By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"If Jesus Christ has truly forgiven me for all my sin, then this is over with," says Rose of his long-term struggle. "I won't go to hell for that nor any other sin, because I believe that was all taken care of."
So, one morning in June, he boards a plane headed for Orlando, site of this year's annual Southern Baptist Convention, to lend his support for the group's condemnation of homosexual acts.
It's been years since he visited Florida, the last time being as a high school senior for MTV's spring-break fest of '86. Drinking and getting high--those are his memories of sun-drenched days in Daytona. He knows what he'll find in Florida this time: a counter-demonstration against the Southern Baptists' position on gays by Mel White, a well-known gay activist who came out of the closet in 1994 after 35 years of prayer, fasting, exorcism, and electric shock did nothing to eradicate his homosexuality. (During that time, he was a ghost writer for evangelical Christian bigwigs such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.) In the past six years, White has traveled the country with his partner, Gary Nixon, and others from the group they founded together called Soulforce. White, a resident of the posh Laguna Beach, California, area, bills his group as part of a modern-day civil rights movement, one that adopts Mahatma Gandhi's principles of peaceful demonstration, in this case on behalf of what White and others call "sexual minorities."
And at many of the places White and his Soulforce demonstrate--such as in Lynchburg, Virginia, where White recently met with Jerry Falwell--Randy Thomas has shown up to voice his belief that change from homosexuality is possible.
In Lynchburg, though, Thomas saw an unsettling side to those who claim to be Christians. On a sidewalk, a small extremist Christian group headed by a Kansas man named Fred Phelps stood holding signs.
"God Hates Fags," read one. "Hell is real. Ask Matt," read another, alluding to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay student whom two young men pistol-whipped until his skull collapsed.
For Randy Thomas, real Christianity isn't about being a hatemonger, but it's not about abandoning absolutes either. "Jesus offered forgiveness and mercy without compromising truth," he says. True Christians, he maintains, try to demonstrate Christ's redemptive power through love and compassion. Any other approach, he says, is "bad theology."
But he readily admits it's that latter approach that even his mother practiced when she found in her 19-year-old son's jeans pocket a Valentine's Day invitation for a gay party. The next day, she confronted Thomas, asked whether he was gay, whether he'd had gay sex. "Yes," he replied to both questions. Sobbing uncontrollably, she called him "demon-possessed," told him he was going to hell, and kicked him out of her home.
"She's repented," he now says.
The day after he arrives, a small group of protesters gathers outside the Orange County Convention Center, where the Southern Baptists are meeting.
"Good morning," says Deb Nelson as people pass her by on their way to the center across the street. "I am a proud lesbian," reads the sign she's holding. Two small flags, one showing a rainbow, the other the blue and yellow symbol of the Human Rights Campaign, stick out of the side pockets of her khaki shorts.
"We're just here to say hello," says the 33-year-old self-employed jeweler. "We're not a disease. We're not evil." With her girlfriend, Nelson drove about an hour from her home in Cape Canaveral to be here today. She isn't Baptist. Her father was Jewish, her mother a Catholic, and she was simply raised as "a caring human being," she says, not a member of any religion. She's not a "Bible reader," but she believes in God and "I know in my heart what's right and wrong." Today, she doesn't mind sweating it out under the hot Florida sun to try to open a few Baptists' minds about homosexuals.
"I was born that way," she says of her sexual identity.
Nelson and her girlfriend, 25-year-old Jessica Thuillier, are some of the few protesters here this morning. Mel White's Soulforce hasn't shown up yet, though they're expected in another hour, around 9:30 a.m. Until then, the hordes of eager media swirl around Nelson and Thuillier, trying to get a good quote. The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun--Nelson talks to them all, all the while managing a salutation every few seconds to oncoming Baptists, many of whom respond in kind.
Standing near her in the courtyard are members of PETA, here to plug their own agenda--animal rights. A young man in a fake beard and long wig stands dressed in a long brown robe. "For Christ's Sake," reads the sign he's holding, "Go Vegetarian." If he's hot in this 90-plus degree weather, he's not showing it; he stands to the side, smiling serenely. There's another PETA activist near him, hidden beneath a yellow chicken costume.