I moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1988 at the age of 18. It was the height of the AIDS crisis, with sickness and death ubiquitous and routine.
The first three guys I met were all HIV-positive, with two dying before the age of 24. One went blind from an infection, and I watched his hulking father crumpled in anguish, crying like an infant at the foot of his dying son’s hospital bed. It was bad enough that my friends had to deal with a lethal virus. But in this trying time, they also had to contend with community ignorance and bigotry, which was eagerly perpetuated by Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.
While I was comforting my friends, then-Coral Ridge Pastor, the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, was pushing “The AIDS Cover-Up?” — a conspiratorial book by author Gene Antonio. Kennedy was parroting the book’s misinformation, such as AIDS could be spread by kissing and mosquito bites. Kennedy’s lies were so egregious, that the then-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, himself an evangelical, slammed Kennedy in an interview with the magazine Charisma + Christian Life.
Koop remarked, “The Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and James Dobson [Focus on the Family] is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”
In a Los Angeles Times article, Koop recalled how he tried to educate Kennedy, but was rebuffed. He said he wrote to Kennedy “and told him how far off base he was in his comments about AIDS.” Koop continued, “Kennedy wrote me a letter full of this trash and rubbish out of Antonio’s book. I responded to it thoroughly, paragraph by paragraph. I never heard a word from him.”
Dean Trantalis, Fort Lauderdale’s gay mayor, must have amnesia. This week he signed a Fort Lauderdale City Commission proclamation to honor Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. His actions led Vice Mayor Steve Glassman to remind Trantalis that Coral Ridge is responsible for “bad memories and a lot of hurt and pain … the wounds are still there.”
Trantalis responded that “It’s time to build a future based on love and not hate.” The problem here is that Coral Ridge has traditionally had a different definition of “love.” Case in point, in 1998 the church organized the “Truth in Love” campaign that featured “ex-gays” who claimed they had “prayed away the gay.” They placed full-page ads in newspapers across the country and even landed a Newsweek magazine cover with the headline “Gay for Life?” The tagline on the ads, “It’s not about hate, it’s about hope.”
The campaign collapsed after I photographed one of the “ex-gay” poster boys, John Paulk, inside a gay bar. A second campaign spokesperson, Michael Johnston, resigned after we caught him meeting men for hookups online. Coral Ridge Ministries has yet to apologize for this historic, and failed, attack on the LGBT community.
What’s most galling is that Mayor Trantalis set up a false equivalency between Coral Ridge, which is still listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and LGBT advocates. “It’s time for those who still harbor resentment to let go of it. I know I have, and I know my community has.”
No one is opposed to reconciliation.
But, that is contingent on respectful and mutual negotiation, not a unilateral negation of Coral Ridge’s anti-LGBT history. Incomprehensibly, Trantalis provided the church redemption without a come to Jesus moment. The mayor offered no evidence that the church has changed, and instead assisted in whitewashing their reprehensible record.
Indeed, Trantalis misled the community when he said that, “Times have changed and so have their leaders.” But even today, Coral Ridge prominently features sermons by Pastor Voddie Baucham on its website. As recently as 2017, Baucham preached a noxious screed, The Homosexual Agenda in Education, that portrayed LGBT people as scheming to brainwash society. To quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
Strangely, Trantalis never bothered to inquire whether a teenager who came out as LGBT at Coral Ridge’s school, Westminster Academy, would be sent to conversion therapy. Coral Ridge Pastor Rob Pacienza said, “We look forward to building those bridges.” But it seems more like the pastor sold Trantalis a bridge.
Upon receiving his proclamation, Rev. Pacienza offered the banalest of platitudes, “The one thing we can come together on is we all love this city.” Of course he loves the city. Where else in America could a church with a decades-long resumé of anti-LGBT hate be honored with a proclamation by a gay mayor without first offering a shard of contrition?
The onus is now on Dean Trantalis and Rev. Pacienza to show that Coral Ridge is worthy of the honor the mayor bestowed upon them. As of today, we have seen the church celebrated without accountability. I wonder how my friends who passed away from AIDS while hounded to the grave by this church would feel?
Wayne Besen is the Executive Director of Truth Wins Out. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Lies with a Straight Face: Exposing the Cranks, Creeps and Cons Inside the ‘Ex-gay Industry.”