Altered State

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Anna Wakefield asked Jesus to come into her heart when she was four. She sang praise music in her church in her teens. She came out as a lesbian, then graduated from a Christian college in her early twenties. Then, just before her thirtieth birthday, she committed suicide.

    Until recently, most evangelical Christian churches have been made it all but impossible to be a well-adjusted openly gay member of their communities. As Anna experienced, gay Christians are considered oxymorons, and are frequently asked to remain celibate, or, even worse, to undergo "reparative therapy" to straighten them out.
    But now that may be changing. Pointing to the hypocrisies of closeted gay evangelical ministers like Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes, as well as to the high rates of relapse by so-called "ex-gays," some gay evangelicals are urging their community to rethink its stance toward homosexuality. Among them is Anna’s once rabidly anti-gay mother, Mary Lou Wallner, now one of the leading evangelical voices in support of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. Shortly after Anna’s death, Mary Lou underwent some reparative therapy of her own, and came out completely changed on the issue.


    Since then, she has started her own non-profit group, the TEACH Project (To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia), has been on a number of speaking tours across the country, and was also featured prominently in the documentary God and Gays: Bridging the Gap as well as in the forthcoming For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary about Christian gays and lesbians that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I spoke with Mary Lou last week to find out more about her conversion, and about her maverick role as an evangelical in support of gay rights. — Rev. Astrid Storm

When did your daughter first come out?
When she was twenty. But I guess I knew before then, because she had almost zero interest in boys. I mean, she wore the same dress for her junior and senior prom.

Shortly after she came out, you wrote a letter to Anna in which you said, "I will never accept that in you. I feel it’s a terrible waste, besides being spiritually and morally wrong. For a reason that I don’t quite fathom, I have a harder time dealing with that issue than almost anything in the world." Why such a harsh response?
My upbringing. It was very strict and conservative. And my first husband was also very anti-gay, having to do with his own religious upbringing and … some family issues. Shortly after Anna died, Mel White [Jerry Falwell’s former ghostwriter and founder of the gay advocacy group, Soulforce] invited me to come speak at a conference. I didn’t even know what I thought about the issue then, but I did it. About nine months later, after meeting hundreds of gay people and reading dozens of books on the topic, I knew what I thought.

Your husband — Anna’s stepfather — has also been very active in promoting the rights of gay people in the church. Did you both convert at about the same time?
Pretty much. He was just about two weeks behind me. We were vacationing and I came running into the motel room and said, "I finally get it." Then, two weeks later, he said "You’re right. It’s a no-brainer." That was it. Not long after that, we were leading Bible study groups for gay people, speaking around the country, and appearing in documentaries. Oh, and we started the TEACH Project. It’s not at all where I guessed we would wind up after Anna died.

I’m curious: what’s the worst thing anyone has said to you in response to your views?
Well, once someone stood up during one of my speeches and started shaking a Bible in my face. It was really rude and distracting. But worse — or at least more painful — was when my younger daughter wrote in a letter, "How dare you invite gay people into your home!"

So your other daughter doesn’t agree with you?

No one in my family, really, except my husband. My ex-husband, daughter, son-in-law — they all think I’m completely wrong in this. It really hurts. And they all live in a small rural area within two miles of each other, so I don’t have many hopes for them changing their minds.

Do you support gay marriage?

Mary Lou Wallner, with her husband and a portrait of her late daughter.

Oh, definitely.

I noticed that Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based conservative Christian group, says on its website that allowing gay people to marry would basically amount to allowing people to marry their pets. Respond to that.
Frankly, I can’t even dignify that with a response.

What do you think of the growing number of heterosexual couples who are waiting to get married until gay people can get married?
I think it’s great that they’re willing to put aside their own interests on behalf of gay people. Didn’t Angelina and Brad decide to do that?

I think they did. Would you say your views on sex are more open now than they were before — for instance, would you be supportive of people in non-marital sexual relationships?
I’m far more open than I ever was on pretty much everything. I suppose that’s what happens when you have an experience like this. And yes, I’m open to people who decide not to get married for good reasons.

Do you think Evangelicalism is having a sort of liberal revival, and do you consider yourself a part of it?
I recently read something in The Advocate about this term "The New Evangelicals," which referred to more liberal Evangelicals. Yes, we’d count among them.

So you definitely call yourself "evangelical?"

Yes. Well, unless I’m around nasty evangelicals. I heard that the leader of one of the pro-gay evangelical groups in New York City recently criticized one of my favorite books about God’s grace being for everyone, an idea I’m really into right now. That made me not want to call myself evangelical.

But if enough people like you claim the name, then I guess he won’t be able to call himself evangelical before long. On a different note, do you think a lot of the anti-gay preachers have problems with their own sexual identities — like Ted Haggard or Paul Barnes?
You know, it’s very possible. Ten percent of our population is gay, and that’s just a guess since many are probably closeted. So yes, I’d bet many of them struggle with it themselves.

What do you thing of Ted Haggard undergoing reparative therapy with help from Dr. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family?
It’s awful. Reparative therapy is awful. This whole idea that getting married to a woman will help you "get fixed." What nonsense! And it’s cruel to women! We know a lot of couples like this. They hear about us somehow and come to us all the time. Those relationships are often full of physical and emotional abuse, and I just want to say to them, "Get a divorce!" Few of them do. It’s so sad.

If you and the church had been more accepting of Anna’s sexual orientation, do you think she’d still be alive today?
Yes, definitely. But I also know how steeped I was in fundamentalism, and I’ve finally been able to say in the last year or two that if she lived we wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it took her death to shake us out of our fundamentalism so we could take a new approach.

In your book, a gay Christian friend of yours says, "Don’t miss Christ because of Christians." What do you think Jesus would have to say about the way Christians are treating gays and lesbians?
I hate to think. That makes me think of a book title I like: "When Bad Christians Happen to Good People." Goodness, we come off so badly, don’t we?

©2006 Rev. Astrid Storm and