Should the gay community forgive former “ex-gay” superstar John Paulk who reemerged from the closet to offer an insincere, non-apology last week? Or, should it demand penance for his perfidy? Before we address this question, it is critical that we put his despicable deeds in historical context.
In the early 1990’s the Religious Right launched an all-out effort to destroy the LGBT community and used the “ex-gay” myth as the tip of its poisonous spear.
In 1994, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson convened a meeting at a castle in Colorado’s Glen Eyrie conference center. Fifty-five virulently anti-gay organizations and activists met with the single-minded mission of stamping out the embattled LGBT movement.
Author Mel White wrote about the meeting in his book, “Religion Gone Bad,” identifying a key goal of the conference: Prove to the American people that homosexuality is not immutable.
Clearly, this goal required emotional testimonials from so-called “ex-gays.” This created unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurial individuals to find fame and fortune as “former homosexuals.” Anti-gay activists had a motive and money, and all they needed to do was find shills willing to say they had prayed away the gay.
In pursuing this shameful effort, the Religious Right was not particularly picky on whom they chose to deliver their false message. They did not require these stooges to have a track record, special qualifications, or impressive accomplishments – only an actor’s flair for the dramatic and a capacity to sell their soul to the highest bidder. Our foes literally scraped the bottom of the barrel to find the dregs of gay society to do their bidding.
A lifelong loser from Columbus, Ohio named John Paulk fit the job description to a tee. Prior to finding his niche in the “ex-gay” industry, he was stuck in a dead end job at a copy store and spent his nights as a prostitute and druggie female impersonator named Candi.
Paulk recognized early on the potential for posing as “ex-gay.” He appeared in a veritable template for the “ex-gay” message, “The Gay Agenda,” which is a notorious anti-gay video from the late 80’s. This film grotesquely demonized LGBT people by interspersing scary scenes from San Francisco’s gay pride parade with junk science provided by discredited psychologist Paul Cameron.
It took a few years for the far right to implement its Glen Eyrie strategy, but their plot came to fruition in July 1998 when several leading anti-gay organizations launched the “Truth in Love” ad campaign. As a result, John and his wife Anne appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the sensationalistic headline “Gay For Life?”
Following the ex-gay ad campaign, Paulk’s career took off when he became the chairman of Exodus International and went on to found Love Won Out, which was Focus on the Family’s “ex-gay” road show. The slick production featured Paulk and others who told weeping parents that molestation and poor parenting turned their once-pure children into sinning homosexuals.
On Sept. 19, 2000, the Paulk family’s charade came crashing down after I photographed John in Mr. P’s, a Washington, DC gay bar. Having fallen from grace, Paulk moved his family to Portland and started Mezzaluna, an upscale catering company. It wasn’t long before Paulk sported a new “Fabio” look, hired beefcake waiters, and began soliciting the LGBT community for business – without acknowledging his past, or making an effort to undo the damage that he wrought.
While he was asking LGBT organizations for business and frequenting a gay strip joint, his wife was traveling to Sacramento and Minneapolis to peddle their “successful” marriage tale to Christian audiences. As a result, I published a report detailing his duplicity, which upset many of his clients. This led to last week’s PQ Monthly article, where he finally (sort of) confessed:
“I no longer support the ex-gay movement or efforts to attempt to change individuals — especially teens who already feel insecure and alienated. I feel great sorrow over the pain that has been caused when my words were misconstrued.”
Instead of fully taking responsibility, he said his lies had been “misconstrued.” That’s a bit like walking into a confessional and blaming the priest for your sins. History will show that John Paulk was a quisling who furthered his career by starring in virulently anti-gay propaganda films, holding “ex-gay” junk science seminars, and taking marching orders from dangerous zealots whose stated goal was to “shatter the foundation of the homosexual movement.”
What Paulk does from this point forward is between he and his conscience, provided he has one. In my view, he should spend the rest of his life making amends – but he should not do so because gay activists are suggesting it. He should make the effort simply because it’s the right thing to do, which appears to be foreign concept in the first five decades of this man’s wretched existence.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”