Ex-Gay Poster Boy at DC Gay Bar

PlanetOut News Staff
Thursday, September 21, 2000 / 03:53 AM

John Paulk says he just stopped to use the bathroom, but activists who found him there having a good time believe that his real love finally did win out.

Human Rights Campaign staffer Daryl Herschaft had stopped for a drink September 19 at Washington, DC's oldest gay bar, Mr. P's, when what to his wondering eyes should appear but one of the juiciest scandals an activist could have hoped for: "ex-gay" poster boy John Paulk, manager of Focus on the Family's Homosexuality and Gender Department, author of Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality, and chair of the board of Exodus International, an association of about one hundred groups purporting to change gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. And no, Paulk was not in the bar recruiting or proselytizing, but having a drink, chatting and laughing with patrons, and even offering to buy Herschaft a drink. When Herschaft asked Paulk if he were gay, the answer was "yes."

Herschaft wasn't completely sure of the identification, although Paulk said his name was John and that he lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the Focus on the Family media empire is headquartered. So Herschaft called two fellow HRC staffers, one of them associate director for communications Wayne Besen, who'd had a lot more contact with Paulk as editor of HRC's report on the religious right's claims for "conversion" programs, "Finally Free: How Love and Self-Acceptance Saved Us from the Ex-Gay Ministries." Paulk was still socializing when Besen arrived forty minutes later, camera in hand. Bar staff intervened when Besen began to take photos, and Paulk made his exit while Besen snapped off a few more shots outside.

Besen told PlanetOut News that when Paulk saw him, he recognized him right away -- and reacted with a look of with shock, disbelief and horror. "My camera was the first he didn't fall in love with," said Besen of the man who's graced the cover of Newsweek. When Besen called Paulk later to discuss the incident, Paulk pleaded with him to keep the story under wraps. Besen said he told Paulk, "We're here to help you when the religious right abandons you. There's a big community here that can assist you... You've done a lot of harm, but there's a lot of good you can do now."

But Paulk had a story and he was sticking to it: he had entered Mr. P's in search of a bathroom -- not knowing it was a gay bar -- and had a glass of water. That's what he told Besen and that's what he told Atlanta, Georgia's gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) newspaper Southern Voice. Perhaps Paulk believes it himself, but the HRC men scoff. Besen said, "It was the worst place he could've gone. It was equivalent to going to a bar in the Castro or Christopher Street ... It was reckless and irresponsible." Given its dark and forbidding exterior in a block rife with well-lighted restaurants and hotels, "It's the last place around there the average person would go to the bathroom," Besen continued. Moreover, "It doesn't take forty minutes to go to the bathroom, and you don't have to buy people drinks."

Mr. P's is also very convenient to the city's most notorious woodsy cruising spot.

All of this is something Besen has been waiting for, because of his conviction that "conversion" just doesn't work. He said the religious right establishment has made Paulk "its ex-gay superstar ... their Michael Jackson or Madonna," and made a big investment in promoting him. Besen mused that now the religious right will want to abandon him, but that would be an admission of failure, so what can they do? Unable to fire Paulk and unable to trust him, his supporters are damned if they do and damned if they don't. "They've gotten on the ex-gay bandwagon and the wheels are about to fall off," Besen said. "Their ex-gay strategy is coming unhinged, and what are they left with? Nothing but going back to 'it's [homosexuality] a sin'... They can't claim to be offering 'hope, not hate' any more."

Of course this is not the first scandal of its type. Most notably, two founders of Exodus, ex-gays Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, eventually left their wives to be together for well over a decade until Cooper's death. But that was when "ex-gays" were nearly invisible and equally likely to be shunned by gays and people of faith -- before the religious right had adopted conversion programs as its answer to the GLBT civil rights movement and built them up with full-page ads in national newspapers and a traveling road show of "Love Won Out" conferences starring John Paulk.

Paulk told the Southern Voice he (still) has the support of Focus on the Family and his "ex-lesbian" wife Anne. The life story Paulk, 36, has told so many times has him growing up with estranged parents, a drug-abusing sex worker at 19, years he identifies as having been a gay activist, "born again" into Christianity at 24, becoming heterosexual after three years of counseling, marrying Anne eight years ago, and having two sons with her before he became a media star in 1998.