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Sunday 12 October 2008

Obituary: Tammy Faye Messner (1942-2007)

Posted in: Features
By Craig Young - 25th July 2007

Tammy Faye Messner
When I heard that Tammy Faye Messner had died after a long battle against colon and lung cancer, I was saddened. For one thing, she was that single rarity, a non-homophobic televangelist.

Born in 1942, Tamara Faye LaValley was the eldest of eight children born to a couple of Pentecostal ministers, Carl and Rachel LaValley, in International Falls, Minnesota, near Niagara Falls and the Canadian/American border. Carl and Rachel acrimoniously divorced when she was a year old, and Tammy helped babysit her seven siblings and helped her mum with the housework.

In 1952, she converted to Pentecostalism after attending an Assemblies of God worship service, and during her teenage years, she lived a fairly separatist fundamentalist lifestyle, forbidden to attend movies, sports fixtures or school dances. In 1961, she met and married Jim Bakker, and the two of them moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to begin their own church, although they assisted in forming Pat Robertson's 700 Club and the Pentecostal Trinity Broadcasting Network en route.

Unlike virtually all other televangelists, Tammy Faye was more inclined to be inclusive toward lesbians and gay men, and reached out to People Living With HIV/AIDS, talking about their experiences of health, illness and religious faith. While she didn't focus on issues like military service discrimination or same-sex marriage, she didn't give much time to ex-gay sects either. However, due to her elaborate coiffure and makeup application, many drag queens adored her, and tribute performances were common. There is one particular artiste, Tammy Faye Sinclair, who has a hit routine on a West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky circuit.

Unfortunately, she was to need to develop qualities of perserverance and inner strength herself before long. Her husband, Jim Bakker, was found to be mired in financial mismanagement within his Praise the Lord Ministries, and more woundingly to his faithful wife of a quarter-century, he proved to have been having an affair with Jessica Hahn, a secretary. She tried to stand by him, but the pain of his infidelity combined with the onset of an even greater trial. Tammy Faye had developed colon cancer.

After her divorce from Bakker, she remarried Roe Meissner, an evangelical construction company owner in 1993, only to see him involved with financial mismanagement and jailed not long after. In 1994, she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and thanked the gay community for supporting her after the traumatic disintegration of her marriage, her ministry and ongoing financial problems with PTL Ministries creditors. She fought it with alternative medicine and hung on for thirteen years, during which time she showed up in two documentaries about her arduous life, as the similarly creatively made up Mimi's mum on The Drew Carey Show, and even as a participant in This Surreal Life, a reality television show.

Tragically, her colon cancer had metastasised despite her valiant efforts, and had now spread to become inoperable lung cancer. Last week, she passed away, but her grace and compassion will hold a special place for many who respected her for her arduous recent life and battle with terminal illness, which is no stranger to our own community. Rest in peace, Tamara Faye. You richly deserve it.

A tribute to the life of Tammy Faye is available to view below.

Charles Shepherd: Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of James Bakker and the Pass the Lord Ministries: New York: Atlantic Monthly Press: 1989.

Tammy Faye Messner: When the Spirit Moves You: The Autobiography of Tammy Faye Messner: New York: Random Books: 1996. 

Craig Young - 25th July 2007