In TQ&A this week, I interviewed Han Nguyen and Ceil Melton, about a great punk they pulled on an Austin, Texas church that doesn't care much for anyone under the LGBT banner. For the past few years, the lesbian ministers have been on a spiritual journey looking for a church that reflected Melton’s evangelical roots, but was accepting.
The journey took them from being rejected by an Austin Pentecostal church to the megachurch the couple punked when they posed as straight missionaries. The women, together for 16 years, documented the experience on film in Faith of the Abomination. It premieres at the Loft on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Read an extended version of interview after the jump.
How were you raised?
Melton: I grew up in the evangelical organization. My father was a minister. Of course, I heard all my life that gays and lesbians are an abomination and that God didn’t create them, and God doesn’t make mistakes, so we’re an abomination to God, hated and loathed. I always felt a calling to minister, so it didn’t take me long to figure out as I got older and became a teenager that there is no chance for me. I went into the music business. For 26 years, I stayed away, but my heart has always been with the church.
Did you still feel part of the church?
Melton: Yes, I went back into the church, but not the evangelical one, to the MCC — the Metropolitan Community Church. But I still felt that desire, I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t all worship together, or why I had to be certain way. I know these evangelical preachers and ministers are not going to come worship with us, we know this, so we decided to take a step out of our comfort zones and we started attended the mainstream Pentecostal church.
When you went there they knew you were lesbians?
Nguyen: Yeah. We met with the pastors as soon as we could. I think by the second or third week we were there we met with the pastor in private and disclosed to him who we were. We told him we were ministers who were created lesbians. “Do you have an issue with us being in your church? We want to be part of your church, just to come and worship here.” “Oh, no, no, no. You’re welcome here.” Their motto was “A church for all of Austin.” Well, he assured us that wouldn’t be a problem. We continued to have private meetings with him every month or so. He was very curious about us as gay Christians because he had never met people like us, so he said, “I want to know where you’re coming from.” So we really got to know him in that year’s time. So then the church started to have a stewardship campaign to get everyone involved in the church in one area of ministry or another. We told him we were very interested in being ministers in this church. Well that really caused a problem. First he told us, “Hang tight, the wheels of justice turn slowly. And change happens very slowly.” He said he’ll have to talk to his board and his leaders in the church. Well he never got back with us. Then we continued to follow-up with him, and he kept telling us to wait and just be patient, and so this time it had been almost a year and a half. This was in 2004 during the reelection of President Bush, when the evangelical movement started gaining big ground and they were controlling things. So we don’t know if the political atmosphere had anything to do with it in that church, but that was happening simultaneously, and national gay bashing with the 13 states that voted for marriage amendments including Texas that year. We were sitting in a mainstream evangelical church while this was all happening.
Did he ever get back to you?
Nguyen: On one Sunday, he was feeling the pressure I guess. From the pulpit, he told us, he looked directly at us, but he didn’t call us by name. He said that if we wanted to be active in the church to serve in the ministry that we would have to come down to the altar and repent in front of everyone, and then God would change our DNA. So we knew that that was over.
Melton: The congregation was always beautiful and loving, it’s the leadership. (The LGBT community is) a big, money making machine for these people and we subsidize their taxes, so they can start teaching their children from a small age at their private schools how to hate us. That’s exactly what they put in their brochures, and it’s why they take their kids out of the public schools. What they use in their materials is that there is a homosexual agenda in the public schools.
What did you do after you left this church?
Nguyen: After that we spent some time thinking about what was happening to us, and why we felt compelled to go to this church and leave our own home church and our own comfort zone. So as we were dealing with that whole process, this is months down the line Ceil had an ingenious idea.
Melton: I thought, you know what, I have the same minister’s credentials, but what if I change this outside package. And become just as fake as I know I can be they loved us.
But you didn’t go back to the last church?
Melton: No, no. A cross town church, but a bigger church, a mega church.
Was it from the beginning to document your experience on film?
Nguyen: It was an evolutionary process. We knew that when we finally decided this experiment was something we were born to go forward with and do … we knew it was important enough for us to start documenting the things we were doing. … It was just amazing, if we looked liked what was acceptable to them, we would be accepted.
You transformed yourselves. Han, you stayed a woman, but Ceil became a man.
Nguyen: But we weren’t sure, if it was going to really work. But we were part of the inner circle of the leadership. The senior pastors took us in.
Melton: It took us months to develop this, and also Han did some research on all the churches in Austin, and come to find out this pastor served in Vietnam.
Nguyen: The first thing we were looking for was a church that publicly spoke about accepting people and welcoming, but then they also had the dogmatic doctrine.
Melton: Anyone but gays.
Nguyen: Right, and they posted all that dogmatic stuff and the conservative organizations they were linked up to on their Website - we knew this was a church that was hostile for us as lesbians. And then the additional cherry on top, was that the pastor was a Vietnam veteran, so we thought it would be good if our cover story was that we were missionaries from Vietnam.
Melton: My brother happened to be having a liver transplant at the time, so that’s what we told them why we were back from Vietnam, and Han happens to speak Vietnamese. It was kind of like someone laid out a ribbon for us. It took months for us to develop character.
How did you transform yourself?
Melton: We tried everything girl, everything. It was terrible. The binding and the facial hair. I had a soul patch. And we decided that I should go in with male pattern baldness. There would be no questions, and it worked. Of course I gained about 25 pounds. And I had to practice lower octaves, but I’m an old vocalist. It worked.
So you just show up?
Nguyen: We started coming on Sunday and showing up.
Melton: That first Sunday we had no idea what was going to happen, but we made sure to tell everyone we met that we were missionaries from Vietnam.
Nguyen: In fact the first time we met with the pastor it was on the National Day of Prayer. And he pulled us aside, “We’ve heard about you, that you’re missionaries at our church. We want to visit with you.”
Melton: They started talking right away about partnering up.
Nguyen: They wanted to expand their church to Vietnam.
Nguyen: The church has all of these TV evangelists involved. They are all money grubbers. Kenneth Copeland, Jerry Seville, they are all part of their ministry partners. In a special room they call their prayer room that is separate from the sanctuary you walk in and they have walls lined with these guys’ pictures. We call it their wall of shame. They have pictures of all their ministry partners put up on the wall. They have our picture.
What started bothering you about the church?
Nguyen: One of their big works is helping to fight persecution of Christians in Third World countries. Ironically, one of the magazines they subscribe to called Voice of Martyrs, had done an article on Vietnam and so the pastor was excited to show it to us. So what we did, we took the idea of persecution and we made a parallel on the persecution of Christians in Vietnam and the persecution that these people inflict on our community, the gay and lesbian community. That was part of our ministry at that church was persecution. We were getting the message of it across, but it was with a double meaning.
Melton: But they don’t call it persecution, they call it justified. But I thought of several things that I only assumed. Number one, that organization gives more credit, more praise to male ministers. Man I got treated like a king.
Nguyen: She did. She got pats on the back and they would always be saying to her, “Brother Ceil, how ya doing?”
Melton: She had to play her part, the little woman
Nguyen: And that sucked. We had to sit through their six-week marriage series. Just for the record, the woman is spiritually beneath her husband and that’s the way God designed it.
Melton: I got more respect when I faked it up and went in drag.
Nguyen: Than if she were being her true authentic self. That’s what they also teach, is that you’ve got to be authentic to God and this and that, well you won’t let us be. Because we faked it up, then we became a part of you.
Do you think they ever suspected?
Melton: No. The evangelicals have this thing that they call their modern day prophets that speak from God. Well they called this guy in from Oklahoma, and he spoke the word over us, and it’s in the documentary. I knew we had them like that. I knew.
Nguyen: We have a lot of questions for them? Were you faking your God?
Melton: The truth is, they are in a catch 22, and the question I so wanted to ask this minister and I wanted to ask him with as much love as I could, “We’re you faking what God told you about me? We’re you faking your God?” I choose to believe that God did speak through this prophet to our (LGBT) people, and it proved everything to me.
Nguyen: At the same time, if they have this direct line to God, why didn’t God show them they were being punked in their own church? But the way we were raised, the whole time we were there I asked God, “If we’re doing the wrong thing, then stop us. Let them know what we’re doing. Stop it. Instead we were shown more and more favor with these people.
At the end you found your way to Tucson and back to the MCC?
Melton: It’s a great little church in Tucson. It’s an oasis in the desert. It’s been my experience in MCC, everyone who comes to one of these churches, is in bad need of support. Forget the religion.
Nguyen: Yeah, they are so broken from the crap they’ve heard.
Melton: What I was so aggravated from at the time were these evangelicals is that I figure that’s part of my heritage, and I should be able to go practice this without being called an abomination to God. C’mon.
When you first set off to the Pentecostal church, didn’t anyone say to you to expect this to happen? That you’d be rejected?
Melton: But it’s been 26 years since I’d been in there, and I wanted to see if it had changed.
Nguyen: We also believe that if we had personal contact that it could change.
Melton: That if you watch us worship and see that we worship just like you, and the truth is the congregation did. It’s the leadership because of money.
Aren’t those pastors the real abominations?Melton: Yeah, that’s what I’d call a real abomination. How you can teach hate and connect it with God is totally beyond me.
Nguyen: But I think the bottom line is they are building their own multi-million dollar empires. It’s not about being a true leader. Most of these guys have no spirituality in them at all.
Any surprises at the Loft premiere?
Nguyen: The night we’ve invited several ministers from the area to be part of our panel discussion, but we have no response yet. We figure they might do us just like some of the other churches did and ignore us. But just so you know, we’ve invited the pastor of the Cool Church since he’s well-known to be quite inflammatory about our people. We’ve also invited the pastor of the Victory Worship Center… The last church has been one of the most dogmatic in terms of public postings and stuff on their website — New Life Bible Fellowship. They also teach that the woman is beneath the man. We’re hoping to have a nice public dialogue with them. On the night of the screening, we’re hoping to have a seating area and we’ll have seats reserved for them with their names on them. If they don’t show up, empty seat, no dialogue.
Melton: It’s what we wanted from the very beginning. This God you say who loathes and hates me, explain what you mean? Look at me, and explain what you’re looking at?