Hangin' with the Church Lady

Our eyes met across a crowded room. I was speaking. She was listening. Her yellow bouffant hair didn't move a wit as she nodded and smiled at almost everything I said. It helped.

About 60 people had shown up at the Sun-Sentinel building in downtown Fort Lauderdale for a panel discussion put on by the local chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. It concerned a column in which I'd reported that Republican Congressman Mark Foley is gay. The crowd was friendly to me, none more so than the nodding woman. But she didn't quite fit there, like June Cleaver at a pride parade. Afterward, she came up and told me she liked the Foley column. I thanked her before she said something to the effect of: "I believe that we need to identify homosexuals in public office and expose them for what they are."

The McCarthyesque interjection jarred me. I looked at the tag on her dress: Margaret Hostetter. I knew that name. That's Broward County's Church Lady.

Hostetter is one of the most aggressive antigay activists in South Florida. She led a campaign in 2001 to reinstate the Boy Scouts in Broward's public schools after the School Board ejected the organization for discriminating against homosexuals. Last year, she fought to keep the board from partnering with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Riding a wave of publicity, Hostetter unsuccessfully ran for the School Board last fall, promising to end all "special rights" for gay people. The staunch Christian Coalitioner now sits on the school district's diversity committee, where she steadfastly thwarts the dreaded homosexual agenda at every turn.

I had heard from journalist friends that she was a one-track moralist, known for berating School Board officials in public. A gay Democratic club recently deemed her a "conservative hothead." But she has largely remained something of a mystery publicly. Though Nexis shows that she's appeared in 57 articles in the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel since 2001, none of them was really about her; they just included her stock antigay quotes.

Intrigued, I called her last week and arranged to meet. On the phone, I learned her passion has run beyond the political, and her family life -- a high horse of the Christian Right -- has been less than ideal. She has two grown children from different marriages and is twice-divorced. Rather than the shrill pronouncements I expected, she seemed to have an almost wry sense of humor. Right away, it was apparent that she was more complicated than her billing.

But still, she's as straight as the Sears Tower. She said she stays away from bars, though she has an occasional drink of wine. Neither seen nor touched an illegal drug during her 57 years, unless you count a serious religious experience as a hallucinogen. Hostetter mainlines Jesus, who she said once spoke directly to her and another time gave her orders through the Jerry Bruckheimer movie Pearl Harbor.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. I met her on the evening of June 30, 11 days after the panel discussion, at a Broward sheriff's substation in Lauderdale Lakes. She was attending a gathering of the Jerome E. Gray Republican Club, which is made up of a small but active group of black men and women.

I arrived a little late to find Hostetter sitting front and center, her posture as immaculate as her old-fashioned professional attire. There were about 15 members in attendance. At the head of the room sat club Vice President O'Neal Dozier, who ended the meeting with a word about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Texas sodomy law. "Sodomy is not a right in the Constitution -- or in the Bible," lamented Dozier, who is pastor of the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach.

Hostetter nodded and smiled.

When the meeting adjourned, she introduced me to one of her young acolytes, a fellow real estate agent named Jason Morales. "I think she's got a lot of good ideas," Morales, a 21-year-old University of Florida graduate, said of Hostetter. "I want to speak out about issues, and I'm not afraid to do it. I believe that following the Scripture will lead me in the path, along with guidance from people like Margaret."

What issues?

"Homosexuality," he said. "And health care."

Hostetter nudged him and whispered, "Abortion."

"And abortion," he echoed. "Definitely abortion. That's the biggest one, really."

Soon, Hostetter was chatting with Dozier, who is a favorite of Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor spoke at Dozier's church this past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and, in 2001, appointed the pastor as the only black member on the state Judicial Nominating Committee.

Dozier cuts a compelling physical figure: tall, impossibly young-looking for his 54 years, impeccably fit, nattily dressed, with a pointed, razor-sharp flattop. He looks like a man who gets things done, and he is: In addition to his calling as a minister, Dozier briefly played outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears, fought in Vietnam, and earned a law degree. Not bad for the son of a South Carolina sharecropper.

I listened to the conversation between the pastor and Hostetter, who are old comrades in arms:

Dozier: Sunday, my sermon topic was the sin of homosexuality. I brought it out of the text, of the Old Testament and the New. I say God loves the homosexual person but hates the sin of homosexuality.

Hostetter: It's clear that adultery, fornication, and homosexuality are condemned equally by the Lord. But adulterers don't form their own churches and put it in your face.

D: The fornicator and the adulterer do not ask for special rights. But they say homosexuality is a genetic thing.

H: It's a lie.

D: It is a lie.

H: There is no legitimate research that shows there is any genetic predetermined connection. But what do we hear in the media? It's always based on the premise that it's genetic.

D: I have been pastoring for 20 years and have had many people come to me who believed they were gay, and they have voluntarily said to me that it was because a homosexual molested them.

H: There are men who have effeminate traits, but they aren't necessarily gay.

D: My partner during law school had all the characteristics of a lady, but he was not -- and I can say to this day -- he was not a homosexual. Everyone who has effeminate traits is not homosexual.

H [laughing]: You say that there are no homosexuals in your choir.

D: No, there are no fornicators or adulterers or homosexuals in our choir.

H: They have to be righteous.

D: By the way, I was to the governor's mansion in the first week in May. My wife and I had dinner with [Jeb Bush]. And his people said, "Pastor, don't be surprised if the governor isn't back at your church in January." The governor loved [his King Day visit]. He said at one point during the service that he thought he was in heaven. The governor is a saved man. He loves the Lord. And his brother loves the Lord, and I'm talking about Jesus. And they don't mind saying they love Jesus. I love those two guys.

After more amorous talk about the Bushes, Hostetter told Dozier about Foley.

D: Well, Foley doesn't qualify to be a Republican then. If you are gay or you can't hold to the Republican platform, then you ought not be in the party.

H: In my mind, the media is conflicted about Foley because they don't want to tell the truth.

There was more talk, but we soon said goodbye to Dozier, and I followed the "United Under God" bumper sticker on the rear window of Hostetter's red 2003 Lincoln Towncar to a Denny's in Plantation, where we sat, ordered Diet Pepsis, and she began telling her story. Hostetter was born and raised in Pensacola in a strict middle-class Baptist household. Her father was a churchgoing Boy Scout leader who lectured her for hours at a time. If she made a peep during his speeches, he would start over and make her listen to every word again. When lecturing didn't work, he would bring out his belt, though she says this was an infrequent practice.

She learned the Bible at a very early age and never, ever doubted a word of it. "The word of God is inerrant," she said.

When she graduated from high school, her father forced her to go to a nearby junior college rather than a university, which helped provoke the greatest act of rebellion in her life: She eloped to Alabama at age 18 with a 22-year-old fellow student. "It was chemistry," she explained.

After moving to New Orleans and Dallas and earning her teaching certificate, Hostetter and her husband moved to Plantation in 1972. Then 25, she desperately yearned for a child, but her husband, to her horror and utter frustration, didn't want kids. She says she finally gave him an ultimatum, and she had a baby girl in 1973. Hostetter decided to be an at-home mom.

"But what did I do? I went to Plantation council meetings, and I drug my little baby here, there, and everywhere," she told me. "I wasn't at home baking cookies. I was one of those mothers pushing the baby stroller on the picket lines in front of abortion clinics after Roe v. Wade. "

The marriage deteriorated. She agonized over the idea of divorce, especially since the Bible forbids it. During this dark time, she says Jesus spoke to her during an impromptu visit to West Lauderdale Baptist Church. "I blacked out," she said. "And from within my spirit, I hear a man's voice. And I have this vibration sensation in my body, like electricity buzzing in a power line. Power, power. I'm feeling this veveveveh. And the voice said, 'If you will confess me before men, I will confess you before my Father. '"

She paused before pronouncing, "Jesus was speaking to me." And she says it happened exactly the same way five times during the service. Call it multiple miracles.

Hostetter divorced her husband in 1980 and found a Biblical justification for her action. "The loophole is that if you're married to a non-Christian and they leave, in the sense they are unfaithful or other things, then you are OK," she said. "My husband wasn't a Christian. In the Bible, they call it 'equally yoked.' We weren't equally yoked."

In the same year as the divorce, she ran for City Council in Plantation and lost. She was also instrumental in founding Heritage Park on Fig Tree Road and was appointed to the county's land-use planning board by Anne Kolb, Broward's first female commissioner.

In 1983, she met a man at a Bible study group. Chemicals catalyzed, and she quickly remarried. "We learned in Realtor school that there are four types of people: sensors, thinkers, feelers, and intuitives," she said. "I'm a sensor, and the symbol for that is a lightning rod. I make quick decisions. And we were busy, busy, busy and had a child that same year."

The birth of her son, who is now 20, slowed down her political work. The second marriage didn't work out, and she divorced him in 2000. A second broken family. Curious, I asked her point-blank if she'd ever fornicated, if she had ever been one of those dreaded people Dozier won't allow in his choir.

"Oh, you're not going to write that, are you?" she said. "God doesn't expect me to be perfect. I'm not Jesus. But I definitely need forgiveness."

Free from marriage, she returned full-tilt to the political circuit, and the Boy Scout controversy of 2001 put her squarely back into the game. Hostetter lobbied the School Board to reinstate the Scouts. While she made headway with some members like Darla Carter and Judie Budnick, others (Lois Wexler, Carole Andrews, and Beverly Gallagher) so despised her message that they wouldn't even meet with her.

She lost the Boy Scout issue, but it didn't dissuade her. God again spoke to her, only this time through Pearl Harbor, the overdrawn war and romance bomb starring Ben Affleck, which she saw on June 10, 2001, her 55th birthday. God told her that she was in a war and that she must be a steadfast soldier. The Japanese attacks represented "pornography, sexuality, the school situation, abortion, the breakdown of family -- not that I'm perfect by any means," she said. "We've got the ammunition. We've got the truth. We need to organize and get these planes off the ground. We need to get the Christian worldview out there to save our culture and our nation."

In October 2001, she began firing her ammo at the proposed GLSEN partnership. Hostetter did everything she could to stop it, enlisting right-wing radio host Steve Kane to rant about it, helping to get fundamentalists like TV preacher D. James Kennedy involved, and drumming up lots of media coverage.

The board defeated the measure by a 6-3 vote. "It was a shock," she says of her success, "but it was wonderful."

And short-lived. Despite her frenetic efforts, a new GLSEN contract, which excluded the counseling of students, was approved in April 2002.

Bitter from the defeat, Hostetter, who now lives in Davie, ran for the School Board in September. By that time, she had gotten newspaper ink. "Whenever a reporter needs an antigay Christian bigot, they call Margaret," she explained with a laugh.

Despite the publicity, Hostetter finished next to last among five contenders, gaining only 17 percent of the vote. But in another race, Darla Carter pulled off an upset win over incumbent Paul Eichner, who supported GLSEN. To Hostetter, Carter was a friend and sympathetic soul; the board member once compared GLSEN to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Hostetter said she remarked to Carter at her victory party that the diversity committee was so diverse that there were no WASPs on it. "I want to be that WASP," she told Carter.

They had a "good laugh" about it, Hostetter recalled, and Carter agreed with her. In December, Carter appointed the WASP to the committee, causing much controversy in the papers. In a recent edition of the GLSEN newsletter, Co-chairman Michael Record wrote that Hostetter and fellow appointee Kane had "derailed" his group's mission.

Hostetter laughs when she hears this. "He gives me a lot of credit, doesn't he?"

As 1 a.m. passed at Denny's, I began to challenge some of her ideas about homosexuality. Hostetter stopped laughing. Her face tightened with anger. Her eyes glared at me as she spoke about sin. I asked her why she was so preoccupied with what consensual adults do in their homes. Looking as if she might burst into tears, she spoke of sex crimes and murders committed by gay men. They are destroying America, she cried, especially when they enlist youth on their side. They need to come to God and renounce their decision, she said, repeating her mantra that homosexuality is not a genetic trait.

Though it's not very constructive to go too far down this road, the truth is there are lots of respectable scientific studies that suggest that homosexuality is, in fact, rooted in genes. She writes those off as "illegitimate" and contends there is no proof.

I asked her, as we walked to our cars, how she can be so sure she's right. After all, there is certainly no scientific proof that it's not genetic. "If God condemns something," she said, "then he wouldn't have made them that way."

And that was that. One can't argue with the Inerrant Word. I thought of all the contradictions and cruelties in the Bible and how it was no wonder she sometimes looked as if she wanted to explode. All that considerable drive and passion -- the sensor mentality of hers -- was trapped in the rigid framework of the Christian Right that had been hammered into her during childhood.

But I didn't say any of that. I just thanked her and told her that I'd had a good time.

As Hostetter opened her car door, I smiled and nodded. Then the Church Lady drove away, surely planning another day of service in the Army of the Lord.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman