Grace Under Pressure

By Dan Avery

Originally published on Advocate.com February 10 2009 12:00 AM ET

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 [traveling], 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.