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John Paulk's life has really changed. A few years ago he was nobody, just another former drag queen.
But that was before he started going public with his "conversion" from homosexuality, before he became the straight man for the "ex-gay" propaganda campaign.
That campaign kicked into high gear this summer when a coalition of Christian anti-gay groups purchased full-page ads in the biggest, most prestigious newspapers, urging gays to convert. The subsequent publicity landed Paulk and his wife, Anne, a professed former lesbian, on the cover of Newsweek and on a segment of Good Morning America.
Today John Paulk--once "Candi" the queen in Columbus, Ohio--works out of an office at Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs; he's the "homosexuality and gender analyst" for the world's largest religious broadcaster. From there, he and Anne travel around the country spreading their message that gay is godawful and that gay people are doomed to eternal hellfire unless they switch to their "natural" heterosexuality. (No allowances are made for bisexuality or any other gray area of sexual behavior, attraction or orientation.)
In addition to his Focus duties, John Paulk is chairman of Exodus International, the umbrella organization for "ex-gay" ministries. The Paulks say they are products of these ministries, which claim success in converting gays to straights: Homosexuals, they contend, are made, not born.
Like others in the movement, John Paulk argues that people who turn to gay behavior actually are straight people whose "gender identities" become confused, often "subconsciously" and because they "fail to bond" with the parents of their genders. Re-establishing those "bonds," say Paulk and others, will "restore" gay people to heterosexuality. The specific targets of this conversion effort are gay conservative Christians who grow up in churches where their feelings are openly condemned; gays who don't have a fundamentalist Christian background are less likely to respond to the guilt trips promulgated by the ex-gay movement.
Gay Christians have a special place reserved in John Paulk's vision of hell.
"The term 'gay Christian' is an oxymoron," Paulk tells Westword. "If someone is calling himself a 'believer' and is practicing blatant sin, he is laughing in the face of God. I don't mean that to be offensive. But they are living apart from Scripture. The nature of God is expressed in the heterosexual relationship."
Despite all the talk about God, when you pull back the covers on this anti-gay campaign, you find a shrewd plan of media manipulation that dates back several years but is far from pre-ordained. And John Paulk himself, while lying in bed with his wife, still thinks about having sex with men, as he did when he was an $80-an-hour hooker. Some things never change.
Sleeping in a garage doesn't make you an automobile," cracks Stan, the elder statesman of a group of Denver ex-ex-gay Christians who feverishly fought to go straight before eventually coming to terms with their sexuality and spirituality. These ex-ex-gays have decided to mount a speaking campaign of their own aimed at convincing people that being gay is okay and doesn't prevent you from being a Christian.
"He's where we were," Stan says of John Paulk. "He's in denial."
The personal stories of Stan and eighteen other gay and lesbian Christians, members of the local chapter of Evangelicals Reconciled, appear in a slim self-published book called Speaking Out. Lacking the dollars of the well-financed ex-gay campaign, they aim to spread the word that they're here, they're queer, and they love Jesus.
The nineteen range in age from 30 to 69. Six have been married, three have children and ten are in "committed life partnerships." Half are Colorado natives. The group's members include architects and teachers; some work in the fields of health care, computers, real estate and veterinary medicine. Most of them grew up in extremely conservative Christian homes; some were the children of preachers and became church workers themselves. Exiled from their beloved evangelical churches, which teach that homosexuality is an abomination, they have found other places to pray.
Bev, 52, spent much of her life as a married, devoutly Christian woman. She refused to give up her faith, despite the fact that the evangelical churches condemned homosexuality. Now living a lesbian life in a committed relationship with another Christian woman, her faith is as strong as it ever was.
"If I have to give up my faith to be gay," she says, "I don't want to live. If you can't have a relationship with God the way you want to, you don't want to live."
She and her partner, Anna, now attend an Episcopal church, where the rituals are strange to them but where they can pray with a community of believers.
"My faith is not based on church and doctrine," says Bev. "When you have that, no one can take that from you."
Not even the ex-gay ad campaign, which urges parents to turn in their children for being gay so they can be converted. "We are part of families," says Bev's partner, Anna.
Brent Coleman, the leader of this cadre of ex-ex-gays, was raised as a Southern Baptist in east Texas. A gung-ho young Christian, he recalls participating in the burning of rock albums. He was an active homophobe, refusing even to take jobs at which he would have to work alongside gay people. All the while, he felt the strong pull of same-sex attractions. The only choice, he says, was to push those emotions down.