Grace Under Pressure
Worlds away from writing speeches for Jerry Falwell, out Soulforce founder and reformed evangelical Mel White joins forces with screenwriter son Mike (School of Rock) for The Amazing Race.
By Dan Avery
Mel White has never been one to run from a challenge. A former speechwriter for evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, White came out of the closet in the early '80s and wrote a best-selling autobiography, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. Countering the homophobic rhetoric of his former employers, he also founded the gay social-justice organization Soulforce, which sponsors Equality Rides to Christian campuses to spark peaceful dialogue. He then became an ordained minister in the gay-affirming Metropolitan Community Church. In 2002, White and partner Gary Nixon even leased a home across the street from Falwell’s Lynchburg, Va. church just to keep the legendary holy roller in check.
Starting this week, though, White will be running -- traversing nine countries across 40,000 miles on the new season of CBS’ The Amazing Race. Joining him on this grand adventure is his award-winning screenwriter son Mike (Chuck & Buck, School of Rock), who is openly bisexual.
“Mike’s a massive fan of the show,” says White, 68. “He auditioned on his own and was accepted, but the person he signed up with bailed at the last minute. I was the backup plan.”
Among the far-flung countries the show’s contestants visit in its 14th season are India, China, Russia, Switzerland and, for the first time, Romania.
“I’ve traveled a lot more than most people, but there’s nothing that can really prepare you for this show,” White explained. “You’re racing the clock -- the whole thing is such a rush.”
Deciphering clues and overcoming challenges designed to test their endurance, intelligence, and cunning, the team that crosses the finish line first walks away with a cool million dollars.
Just before the show’s February 15 premiere, we spoke with the veteran activist to find out what it was like running the race of a lifetime and why gays still need to stand their ground against the Christian right.
Advocate.com: Were you familiar with The Amazing Race before you entered?
Mel White: Not so much -- Sunday isn’t a good TV night for a clergyman. Mike showed me a lot of old episodes, though, and I really got into it.
Did the producers know who you were when you signed on?
I don’t think so, or at least it never came up during our conversations. I don’t think they did any research into my activism. They wanted me as Mike’s dad, which was fine with me -- I was delighted to be billed as “the gay father.” It gave me a chance to talk about not just being gay, but being a gay parent, without the perceived stigma of being an activist. Of course, I wore my Soulforce hat everywhere, hoping it’d spark some interest.
Did either you or Mike get recognized during filming?
I don’t see myself as a celebrity, but people recognize Mike all over. Back home, he has paparazzi shooting and asking him questions. When we were going through India, this woman leaned over to us on a bus and said to him, “I like your movie.” I’m a dad, so of course I got a puff of pride. I mean, I don’t see him as an actor or screenwriter, I just see him as my kid. When I see him on the screen, I don’t see the character, I see Mike. Which was really uncomfortable when I saw Chuck & Buck. [Laughs] I was so taken aback.
How did your husband feel about your leaving for almost a month to traipse around the world?
Gary’s been in the limelight with me for a while, so he was just as happy to relax at home. And happy for me to spend time with Mike. I’m on the road a lot, so I don't know that he even missed me! [Laughs] People ask us how we made it 27 years? And he says, “'Cause Mel’s gone a lot!”
The season was filmed last fall. Did you feel like you were missing out on the election?
That was the hardest part -- being away from the election and all the reporting that went along with it. We’d see headlines as we raced by, but we had no laptops, no iPods. Being without the Internet and a Blackberry for 35 days is wonderful, once the shock wears off. But I love CNN. I let if flow over me like water. And I like to watch FOX to get angry and get my juices flowing. They took the phones and TVs out of our rooms! At first I thought they were too rigid, but I realized the focus really has to be on the show for the duration.
Sometimes traveling together can ruin an otherwise healthy relationship. Were you worried about that happening with you and Mike?
Well, Mike set down the rules for me pretty early on. One: We’re doing it for fun and if we’re not having fun, lets not do it. And two: We’re trying to win, but we’re not gonna get aggro about it. Sometimes he’d have to remind me not to be so aggro, like when the cab driver drove us around in circles. But we ended up having such fun, which was my main goal. The producers asked, “Will this lovefest never end?”
Was Mike well-behaved on family trips as a child?
He didn’t like to travel too much because it took him away from what he liked to do, which was make movies. He was always so preoccupied with it; we got him a camera when he was 8.
What quality do you think made you a good candidate for the show?
I really like people -- sometimes to my detriment -- which helps when you don’t have a common language. And I’m good at winning people’s favor, which is something we learn as activists. Being focused is a gift. There’s a moment where there was real risk, and the whole race was at stake. I sat down and did my meditation. Also, a lot of the other competitors had never been out of the country, or even out of their state. Even things like Customs threw them. Mike and I both have been traveling around the world our whole lives. Rushing through airports is second nature.
Any handicaps or bad habits?
I’m terrible with directions. I can’t walk out of a hotel room without going the wrong way. Can’t find my way out of a wet paper bag. Thank God, Mike is so good with that. We’d hop in a Mercedes and go off wherever. But Mike’s a vegan, which made it almost impossible to find places he could get food. So he didn’t eat for much of the race. Me, I was ready for any challenge -- eat whatever food, jump off whatever cliff.
Did you guys train for the show ahead of time?
We exercised. Both Mike and I do yoga, and I do meditation. We’re spiritually fit. And I naturally have a lot of energy: I was two or three times older than some of the other contestants, but I love to move fast -- I loved the energy drain.
How were your fellow competitors -- any Bible-thumpers or homophobes?
If so, they didn’t push it in our faces. We were definitely in competition, but we got along with the other racers. I even counseled some of them. From what I could tell, our sexuality was a non-issue.
The show sends you guys to some pretty remote areas. Were you worried about getting bashed or ending up somewhere with a terrible human rights record?
We were running so fast the issue didn’t really come up. I guess maybe I should’ve thought about some of the countries we visited, but I had to take what they threw at me. You can’t be an activist in a race like this; there’s just no time. But everywhere we went the people were fantastic. If a nation had a nasty policy, we didn’t feel it from the people. And the show has incredible security. If we were ever in real danger they would’ve gotten us out of there. You couldn’t see them but you knew they were there.
But at the same time, you’re very much on your own.
Short of your life being at risk, the producers wouldn’t get involved. And they were right there, ten feet away from you. You know, The Amazing Race has some 2,000 people working to put the season together. When I saw how much preparation went into it, and how seamless it was, I was in awe.
If only we'd had that kind of team working against Prop 8.
Boy, ain’t that the truth. I haven’t had a secretary in 15 years -- Soulforce has no money and no staff. I was on a White Party cruise recently with 37 gay men. I thought, “How many of these guys give to HRC or any other group?” If the gay community could organize like [The Amazing Race], we’d change the world. But no, we don’t think it’s worth it.
You’re obviously an expert on the fundamentalist movement. With the Obama election, and holy rollers like Falwell leaving the stage, are the evangelicals less of a threat now?
I wouldn’t say that. The megachurch pastors like Rick Warren are just as bad as Falwell was. They’re worse, in fact, because they’re so… slick. They couch their message carefully, and say they want gays to come to their church. With Falwell and those guys, you knew where you stood. I think today fundamentalism is like a rattlesnake that’s lost its rattle: There’s no warning.
Did Obama betray the gays by choosing Warren for the inauguration, or was the issue blown out of proportion?
When they put Warren on, we assaulted Obama with letters. He represents homophobia in its worst form. When we heard Bishop Robinson was chosen, we started shifting our approach. I have to live with Rick Warren and allow him to be as free and expressive as I am. But I can protest like hell. I won’t hold a grudge, but Ill remind him when he goes astray.
What’s scarier -- running through a third world country with no money or going on an Equality Ride to Liberty University?
To be surrounded by fundamentalists is much scarier than being surrounded by pygmy warriors or whomever. The fundamentalists are so blind, so dogmatic. I have to have police guards at universities. I had 40 Baptist clergy marching into a classroom demanding they must be heard. They just lose their cool completely.
The Amazing Race 14 premieres on February 15 at 8 p.m. on CBS. For more details, visit CBS.com. http://www.advocate.com/print_article_ektid72866.asp