Leaving Hong Kong and the ministry, and beginning the long divorce process, was a painful daily experience. I had never wished it to happen this way. From the beginning, I always felt that church policies on marriage were flawed. Marriage was, and still is, a requirement for ministry in most Protestant churches. “How can a single male minister to females? Couples?” That is the argument. So, having married because I would have no career otherwise, I ended up dragging my wife and child and extended family through a miserable experience that went on for two years or more.
The summer I left the ministry and returned to the United States was a devastating one nationally for the Assemblies of God and other church organizations as well. Several scandals rocked the evangelical world that year, and the church’s biannual General Council, held in Denver that year, was abuzz with one new revelation after another. Not only had I quit and come out as a gay man, but my friends Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had been indicted for fraud, embezzlement, and various other crimes and misdemeanors. (I always really liked Tammy Faye. She was rather simple, but never deceptive.) Then there was Jimmy Swaggart, caught in a cheap motel in the California desert with a prostitute. (I could never stand him, although I had to work with him several times during crusades in Manila.) I have always referred to that period as the summer of the atomic bomb.
Around that time, I bought the legendary historical newspaper, Territorial Enterprise. Not only was it the first newspaper available in the Nevada territory; Mark Twain got his literary start writing a daily column in 1862‑4. My reprieve from Fundamentalism was short-lived. Although the town is historically notorious for its hard-drinking and gambling, the ubiquitous tourists more or less smother the real character of the place. It only reveals its real nature once the tourists pile back into their buses, and go back down the mountain to Reno, or over to Tahoe. But the real unique attraction is legal prostitution.
Most of the townfolk embraced the many surrounding brothels as a source of local tax revenue. But, who do you suppose was always campaigning to get the bordellos shut down? The Fightin’ Fundies, of course. One particular Bible-thumper was the ringleader, and I baited him constantly in the newspaper. He was loud, obnoxious, and full of himself, with his brand of Christian self-righteousness. So, not only was he shrill and full of perceived “Christian privilege.” In addition to his campaign to rid Storey County of brothels, he expanded his purview to endless ranting about the end of civilization as we know it, because “the faggots had bought the Territorial Enterprise.”
Not being one to want to get into nasty confrontations with Fundamentalists on the wooden plank sidewalks of Virginia City, I did my writing and rock-throwing most of the time from my condo at Lake Tahoe a few miles away. No one in town really knew me or recognized me, as I kept a low profile, not wanting to be attacked by a wild‑eyed, Bible-thumping Fundamentalist. The prostitution wars were really heating up at that time, and the local mob-boss-wannabe, Joe Conforte, who owned the famous Mustang Ranch nearby down the mountain, got in touch and invited me to lunch at the Ranch to give his side of the story to the newspaper. Intrigued, I accepted. The Ranch had its own bar and grill in addition to the other facilities. I assured him that we were on his side and that we agreed that the county needed the brothels as a key element of the economy. I can’t say we became friends, but we made common cause – and the Fundies went ballistic.
After we had lunch and a tour of the joint – including watching a lineup of the girls on display for some visiting long-distance truckers – Joe lit up a cigar, put his arm on my shoulder, and confided: “Well, you know, Tom, any time you want to come over and sample the merchandise, you will never have to pay. For you, everything is on the house.”
Rather surprised, I replied, “You know, Joe, your intelligence apparatus in town is somewhat lacking. I’m gay, and the entire TE newspaper staff is too.” He barely missed a beat and said, “Oh, in that case, you know, we can arrange stuff like that too!” To which I just replied: “Thanks, Joe, but my sex life is just fine. However, I might stop in for a burger some time!”