixture of religious and secular imagery distributed throughout the sanctuary. The political symbols in the mix might be called the fingerprints of activism left on an institution. It seems an inversion of fundamentalist activism; the religious right, by the admission of some current dissenters in the ranks, has "politicized Jesus" and appropriated multi-thousand-year-old texts like Leviticus for political ends. Cathedral of Hope, meanwhile, has taken contemporary political symbols -- the African kente cloth, the iris, the pink triangle, the same-sex gender symbols -- and used them for spiritual ends.

"We took secular symbols and baptized them," Piazza admits, "because there are no religious symbols right now that feel inclusive to gays and lesbians. Our purpose was to bring together spirituality and sexuality. You might come one Sunday and never hear the 'L' or 'G' words, but we wanted there to be reminders that although anyone is welcome, this is a predominantly lesbian and gay congregation."

Informing the world that homosexuals can be Christians too is only part of the message Piazza hopes to promote with his church. He also wants to nudge other denominations toward serving their communities better. He claims that ministrations to the poor and needy are not high on the list of the Southern Baptists, among other large local denominations.

Messengers at the just-ended Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta acknowledged the need for more evangelical work in major U.S. cities. That admission comes as the ranks of conservative Christian leaders are split, with many questioning whether it's time to abandon the political goals set by the religious right and return to community ministering.


How deeply disillusioned the religious right has become with the political process was abundantly clear several weeks ago, when Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich appeared on television's 60 Minutes with far-right presidential candidate Gary Bauer. These two veteran right-wing activists were pitted against each other in a bitter debate over the future of religious conservatism.

The program focused on the recently released book Blinded by Might, written by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and minister and former Jerry Falwell assistant Ed Dobson. The book, like the groundbreaking Washington Post essay written by Weyrich that preceded it, essentially conceded that the religious right had lost the culture war. Weyrich's disgust with public ambivalence over the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and its appetite for violent and sexual entertainment led him to declare that the American culture had become so "debased" that conscientious religious conservatives should pull out of the political process (though not refrain from voting) and concentrate on saving individuals soul by soul. Weyrich went on to suggest that one of the seminal institutions of the religious right, his own Moral Majority, should close up shop.

Blinded by Might goes even further. Thomas and Dobson declare that the grassroots activists of the religious right have committed a sin by "politicizing Jesus." Speaking on the 60 Minutes piece, Dobson solemnly announced: "Jesus isn't a Republican. He isn't even an American. If the Christian Coalition continues, it should take the word 'Christian' out of its title. It suggests there is no room for disagreement among Christians on these issues."

Just at the moment major splits have emerged in the religious right, Piazza has stepped onto the national stage with sword and shield, Christianizing the gay and lesbian community in an arena of fundamentalist hostility. He sued and successfully forced the Chicago superstation WGN to air the infomercial "A Cathedral of Hope" (a title changed from "Holy Homosexuals," the name of Piazza's book) after the cable station reneged on a contract agreement. He invited U.S. Reps. Trent Lott and Dick Armey to attend a Sunday service at the cathedral after Armey characterized homosexuality as a sin and Lott compared it to kleptomania and alcoholism. When the Texas Legislature considered a bill banning gay adoptions, Piazza vowed to challenge it all the way to the Supreme Court. (The bill never made it out of committee.)

Along with Dianne Hardy Garcia, leader of the Texas Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby, Piazza is one of the few public leaders in Texas to criticize Gov. George W. Bush over his stances on the anti-gay adoption bill and on hate crimes legislation, though Piazza's willingness to speak out on political issues comes with some risks, Deb Elder warns.

"I think Piazza has potentially harmed himself and his donations with that stand," she says. "Piazza isn't fronted by a gazillion-dollar media empire that scares people to raise money, like right-wing ministers. We're living in a Republican state, after all."

While it's likely that a large portion of donations for the Johnson cathedral will come from gay or gay-friendly sponsors who are equally unhappy with Bush, not everyone in Dallas' gay and lesbian community is comfortable with Piazza's own quasi-traditional stance on relationships. Gay filmmaker John Waters perhaps put it best for this generation of post-Stonewall revolutionaries who hoped to transform America. "I don't understand the modern gay rights movement," Waters said. "When I was young, the coolest things about being gay were you didn't have to be drafted, you didn't have to get married, and you didn't have to have kids."

Piazza might be the anti-Waters. He is, after all, the author of Rainbow Family Values, which offered tips on how to sustain committed, long-term, same-sex partnerships. Such models represent, to some gays and lesbians, a confusing trap. They fear repeating their parents' mistakes or trying to "straighten" a gay identity. To others who yearn simplistically for the tradition-bound, hetero model of monogamy they've been shut out of, Piazza's own family life -- three parents and artificial insemination -- is equally unnerving.

"Many Dallas gays and lesbians like to pretend they're liberal, but they're very conservative," he says. "They're very uncomfortable with what are, to them, nontraditional family structures."

Piazza has a biological daughter with a lesbian friend and an adopted daughter who are being raised by Piazza, Bill Eure, his partner of 19 years, and the female friend. "There was some displeasure [with the situation]," Piazza says. "Some congregationists have left. They thought that because we'd included the mother in our lives, we'd somehow heterosexualized the situation, which isn't true."

But should we be any more comfortable with family values coming from the left than with family values coming from the right? Piazza insists that his rhetoric is different, because it calls for a looser definition of the word "family" than social conservatives advocate. It's true that in Rainbow Family Values he doesn't stump for the idea that everyone should pursue lifelong commitments or even monogamy. There is too much of a danger, he says, of "lesbians and gays entering into relationships trying to fix their parents' fractured marriage. I do believe that the heterosexual model of marriage is flawed. People have to decide what model is right for them."

With his courting by congressional and presidential candidates (Piazza recently met with Tipper Gore when the Gore campaign came through town) and his proposed cathedral, Piazza appears to be seizing the baton in a very public way from conservative religious activists. As he does so, Piazza offers fundamentalists a surprising compliment.

"In one way, they got it," he says. "They understood that your faith should be expressed in every area of your life, including the way you vote. What was inappropriate was the church organizations, the bureaucracies themselves, getting involved. But they were right in saying your religious values ought to motivate you. But I say being a Christian ought to motivate you to volunteer at a homeless shelter or tutor poor children, not just rally forces to vote against what you disapprove of."

Out of the ruins of the religious right's political efforts, Michael Piazza, a self-fashioned but most unlikely family-values spokesman, hopes to emerge. If the fund-raising campaign succeeds, he'll have his 2,300-seat symbol, his institution with a capital "I," to advance the next phase of the lesbian and gay agenda at the moment when gay activists feel tired and a little confused about the future and many fundamentalist Christian activists feel demoralized about what they perceive as the evisceration of American Judeo-Christian values.

"When religious conservatives fly in or out of Love Field with their kids, how will they explain to the children why they're blacking out the windows of the 737?" asks Waybourn, laughing at the thought of the Johnson cathedral in a major Dallas flight path. "When their kids ask them, 'What's that building?' are they going to say, 'A famous architect built it, but I can't tell you what goes on inside'?"

The Philip Johnson cathedral also feels like an ironic twist, a reversal of fortune in the culture war. Piazza says he won't be comfortable breaking ground until he's raised at least $16 million of the $20 million cost; total construction time is estimated to be 24 months, and Piazza thinks he can comfortably raise $4 million in that period. As he flies around the country passing the collection plate in cities like New York and West Palm Beach and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., he claims one particular demographic drops its coins in with a certain amount of glee.

"There's a certain group who're not gay and not religious that donate simply because they have a perverse sense of humor. They get the joke that the world's largest lesbian and gay congregation is building what may become one of the most photographed churches in the country in the buckle of the Bible Belt."

Piazza smiles broadly as he says this. He gets the joke too.

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