Unholy Ghost

Mel White fears his old friend Jerry Falwell more than God

Those were the closet days, when he breathed nothing but stale rules and camphor fumes. So he laughed obligingly at the jokes, deepening his voice to sound macho, and clenching his teeth.

He tried to clench them during the electroshock treatments, too. And the pyschotherapy, and the aversion techniques that jolted him every time he had a sexual thought. He prayed non-stop. He fasted. He requested an exorcism.

His demons stayed put, and eventually became his friends.

Danny Hellman

It was the lies he had to burn away.

And when he did, he couldn't stop thinking about gay and lesbian teenagers who committed suicide; gay and lesbian adults who lived cut off from a God they'd been told despised them.

He called up his old clients and tried to explain:

"What you're doing is truly killing us."

His words hit rock and bounced, and after three years of this, he gave up.

Lynn Cochran, the Alabama activist who started Queer Nation's campaign against the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain for their unfriendliness toward homosexuals, wrote him immediately. Now working for Coretta Scott King, Cochran had become a master strategist of nonviolent protest.

Quitting, he told White, was an act of violence.

Normally slow to take offense, White bristled. How could giving up be an act of violence?

"Well," drawled Cochran, "what do you understand about nonviolence?"

"It means you don't kill 'em," retorted White.

Cochran sighed and started talking.

After he finished, White spent a solid year reading every word Gandhi had written, just as Martin Luther King Jr. had.

Then he started Soulforce.

Two years ago, White met Arun Gandhi in India.

And made a fool of himself.

"I just assumed that he and his wife would be open to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues," blurts White. "Here I was, happy, gay, out gay. I didn't dream that he didn't particularly like gay people; that he was terrified of them."

Delighted when Arun agreed to speak at a Soulforce gathering, White introduced him, sat down to listen, and heard Arun say:

"I was molested by a gay man in a park in Delhi when I was 16. How ironic that the next time I would meet a gay man, 50 years later, was when Mel came up to me on the train to Delhi and said, 'I'm gay, and I'm so excited about applying your grandfather's principles to this issue.'"

White sat in the front row, eyes forced wide, the air stinging because he'd forgotten to blink.

But by the time Arun finished, everyone was on their feet, clapping.

Since then he's realized that the man who molested him was a pedophile, not "a gay man," and he's become an activist for the civil rights of nonheterosexuals.

"The first time the grandson of the Mahatma was arrested," White says proudly, "was for a gay-lesbian issue."

Arun now does nonviolence training for Soulforce, as does Reverend Jim Lawson, an African-American minister who trained protesters for Martin Luther King Jr.

When White asked Lawson if he'd switch to a different civil-rights battle, Lawson said:

"Absolutely. You guys have it far worse than we did."

White looked up, startled at the departure from political correctness. Civil-rights activists learn early not to compare different groups' sufferings. But Lawson, an African-American heterosexual, kept going.

"We had our churches," he said quietly, "and our families.

"You have neither."

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