Politics

The Gay Divide Over Marianne Williamson

What did the New Thought author tell people during the AIDS crisis?

Marianne Williamson.
Marianne Williamson has become the sort of self-assured underdog queer people love to elevate.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images and olga_hmelevska/iStock/Getty Images.

Gay people knew about Marianne Williamson long before the national political press did. The Democratic presidential candidate and author rose to quasi-fame in 1980s Los Angeles, where she lectured on A Course in Miracles, a popular book of Christian-adjacent spirituality by Helen Schucman. Williamson set up shop in a city full of gay men and made quick inroads in the entertainment industry; her message of an all-loving God offered a new home for gays who’d been rejected by their families or faith traditions. When Williamson founded a meal-delivery nonprofit serving AIDS patients and began leading AIDS support groups, her popularity among gay men grew.

Now, after her two attention-grabbing presidential debate performances, a new generation of LGBTQ people has turned to Williamson, showering her with semi-ironic social media plaudits and posting memes treating her as a New Age–y enchantress or auntie figure, ready to smudge sage in all the corners of the nation. Her idiosyncrasies and touchy-feely rhetoric, glaringly alien to mainstream politics, make her an easy subject for campy caricature, the sort of self-assured underdog queer people love to elevate.

But not all the gay social-media affection for Williamson is tongue-in-cheek: “There are maybe three candidates on stage whose rhetoric make me feel patriotic and yes one of them is Marianne Williamson,” one fan tweeted. Others gushed that she was “UNSCATHED this debate,” with answers that were “full of spirit and show a deeper understanding of the American people outside of numbers and figures.”

Several LGBTQ influencers were among those tweeting praise. The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham called her “consistently the most radical / rational person on-stage.” Jane Lynch tweeted at Williamson, “Keep it up, my love. I’m glad the rest our country is learning what a force for good you are.” Heather Matarazzo’s only three tweets about the debate were about “truly loving” what Williamson had to say. “She slayed that sickness question,” tweeted Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness. “Queen she has a point on election funding too.”

Among queer people who’ve known Williamson and her work for decades, though, she and her teachings have been a more contentious subject. Since Williamson made headlines during the first debate, LGBTQ people who lived through the AIDS crisis have been sharing painful memories on social media. In a tweet that went viral during last Tuesday’s debate, Stephen Guy-Bray, a 59-year-old English professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote, “Seeing young gays make [Williamson] into some kind of camp icon fills me with fury & despair. But mostly it just makes me so fucking tired.”

In the midst of a deadly epidemic with no known treatment or cure, these people recall, Williamson offered metaphysical teachings, in the tradition known as New Thought, about the spiritual roots of disease. One HIV-positive man wrote on Facebook that Williamson had harmed people with AIDS by “conning” them into “believing they deserved their biological condition—and even their deaths—because they weren’t spiritually fit enough to visualize the AIDS virus away.” A woman who commended Williamson on supporting some people with AIDS tweeted that “those of us who were there for others dealt with the outcome of OUR friends reading her words and blaming themselves for their lack of positivity.”

“I turned on the TV to watch the end of the debate, realized who she was and went into a rage, screaming at the fucking TV,” the author Rabih Alameddine tweeted in June. “Had no idea that horror was still alive. I had friends who died in 80s and 90s thinking they were unworthy because they couldn’t love enough.”

Williamson has rejected these interpretations of her work. “If you ever read an article saying that I told people with AIDS they didn’t have to take their medicine because positive thinking would cure it; or that I ever told people who got sick that negative thinking caused it; please know both those things are complete and utter lies,” she tweeted in June, a few days before the first debates.

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When I asked the Williamson campaign for comment on the criticism, spokeswoman Patricia Ewing asked for the “names and affiliations” of the people who’d written the posts. In a follow-up email from an official campaign press account, the Williamson camp wrote that it wanted to distinguish between “trolls or opponents’ supporters vs real people or concerned citizens.” The campaign disputed that Williamson had ever “told people to get off their medication,” but rather that critics “didn’t like the message that positive thinking or prayer can complement medical treatment.”

“This entire narrative is 100% false and part of an orchestrated political attack against Williamson,” a spokesperson told me in an official statement. “As soon as her candidacy started to gain traction, the lies and allegations—anonymous and otherwise—began. The stories keep changing and the false charges become more generalized when challenged.”

I asked whether it might be true that, even if Williamson never told people they were unworthy of love or caused their own illness, some gay men interpreted her words that way and suffered psychological or emotional harm as a result. Would Williamson consider apologizing to those men? “This is not a question, it’s a hypothetical opinion,” the campaign responded. “You’re asking for an unwarranted apology to a hypothetical situation that never happened.”

A good number of Williamson’s detractors have cited quotes from her book A Return to Love. The volume, a companion piece to A Course in Miracles, was published in 1992, before the advent of the antiretroviral drug cocktails that drastically improved AIDS prognoses and extended HIV-positive life expectancies. At the time, Williamson taught her followers with AIDS to use spiritual means to cope with the disease that had left them shunned by the medical establishment, without effective treatment, and with little reliable information about what was happening to their bodies. She had people with AIDS write letters to the virus inside them and imagine how the virus would respond.

In A Return to Love, Williamson recounts one man hearing from his virus, “If I was, as they say, ‘out to get you,’ don’t you think you’d be dead by now? I’m not able to kill, harm, or make you sick. … Yes, I live off your fears. But I die from your peace of mind, serenity, honesty, faith, and desire to live.” Another man heard his virus say, “I feel like you only want to destroy me instead of dealing with whatever it is inside yourself that brought me here.”

“Cancer and AIDS and other serious illnesses are physical manifestations of a psychic scream, and their message is not ‘Hate me,’ but ‘Love me,’ ” the book states. Williamson writes that “Sickness is an illusion and does not actually exist.” Instead, it’s a sign of “our judgment on ourselves … not a sign of God’s judgment on us.”

Williamson’s New Thought approach is often confused with New Age spirituality, but though the two movements share some qualities and roots, they differ in meaningful ways. The former is less concerned with the occult, and it predates the latter by nearly a century. Like Christian Science, whose founder was a patient of the progenitor of New Thought, New Thought holds that physical illnesses stem from undesirable mental states.

Together with another New Thought adherent, Louise Hay, Williamson founded the Center for Living, a nonprofit with outposts in L.A. and New York City that hosted support groups and lectures. Williamson’s close association with Hay, whose mind-over-matter medical teachings appear far more aggressive and literal than Williamson’s, has not earned her any points among those who remember the New Thought approach to the AIDS crisis as a source of self-loathing and fruitless internal struggle. Hay claimed to have cured her own cervical cancer by confronting past traumas and assigned specific personal failings to physical ailments: Kidney stones, for example, were “lumps of undissolved anger.” “Certain figures of the early AIDS era, like Louise Hay, slipped into the role that many mothers of children with AIDS had shirked,” David Groff wrote in Slate when Hay died in 2017. But “the last thing people with AIDS needed to hear was that they had caused their own illness. Some of Hay’s disciples, believing they had failed to follow her dicta well enough, died ashamed, disempowered, and betrayed.”

Many of the LGBTQ people recounting Williamson’s teachings today do so with horror. For some, though, they were an essential source of solace in a moment marked by paranoia, loneliness, and grief. Johnny Schaefer, a 57-year-old singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, was introduced to Williamson by a friend with AIDS in the ’80s. “At the time, there was nothing else,” he told me. There was no scientific response to AIDS, so nonscientific responses filled the gap. People were turning to meditation, prayer, Eastern medical traditions, and nutrition.

But Williamson wasn’t anti-medicine or anti-science, Schaefer says. “For many of us, you pray, and one of the ways God responds is through medicine and science,” he said. “It’s not one or the other. … We used to pray for a medical solution to AIDS,” and when AZT finally showed promise as a treatment for HIV, “Marianne embraced it. We all did.”

David Kessler, an author on grief who worked with Williamson on her nonprofit Project Angel Food—Williamson has called him “the yang to my yin”—wrote in a Medium post that he saw her drive men to the doctor and pay for their AIDS medication herself. The post became a fundraising email for the Williamson campaign.

Schaefer, the gay son of a Lutheran minister, came from an “ultra-conservative” town, and says Williamson was one of “the only ones telling gay people they were loved.” “When I was a kid, I literally feared I was the Antichrist, because I thought I was so evil God couldn’t love me,” he said. “Marianne taught me that was absurd and that God loves me exactly as I am.” As a volunteer for one of Project Angel Food’s programs, Project Nightlight, Schaefer says he sat with Williamson and other volunteers at the bedsides of AIDS patients nearing death. They’d sing, or just bear witness. “Marianne called us ‘midwives to the dying,’ ” Schaefer said. He credits the experience with helping him to grieve for the friends he was losing and to trust that they were peacefully transitioning to a better plane of existence.

When Schaefer sees people saying negative things about Williamson on social media, he said, “I get this protective urge as if someone is attacking my mom.” He recognizes that other men his age might have had different experiences with Project Angel Food or Williamson’s Center for Living; the leaders of organizations can’t always control the messaging or behavior of everyone affiliated with those organizations, he says. But what really bothers him, he said, is “seeing people who are 20 years old saying, ‘She told people to pray AIDS away.’ I was there.”

Meanwhile, people like Guy-Bray, who came away from the AIDS crisis with a much more damning image of Williamson, chafe at the lighthearted tributes to her. Guy-Bray remembers Williamson and Hay as “essentially faith healers, getting dying men to concentrate on their spiritual well-being rather than on activism.” He recalls reading a lot of coverage of Williamson in gay media during the AIDS crisis. She “taught that the virus killing all those men was to some extent a result of their own inner conflicts and traumas and so on,” Guy-Bray told me. Because she made a fair bit of money off of her books and workshops, “everyone I knew thought she was a grifter.”

The campy, meme-driven gay love for Williamson and the serious, sending-her-a-check-before-the-next-filing-deadline gay love for Williamson are not mutually exclusive. Donald Guffey, a 31-year-old with a deep Southern drawl who lives in western North Carolina, was ordained in a conservative Pentecostal Christian denomination before rejecting his faith community last year to come out as gay. He remains a progressive Christian, and now, he’s also a reiki master teacher and a devoted Williamson fan. Guffey loves the kitschy memes people are posting about Williamson and cautions those who don’t take her seriously.

“Anyone using these Sailor Moon memes to discredit Marianne is ignorant of how much young queer people loved Sailor Moon and also love Marianne Williamson,” he said. He sees LGBTQ people as an “innately spiritual bunch”—“throughout the ages, we were the shamans”—who have been drawn to Wicca and New Age practices in part because more established faith traditions cast them out.

Guffey discovered Williamson’s work seven years ago, when Oprah featured her on a SuperSoul Sunday broadcast, long before he finally came out and left his church. Reading A Course in Miracles and listening to Williamson’s “message of inclusion” helped Guffey realize that he “wasn’t an abomination” like his faith tradition said he was. He says he’s seen some young queer people show up on Reddit to post memes or chat about Williamson’s birth chart, then leave having been converted into actual fans.

“The majority of queer people rejecting her are older ones who lived through the AIDS crisis and found her philosophies at the time offensive—that your thoughts create your existence, and health can be cultivated from within,” he said. “But that’s just basic New Thought philosophy that’s been around since the late 1800s, early 1900s.”

Seeing some of his fellow gays call Williamson an anti-vaxxer or anti-science—characterizations that Guffey vehemently rebuts—has made Guffey feel a bit alienated, but he says he knows plenty of people, especially in the progressive Christian community, who support her. “I know LGBT people are not a monolith,” he said. “And Pete Buttigieg, the gay saint, the golden boy? He’s just gay tokenism for the status quo.”

For LGBTQ people who embrace Williamson’s work, especially those who count their spirituality as an essential part of their lives and selves, the idea that prayer and thought exercises can complement scientific medical treatment rings true—and to them, it doesn’t mean that weak people cause their own illnesses. As an alternative to the moralizing, anti-gay shaming and blaming that people with AIDS faced in the ’80s and ’90s, the call to heal oneself by loving oneself offered, for some gay men, a longed-for shift in mindset, even if the implied fault still lay within.

Both Guffey and Schaefer say Williamson’s work has provided a welcome framework for integrating faith, science, and queer sexuality into a single affirming worldview. They relish Williamson’s “both and” approach to physical and mental health, which recognizes medical interventions as part of God’s healing capacity. (In this school of thought, new HIV treatments can be understood as God answering the prayers of people with AIDS.) Where some people see anti-vaxxer rhetoric or potentially dangerous skepticism of psychiatric medication, Williamson’s followers see a commitment to wresting power away from profiteering pharmaceutical companies.

Ironically, perhaps, that impulse was one of the driving forces behind the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, one of the most prominent and effective networks of activism in queer history. But while Williamson focused on psychological and interpersonal well-being, ACT UP was pressuring lawmakers and corporations to upend the policies and profit motives that were killing people with AIDS. Schaefer remembers an ACT UP organizer coming to speak to a Lutheran church service he attended during the AIDS crisis. He thought the organizer was dismissive of religion and prayer, and too angry. “I get it, there was plenty to be angry about,” Schaefer said. “But I thought, ‘If you stay angry, you’re not going to get anywhere.’ ”

That disparity in approach to moments of crisis is replicated in the discourse around Williamson’s presidential run. Williamson has said, time and again, that politics and policy cannot solve America’s ills, and that only love can repair the wounds Donald Trump’s hate has inflicted on the nation. Her supporters believe any successful approach to governing must begin there. Her detractors recoil at the notion of a policy skeptic leading a political party from the helm of the U.S. government.

This is part of the reason why some gay men who remember Williamson’s teachings in the ’80s and ’90s are disturbed to see young queer people, many of whom have no knowledge of Williamson’s AIDS-related work, embracing her personal-over-political paradigm, even in fun. Love and forgiveness and mental fortitude did not force policymakers and corporate leaders to confront the AIDS epidemic. Political action did.

But Williamson’s gay supporters believe she’s ready to put her philosophies to political use. “It’s alarming to me that we have this opportunity to elect somebody with some real moral fiber and they’re mocking her like this,” Guffey said. “Ultimately, what bigger ‘acting up’ and activism step can you take than running for president?”