Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2003

Wayne Besen’s new book Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth is published in October 2003 by Harrington Park Press. Here he describes the failure of the ex-gay movement over the five years since the high-profile advertising campaign it mounted in the United States in 1998.

Anything But Gay!

by Wayne Besen

The United States must confound people in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Our nation at times must seem schizophrenic – or at least in the throes of a never-ending identity crisis. People must wonder what the US really stands for.

Are we a gay-friendly, liberal nation with progressive, cosmopolitan cities such as New York, San Francisco and West Hollywood? Or are we a homophobic nation of backwoods yahoos who vote for inarticulate cowboys such as President George W. Bush?

The truth is that our nation is split between modernists who want to take this nation forward and theocratic puritans who view America as a Christian fundamentalist nation. These two forces are in a constant cultural tug of war to define America’s soul.

In the centre of this tug of war is the issue of gay rights.

Gay people have made great progress over the past few decades, and American fundamentalists have had to come to grips with this success. Fundamentalists were losing the battle over public opinion by harshly condemning gay people as sick, wicked sinners. This gay-bashing made them look intolerant to the mainstream.

In an effort to stop gay people from achieving equal rights while not appearing hateful to the more tolerant majority, the fundamentalists had to adopt a new strategy. So, in 1998 they began promoting the so-called ex-gay ministries. This way, the fundamentalists could claim they loved gay people and were just trying to help unhappy gay people become heterosexual through therapy and prayer.

In the summer of 1998, eighteen right-wing political groups launched a million-dollar advertising campaign that used individuals who boldly claimed that praying to Jesus Christ helped them become straight. Five years later, however, the expensive campaign has backfired. It has been revealed that several of the stars of the ad campaign who claimed to be no longer gay are not as straight as they said they were.

For example, just a few weeks ago, I reported that ex-gay poster boy Michael Johnston – who was in the 1998 ad campaign – was having unsafe sex with multiple partners in southern Virginia without telling them of his HIV status, even though he knew he had AIDS.

“Michael Johnston ruined my life,” one of his distraught young victims told me at the Wave, a nightclub in Norfolk, Virginia.

John Paulk had been the ex-gay guru working with Exodus and Focus on the Family. During the 1998 campaign he appeared in a full-page ad with a group of “former homosexuals” under the headline “We’re standing for the truth that homosexuals can change”. He and his wife Anne also took this explosive message to the popular television shows 60 Minutes and Oprah.

The high point of his career came when he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine with his ex-lesbian wife under the bold headline “Gay for life?”.

Apparently so.

In September 2000, John Paulk was found guzzling cocktails at Mr P’s, a well-known Washington, DC, gay saloon. He offered a drink to Daryl Herrschaft, a Human Rights Campaign colleague of mine, and proceeded to hit on him. Herrschaft called me from the bar, and I came by and photographed the “ex-gay”. No, I didn’t ask him to say “cheese”.

Paulk was suspended as the leader of Exodus Ministries, the world’s largest ex-gay organisation.

In a 1998 New York Times full-page ad, John Paulk’s “ex-lesbian” wife Anne proclaimed, “I’m living proof that Truth can set you free.” Unfortunately, Ms Paulk was caught in a lie. In the huge ad she says, “... even though I had a lot of male friends, I just wasn’t attracted to men sexually.”

Yet, in Love Won Out, a book she co-wrote with John, Anne acknowledges she felt sexual desire for a man named Mark. “He appealed to me sexually,” Anne writes. “We were drawn together by sheer animal magnetism. ... I came to see I could be physically attracted to a male, but I just couldn’t surrender my heart to him.”

It is amazing that the right wing had so much trouble finding a real ex-lesbian that they had to recruit a straight or bisexual woman to lie in the ad about her past animal attraction towards men.

Finally, Wade Richards, an ex-gay spokesperson who worked with right-winger Peter LaBarbera, has come out of the closet since the ad campaign and denounced the ex-gay ministries.

If we look back at the ad campaign, the verdict is in.

The ex-gay ad campaign that was supposed to be a knockout punch for gay rights has instead become a punchline. It is a bust of epic proportions and would be laughable if it had not hurt so many innocent victims.

These failures are just the tip of the iceberg. Exodus and other ex-gay groups regularly hide the truth about failed leaders. For example, in London, Jeremy Marks, the leader of the ex-gay group Courage, acknowledged that ex-gay ministries do not turn people from gay to straight. His ministry now caters to helping gay Christians instead of trying to convert them to heterosexuality.

Ex-gay leaders also don’t talk much about the bizarre techniques used in their programmes. For example, they will tell a man to wear a rubber band around his wrist. When he sees another man he is attracted to, he is supposed to snap the rubber band to “break the spell” of attraction.

Another weird programme is called bioenergetics. Here a man is supposed to take a tennis racquet and bang a pillow while yelling the name of a same-sex parent. Other techniques include fasting, exorcisms and lipstick/makeup seminars for women and touch football games for men. This is supposed to make the lesbians more feminine and the gay men more masculine.

In some rare cases, electroshock therapy is used. If a lesbian is shown a picture of a hot woman, she will be shocked in order for her to associate lesbian feelings with pain.

With absurd, even dangerous methods such as these, is it any surprise that the ex-gay ministries are faltering in the United States and across the world?

By the way, if at any time England wants its Puritans back, feel free to take them.

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Created : Saturday, 2003-10-18 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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