Civil Liberties

Looking Back on the Day I Won Over Jerry Falwell

Falwell, in the height of his Moral Majority days, was in San Francisco to harass the Democrats and the fairies of San Francisco.

Although it happened over 20 years ago, almost everywhere I go, people still ask me to tell them about my confrontation and lawsuit with my former Baptist Bible College schoolmate, Jerry Falwell.

Falwell, in the height of his Moral Majority days, was in San Francisco the week prior to the 1984 Democratic National Convention to harass the Democrats and the fairies of San Francisco.

On July 13, he flew up to Sacramento to appear on a local live morning show, Look Who's Talking. The producer, who knew I had gone to college with Falwell, invited me to be in the audience and gave me a bunch of tickets for my friends.

I also took my mother, Gloria, whom Falwell knew well, as he and I drove every weekend of the '55-'56 school year from Springfield, Mo., to Kansas City, where we worked in local Baptist Bible fellowship churches on the weekends.

Falwell spent many Sunday dinners with his feet under our table and really loved my mother's chocolate meringue pie. She often baked two, one for dinner and one for us to take back to school. Since we usually drove back late at night, the pie often had a hard time making it to Springfield. It certainly didn't last long after we got back to the dorm.

At the time of these weekly excursions, I was 18 and Falwell was 22.

As it turned out, on the day of the broadcast there were about 100 people in the audience, and I was assigned an aisle seat. When host Jim Finnerty came around to me, Falwell acknowledged me and said, "I remember you well."

We exchanged some minor personal banter, and I started to ask him about a quote he had made about the "gay church," the Metropolitan Community Churches with which I had formerly been affiliated.

Now, the quote was published earlier in the year in the Advocate, a national gay publication, because there were two Presbyterian college professors in Lynchburg who were taping everything thing Falwell said in his public services, and they had sent it in to the Advocate.

It was a statement, which I thought he had probably uttered in a Wednesday night prayer meeting.

You can imagine my surprise when I heard it on a Sunday broadcast of his Old Time Gospel Hour.

I didn't have a VCR or even a tape recorder. I rushed out and bought a tape recorder so I could record the statement on one of his two later Sacramento broadcasts of the same sermon.

Here is what Falwell said:

"Look at the Metropolitan Community Church today, the gay church, almost accepted into the World Council Of Churches recently, the National Council Of Churches almost, the vote was against them, but they will try again and again until they get in and the tragedy is that they would get one vote because they are spoken of here in Jude as being brute beasts, that is, going to the baser lust of the flesh to live immorality. And so, Jude describes this as apostasy. Thank God, this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven!"

As I tried to get the quote out, Falwell kept interrupting me and said what I was saying was "an absolute lie." As I proceeded, he became very agitated and kept denying he had said these terrible things about his fellow believers, and he really lost it when I said had a tape of him saying these things.

At this point, Falwell's face was flushed, and he was extremely agitated and offered me $5,000 to produce the tape.

I did not have the tape, as I had lent it to someone and could not get it back from them in time for the broadcast, but I did take the tape to the KCRA studios on July 18, along with an audiotape produced by the Old Time Gospel Hour.

The reporters played the tape and interviewed me for the evening news and all agreed I had quoted Falwell accurately.

To me, Falwell's vehement denials of these quotes showed a gigantic flaw in his character. Although I did get one word wrong as I quoted him as saying there would be "rejoicing in heaven when they are annihilated," when actually he used the words "celebration in heaven."

Now, he could have claimed the statement and corrected my one-word faux pas, but he chose do what so many fundamentalists do, often as the Sadducees and Pharisees before them did, and that is to argue over jots and tittles. (For those of you who are not Bible scholars, jots and tittles are accent marks in the Jewish writings, and the placement of them may change the meaning of the word.)

Falwell has a history of denying things if he was not quoted exactly word for word.

Falwell, in his agitation and pride, stumbled over his jots and tittles and offered me $5,000, not believing I would follow through and produce the tape.

At least three times, Falwell said I was lying, so it was a matter of personal honor for me to produce the tape and show that he was the one lying, the $5,000 would just be icing on the cake.

After the KCRA interview, I went to see Rosemary Metrailer, an attorney I knew, who happened to be a lesbian and asked her to write Falwell to send the $5,000 by return mail because he could find his statement on his Old Time Gospel Hour tape No. 592.

Falwell's attorney wrote us a letter basically saying it would be a cold day in you-know-where before he gave me $5,000.

On Nov. 30, 1984, Falwell was scheduled to be in Sacramento on a fundraising tour, so Rosie drew up papers to sue Falwell for "breach of an oral contract" and filed  the papers in the municipal court a couple of hours before the estimated time of arrival of his private jet in Sacramento.

All of the local visual and print media were there to cover his arrival and appearance at the Sacramento Convention Center. Much of the media were curious as to why Rosie and I were there. As the plane touched down, they were handed a press release stating we were about to serve Falwell with papers for a lawsuit.

My friend Doug Mitten served the papers on Falwell, who directed him to give them to an assistant.

The news of the lawsuit made national headlines, and news of the suit popped up over the next 26 months as it made its snail's-pace progress through the courts.

The case took so long because after the municipal court judge ruled in my favor, Falwell appealed the ruling to the Sacramento Appeals Court on the grounds that the judge who heard the case was Jewish and had "a natural prejudice" against him.

In July 1986, when the case was heard before three appeals court judges, I was taken aback by the judges' harsh attitude toward Falwell's attorney, Weldon Reeves, and at the same time their light manner about the whole case.

The judges, of course, ruled in my favor and awarded me an additional $2,875 plus interest as a sanction against Falwell for wasting the court's time with a "frivolous" lawsuit. It still took until September before Falwell paid up, and I received a check for $8,982.90 from the Moral Majority.

He wanted to impose an agreement on my part that I would not call a press conference and "gloat" about winning the lawsuit.

While he had no right to make such a demand, as he had been ordered by two courts and four judges to pay me, I was tired and I told Rosie to let him put anything on the back of the check he wished. I told her, "My mother will call a press conference and say, 'Hey, look what my kid has done!' "

The winning of this case had national implications for the GLBT communities across the country, because the infamous Hardwick v. Bowers case had been ruled on that year by the nine [U.S.] Supremes, and they upheld sodomy laws, which meant government at all levels could still interfere with the private sex lives of citizens. It gave us a little sunshine that a major homo-hater and soul molester had to pay for his venom.

I had people tell me they had heard about the lawsuit in news broadcasts as they were traveling in Europe and Australia.

After I cashed the check, I took a portion of the money and gave it to the Lambda Community Center, which opened in August 1986, and we used the money to buy some much-needed equipment.

Falwell did not tame down in the last 20 years of his life. If anything, he became more volatile in his opposition to civil rights for us GLBT folks.

He jumped full force into the "gay marriage" issue and firmly supported an amendment to the Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman to be recognized in the United States.

I am happy to be, as far as I know, the only person to have proved Jerry Falwell a liar in two courts and before four judges.

When I recall this story, it always brings back a flood of good memories. The Lambda Community Center is still on 20th and L streets, serving the needs of Sacramento GLBT communities. It now has a vision to move and expand to meet the growing demand for its services. In the last 19 years, countless men, women and young people have availed themselves of it services and left feeling better about themselves.

Out of the center's programs has grown the Lambda Players, which bring GLBT culture and much joy to our community. The center helped the Sacramento Men's chorus get off the ground and become an outstanding cultural anchor for us.

Without Jerry Falwell, the Lambda Community Center and all of these other fantastic benefits would have never become a reality.

Anniversaries do bring warm memories.

This post originally appeared on Talk To Action. Jerry Sloan has been a gay-rights activist for over 40 years and is originally from Kansas City, Mo. He is the co-founder of the Lambda Freedom Fair, Lambda Community Center and Project Tocsin. He has tracked the political money trail of the radical Religious Right since 1980. He is the co-author of Without Justice for All: A Look At the Christian Right in California and Beyond (1994).

Visit Project Tocsin or his blog.