When Tammy Faye Messner passed away on Jul 20 after a long struggle with cancer, American popular culture lost one of its most contradictory figures.
Tammy Faye, along with her then-husband Jim Bakker, ran the Praise the Lord (PTL) Christian televangelist empire, a broadcasting and publishing business built on Bible-thumping via TV. Their show, broadcast through the ’80s until scandal forced it off the air, was unforgettably garish. Queer viewers were undoubtedly repulsed, but Tammy Faye, who was double-dipped in cosmetic goo, always begged for a second glance. Dubbed the first lady of American televangelism, her trademark false eyelashes and eyeliner meant that she was known among gays as the first drag queen of televangelism.
The Bakker empire, which included a Christian theme park, collapsed under the weight of sex and monetary scandals that swirled around Jim Bakker. It was tough to muster up any sympathy for either of them, given the lavish lifestyles they maintained and their apparent hypocrisy. For queers, a pair who’d been friendly with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart could not be thought of as good people.
But when the gay filmmaking team of Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey set their sights on Tammy Faye as a possible film subject, they were surprised by what their research turned up. As they recounted when I interviewed them for my book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, Tammy Faye was extremely reluctant to take part.
“It’s easy to forget,” Barbato told me, “but at the time we made the film she was hated by virtually everyone. She was a national joke and the media had a field day with her on a daily basis.”
But Tammy Faye ultimately agreed, and the result, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000), is a dimensional portrait of the controversial woman. Typical of feature-length documentaries, the film shows us a side of its subject most never knew.
Bucking the status quo among the Christian right, the film paints Tammy Faye as a far more compassionate person. She shocked many of her peers when she invited a gay man with AIDS on her show and embraced him. Because someone has AIDS, she stated adamantly, does not mean the lord doesn’t love them, and they should be afforded the dignity of anyone else who is ill. This, the film suggests, is a huge part of the reason Falwell and others had it in for Tammy Faye.
Tammy Faye had no say in the final cut of Barbato and Bailey’s film, but she liked it. “Now I thank God for this movie every day,” she told me when the film screened at a Montreal film festival. And she was very, very thankful to gay men, who she said stood by her in a way that people in the conservative Christian movement never did.
“I never dreamed that gay men would come out for me,” Tammy Faye told me. “It’s been one of the most humbling experiences of my life, the way they’ve taken me in and loved me. When my husband Roe was in prison [Tammy Faye’s second husband, Roe Messner, also served time in prison], they were the ones who took care of me. They sent me money. They sent me gifts.
“I think I’m a safe person for gay people, because they’ve been made fun of, put down and ridiculed and I have too,” she said. “They’ve been made into cartoon characters and I was made a cartoon character. The fact that many people can’t look past the makeup and see me, many people also can’t see past the word ‘gay’ and see the hearts of these wonderful people. I feel that’s why we have so much in common, that’s why we’re drawn together.”