Gay activists gathered in the Reverend Jerry Falwell's hometown Saturday to announce a permanent presence in central Virginia. "It's safe to come out," the Reverend Mel White, founder of the gay rights group Soulforce, told a rally of about 200 crowded under a chain of balloons tied like a rainbow. "God has made you gay. You are all beautiful!"
White, a California minister who was friends with Falwell before acknowledging his homosexuality, said he decided to move to Lynchburg, Va., last year when Falwell said that God allowed terrorists to attack America on September 11 because of the work of gays, abortionists, and feminists. "Jerry Falwell is the source of misinformation about sexual orientation," White said. "He's a gadfly. He likes to say these horrible things."
Antigay protesters--who, like many of the gay activists, were mostly from out of town--gathered at the periphery and showered the rally with boos. "We'll be here too, in defense of righteousness," Andrew Sansone yelled into the crowd.
Falwell stayed away from the event altogether. "I'd be surprised if anyone from my church was there," he said in a telephone interview. Falwell said he still stands by his assessment of the terrorist attacks, blaming the "secularization of America" for exacerbating God's wrath. "I just think those statements were ill-timed," he said.
Since White arrived, Falwell hasn't answered any of his phone calls or invitations to dinner. Falwell said his mind is made up about homosexuality and that he won't socialize with anyone who he considers is living in sin. "But they are certainly welcome in the neighborhood," Falwell said. "Our church doors will always be open--and when they visit our church, I hope they will hear something really worthwhile."