Fact or Friction?
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.
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.
"We had to cut off our feelings," he says. "From our backgrounds, we were taught that most feelings should be shut down anyway." At age 28, Coleman says, "I was really struggling. I knew I was gay, but I knew there was no way I could accept it."
Eventually, however, he did. No longer a conservative Christian, he has a private practice as a licensed professional counselor, specializing in helping gay and straight people emerge from "religious addiction." He has seen many gay men fight to reconcile their sexuality with their religious backgrounds.
"At some point, the basic feelings--the attractions--are still there for them," says Coleman. "The message they get is: 'You're not doing it right.' Then they meet someone they like and they slip. That brings on feelings of failure and repentance. It's a vicious circle, a downward spiral sexually and spiritually."
Though out of the closet, many of the nineteen fear that publicity will open them up to gay-bashing. (Coleman is the only one who agreed to let his last name be used.) They have some legitimate concerns: A recent meeting in Estes Park of the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, at which members Bev and Anna were speaking, was disrupted when anti-gay activists attempted to grab the microphone.
On September 19 in Colorado Springs, the citadel of the religious right, four of the group's ex-ex-gay men spoke of their journeys through the ex-gay movement. They told their personal tales to fifty people at a meeting sponsored by the Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, a gay congregation. The group has several speaking engagements lined up, including one later this month in Fort Collins, where a hotly debated gay-rights ordinance is up for a vote in the November 3 general election.
Fort Collins has been a locus of the ex-gay movement in Colorado. Four years ago Exodus held its annual convention on the Colorado State University campus. The 500 conventioneers, praying mightily to drown out the inner voices telling them to have sex with people of their own gender, attended a weekend of workshops that included instructions on how to manipulate the media. Judging by the publicity they've generated, those instructions were a success. The attendees were also lectured to change their sex fantasies so they could manipulate themselves during masturbation in the heterosexual way God supposedly intended for them. (The results from that workshop haven't been handed in.)
There are clear differences between ex-gays and ex-ex-gays. Ex-gays interviewed at local ministries such as Where Grace Abounds talk about their lives with extreme seriousness and intensity; they act ashamed and nervous, as if they're expecting to burn in hell. Ex-ex-gays express much more of a sense of humor--and irony--about the contortions of thoughts and emotions they've been through. Listen to Stan, Scott and Steve.
I've been analyzed, hypnotized, therapized, baptized--in water and in the Holy Spirit--ostracized and traumatized," Stan tells the audience in Colorado Springs. "I fasted, I prayed, I prayed in other tongues, I worshiped God on my knees and at home, I did phone calls, I cried a lot."
Stan, now 63 and retired from his career as an architect, tried for 35 years to "heal" his homosexuality, spending more than $100,000 in a coast-to-coast flight from his feelings. He conducted most of this battle against himself during the days when even the topic of homosexuality--let alone homosexuals--was deep in the closet.
Born during the Depression in 1935, he grew up above his parents' general store in a North Dakota town so tiny "it wasn't even big enough to be a movie set," he says. Mom and Dad, he remembers, were too busy trying to scratch out a living to pay much attention to him. So Stan sought the solace of God. But at the same time, he says, he felt unlovable and defective, with a "hole in my soul."
Stan was raised as a conservative Baptist. "We were so right-wing," he recalls, "that we thought Southern Baptists were liberals. And I got more religious than my folks. I decided I would go for God. I believed every word in the Bible."
"Gay" wasn't part of the vernacular. "Blackmail, prison, murder and suicide--those were the only times homosexuality was mentioned," he says.
Living in Denver in his mid-twenties, Stan asked God to heal him. He sold his car and most of his possessions and went to New York City, where he sought help from psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, famous at the time for having claimed to cure homosexuality. (Bergler also was credited with popularizing the term "writer's block," which he also claimed--falsely, as any writer knows--could be cured.)
"New York was frightening to me," says Stan. "And I'd never been heterosexual before. I thought, 'What if I don't like it? What if I want to change back?'"
Having grown up suspicious of secular psychology, he found his way to famous motivator Norman Vincent Peale's Marble Collegiate Church. "I'd go to Peale's sermons," he recalls, "and then I'd walk all Sunday afternoon, thinking about the message: 'God loves you, he's your friend.' I'd walk and I'd cry. At night I went to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and I went to a group called Faith at Work. I went to conferences, listened to speakers. I went to see these ministers. I'd go to a hotel room and say, 'Hi, I'm Stan from Denver, and I'm homosexual. How do I reverse this?'"
He sought out "charismatic" Christians, those who claimed to have special healing gifts. "They believe all these things were caused by spirits," he recalls. "They were also so noisy, so disorderly. I'd take the subway to Brooklyn--I was prayed for a number of times. It was insane and frantic research. I went to these two women on Cape Cod, Kay and Judy, who ran a deliverance ministry. They prayed for me--and their husbands did, too. I was terrified. The God I was worshiping in those days was not user-friendly. He was a God of fear."
After four years in the urban spiritual jungle, Stan returned to Denver. "I was exhausted," he says. "I told God that I'd done my share. I was confused. I was sick and tired of the tremendous shame and self-loathing, and I didn't ever want hands laid on me again.
"So I turned it into guilt. I bought an old house, remodeled it and practiced celibacy. The remodeling went fine; the celibacy didn't go so well. I don't mean I was acting out all the time, but repressing causes erratic behavior."
In 1967 Stan resumed his quest for healing. His search took him from Maine to California. Noted healer Agnes Sanford laid hands on him in Minneapolis, Benedictine monks prayed for him at a New Mexico monastery, Christian cultists worked on him in California.
His work as an architect provided him with his only rest and relief. At age forty, he stumbled onto a Denver ex-gay ministry, where he was twice as old as everyone else and where the main emphasis seemed to be on just "getting guys off the streets and out of the bars." Finally, at 47, he discovered a community of gay evangelical Christians in California. "They were happy; they were professional people and they were getting on with their lives," he says. "And they didn't despise themselves."
Through the group, Evangelicals Concerned, he hooked up with Sylvia Pennington, a born-again heterosexual Christian who had seen her duty as the conversion of gays until disillusionment forced her to conclude that there was nothing wrong with being both gay and Christian. Stan helped her publish a book about it. When he returned to Denver, he started a branch of Evangelicals Concerned (now called Evangelicals Reconciled).
"I finally learned I was okay just as I was," he says, "after fifty years of bad programming."
Scott recalls a much happier childhood. He grew up in the Eighties on a ranch in Nebraska. His family was Methodist. Still, there were a few troubling moments, like the time when he was eleven and he and his buddies got hold of a copy of Playboy. "They were really excited," he says, "and I wasn't." When he was twelve or thirteen, he first heard the word "faggot." But nobody applied it to him. "My strategy," he recalls, "was that I would outgrow this."
In the meantime, Scott enjoyed himself. He was a high-school wrestler and ran cross-country and track, winning a gold medal at the state championships. He was head of the local 4-H club, was elected class president and dated a cheerleader--though he recalls that his attraction to men continued to increase. In college he joined a fraternity and "partied with the boys and had sex with a girl." But the draw to other guys grew, so he became involved with fundamentalist and charismatic churches to fight it off.
"I became a 'new creature in Christ,'" he dryly tells the Springs audience. "Mostly, though, what I did was avoid. I didn't even utter the words 'gay' or 'homosexuality' until I was 24." Moving to Denver, he started working at Reverend Charles Blair's Calvary Temple.
"My depression just increased," he says. "I could be either gay or Christian, but not both. And I had a strong love for God. Suicide became an option." Friends at the church forced Scott into therapy with a Christian psychologist. One day, while listening to Christian radio, he heard a panel discussion conducted by members of Where Grace Abounds, an ex-gay ministry run by a straight woman named Mary Heathman, whose son is gay. One panelist, Scott recalls, said he had been into the bar scene and now was married with children.
Like a heat-seeking missile, Scott headed to Where Grace Abounds. He had six weeks of counseling with a "male peer counselor" and Heathman--although neither had any training in counseling, he notes. Heathman's idea, like that of so many of the other ex-gay ministries, was that homosexual people had had troubled relationships with their parents. "The whole thing was upbringing--a distant father and a smothering mother," says Scott. "I didn't feel I fit that."
Where Grace Abounds filled the weeks with social activities. "We were distracted from our sexual feelings," says Scott. But something important was happening: Unintentionally, Where Grace Abounds was helping Scott find a way out of the closet by bringing him together with other men in his situation.
"When I was first involved there," he recalls, "there was a tremendous sense of relief. I could talk about this for the very first time."
Eager for a cure, he also joined Homosexuals Anonymous, a national program started by a Seventh-Day Adventist ex-gay named Colin Cook. HA stressed the notion that everyone is born a heterosexual. "If you're gay," says Scott, "it was a mistake." What Scott didn't know at the time was that Cook, an unlicensed counselor, had been having sex with the men he counseled.
HA, structured like Alcoholics Anonymous's twelve-step program, advocated fourteen steps for gays. "Well," Scott says wryly, "it's a bigger issue."
Both HA and Where Grace Abounds tattooed Scott's brain with the message that he could become attracted to women.
"It was like 'The Little Engine That Could,'" says Scott. "'I think I'm straight, I think I'm straight, I think I'm straight, I know I'm straight.'"
Ironically, it was at HA that Scott was at last exposed to gay life. "I was a clean-cut guy who had never been to gay bars," he recalls. "And the other guys had wild stories and shared their 'failures.' That was quite titillating. In fact, this was the time when some of us went to the bars for the first time, to explore this world."
Heathman and her staff told Scott that he was a "good candidate" for change. "I had never been 'in the lifestyle'--that's what they called it--and I had had sex with a woman. They were like, 'All right!'"
Some young men were taught "to be more butch--they showed them how to walk," says Scott, and some women received instructions on how to apply lipstick and makeup.
Scott also was a jock--an important part of the therapy at Where Grace Abounds. Heathman arranged with the pastor of a Friends church in north Denver to let the ministry teach its gay boys the manly sport of basketball.
"I was voted best basketball player," says Scott. "So we know how well that worked."
And they urged the guys to change their fantasies while masturbating.
"'Think of sex with a woman,' they told me," says Scott. "Well, I'd had sex with my girlfriend when I was very drunk. It wasn't exactly a memory I cherished."
At one point he got the chance to talk with a guy who had gone on Christian radio to testify about his conversion into a married man with kids. To Scott, he confessed that he wasn't being faithful to his wife--he was having sex with men. "The man," says Scott, "explained to me, 'I was testifying of a change I was expecting in the future.'"
Then the Colin Cook scandal hit. Cook, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time, went on Phil Donahue to explain that he had had a "slip."
"Cook had been involved with fourteen counselees over a six-year period," says Scott. "It's not like he was having a bad day."
(Cook later moved to Denver and started an ex-gay ministry that was endorsed by Focus on the Family and Colorado for Family Values. After his past was exposed and it was discovered that he still was engaging in pelvis-grinding hugs, pornography-browsing and such therapeutic techniques as praying to Jesus "for a cock to suck," Focus dropped him, and Cook faded from view. His last defender was Kevin Tebedo, at the time the director of CFV [See "Come to Jesus," November 22, 1995].)
Scott says he rubbed shoulders with supposed ex-gays from all over the country when he attended Exodus conventions. The temptations at such gatherings were tremendous, and Exodus officials realized it. (In the late 1970s, two of the founders of Exodus, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper, fell in love with each other, left their wives and the organization and denounced their former conversion work.) At one convention on a college campus, Scott recalls, the staff taped black plastic over the frosted-glass partitions in the dorm shower stalls so the attendees couldn't be lured by stray glimpses of flesh.
Finally, after white-knuckling his way through life, Scott learned the Serenity Prayer in an Al-Anon group he was attending: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
"Well, duh," says Scott. "Maybe this is something that's not supposed to change. The light finally came on. A friend told me about Evangelicals Concerned. They were pro-gay and pro-Christian."
Looking back, Scott sees the very concept of the ex-gay program as a ruse. "You're deceived," he says. "You think, 'I'm in this program and I'm happy.' It was just denial. When I started, I was committed to change. I had tried for 23 years. I went to ex-gay groups twice a week, I went to therapy twice a week. After two years I found I wasn't changing. I was told that I would change to being sexually attracted to women. At no time did I meet anyone who had changed."
Scott had had his life-altering event, but it wasn't the one he originally sought. "Once I accepted being gay," he says, "it was like a conversion experience. My co-workers at Calvary Temple walked up to me, saw that I was happy and said, 'What happened?' When I told them, they dropped me like a hot rock."
In 1990 Steve signed on for perhaps the most intensive boot camp for gay Christians, what he now calls "the ex-gay equivalent of the Betty Ford clinic."
For a year he was one of six young men living together in a house in San Antonio, Texas, under rigid control of the Exodus movement, in a program designed to create healthy, same-sex, nonsexual male bonding. "We were to spend this year together," he says, "and eventually it would take away our same-sex drives. Yeah, right." The men held down day jobs; the rest of their time was absorbed by camping trips, outings, church. The purpose, they were told, was to "uncover the roots of our sexual perversion."
Unlike Scott, Steve grew up in what he describes as an "abusive family." But like Scott, he found the process of finally talking about his sexuality with other gay men "very healing." It also only helped confirm for him that he was gay.
"It was the first time," says Steve, "that I identified myself as being gay. The program was, in some ways, good. Even though the premise was misguided, we were able to open up. A couple of the guys are still trying to be straight. One guy, who's now married, feels so hopeless and desperate. He recently sent me a poem with such feelings of desperation. It's a sad testimony.
"For most of us who went through it, it was a step to integrating our sexuality and spirituality."
That's never been the intent of the scores of ministries that operate under the Exodus umbrella. Their goal has been to wage "spiritual warfare" against homosexuality, which they argue destroys traditional families.
At the 1994 Exodus convention in Fort Collins, Bud Searcy, who ran an ex-gay ministry in Fresno, California, urged the conventioneers to fight their sexual fantasies. In a grim warning about the grave sin of homosexuality, he told workshop attendees that they must "die" so they can be reborn as heterosexuals. (No one knows how many gay people have been "converted"; no conclusive studies have been done.)
At the same convention, top Exodus official John Smid conducted a media workshop, which he assumed was hidden from the press. He was mistaken. Smid outlined a strategy of "preparing yourself for the exposure of media attention" in which he cited John and Anne Paulk as prominent weapons in the movement's fight against gays.
The media, Smid told workshop attendees, "are ravenous and ready to grab at anything, especially something controversial, negative and sensational."
"Well," he added, "we've got an edge on that. They want what we have, but we have to be careful how we give it to them. Because if we're not, it can harm our cause. If you do an interview with a secular newspaper and you do an interview with an unsaved, liberal reporter, then you definitely will get a biased article."
Unless you play it smart, as the Paulks did in the early Nineties when they first surfaced publicly. And it was no accident that they surfaced.
At the time, the Paulks were living in San Rafael, California, where they saw a newspaper story about two gay men who had married each other.
"John thought, 'Well, we have something unique and sensational that's going to draw the eye of the public,'" Smid told the 1994 workshop. "So he called the reporter of that story and told her that he found it 'very interesting.' See how, as Christians, sometimes we can attack and say, 'That stupid liberal paper!' But he said, 'It was a very interesting article, very intriguing.' We're not compromising our Christian values with that type of attitude."
When the reporter showed up, she discovered that the Paulks were involved with the Exodus ministry Love in Action, which already had stirred up controversy in the state with its anti-gay tactics, and she tried to back out. "But Anne," said Smid, "put on the Southern hospitality, served her iced tea, sat her down and talked with her." The schmoozing worked.
The reporter wrote the story, and it "was 100 percent favorable," Smid said. "She got flak from the gay community and wrote a follow-up column rebuking them. You see what happens when you work it right?"
At around the same time, CNN included Love in Action in a five-part series on homosexuality. "Usually," Smid revealed, "we set up a false program situation because we don't allow our first-year members to be involved in the media. So we set up a mock situation. Then when the story came out, we sent the correspondent a thank-you note."
Another ingratiating technique required a bit of practice. Love in Action staffers would work on appropriate language for "secular media," he told the workshop audience, because "you cannot speak in Christianese in secular interviews."
The Paulks were the real stars, however. By 1994 they'd already appeared on many TV talk shows, among them Oprah and Jerry Springer. "I keep using the Paulks as examples," Smid told his audience, "but they were really high media people in our ministry, and we learned a lot through their experiences. We were anointed to do Jerry Springer."
At 35, John Paulk has hit prime time. During an interview last week, he notes that he and his wife just got back from a speaking engagement at the University of Notre Dame; before that, they'd been talking with the press and to church groups and conferences practically nonstop.
Paulk speaks soberly and authoritatively about his conversion from what he says was a life of gay sex and "wonderful gay friends" to a key job at Focus on the Family.
Apparently both he and his wife once loved being in the life. John Paulk claims he was enthusiastically gay as a teenager and later established a following as a drag queen named Candi and as a paid escort. Anne Paulk has written that when she was a practicing lesbian, one of her key prayers to God was: "Lord, you know that I really enjoy this lifestyle, but I want you to be my first love."
Paulk blames his "lack of a secure gender identity" for his homosexuality. About twelve years ago, he says, he became a born-again Christian and began the long road to heterosexuality. In his case, he had to try to give up a hatred of women. "I had a lot of animosity toward women," he says. "It was from my relationship with my mother. I thought women were vipers, that they couldn't be trusted, that they would rip you off emotionally. I was exclusively homosexual.
"I was very unhappy. I liked myself too much, actually, and I had good gay friends--I loved my gay friends--but something was missing."
Although Paulk wasn't raised as a Christian, he quickly took to conservative, gay-bashing theology when he was introduced to Jesus a dozen years ago. "Homosexuality," he says, "is not a gift from God. I don't think God blesses it. I wanted my life to line up with Christ. My, how I have changed."
Over the past few years, Focus on the Family has made several shifts in its war on gays: Its political arm in Washington, D.C., the Family Research Council, led by Republican presidential aspirant Gary Bauer, has set up an organization called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays to counter the pro-gay group Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It hired Paulk, and it renounced Colin Cook and noted gay-basher Paul Cameron, whose shock-tactic "facts and figures" about "the medical consequences of AIDS," promoted by Focus and CFV, helped fuel the anti-gay-rights Amendment 2 campaign in 1992 (see "Slay It With a Smile," October 3, 1996).
Of Cook, Paulk says, "There are a few bad apples." And of Cameron, he says, "I don't adhere, and Focus doesn't adhere, to Cameron's statistics."
It's somewhat surprising that Dobson would even hire the Paulks, considering that Love in Action, to which the Paulks belonged, acknowledges that there is a "genetic predisposition" to homosexuality. On its Web site, Love in Action cites a study of identical twins raised independently that gay groups often use to argue that gays are born, not made. The Love in Action site notes that, based on the study, if one twin turns out to be gay, then the other had "only a 50 percent chance of doing the same. There is a possibility of genetic predisposition...[but] a predisposition toward something does not mean that it's inevitable or that such a predisposition cannot or should not be resisted or overcome."
Paulk is the first Focus employee known to actually use the word "gay" in public utterances. The huge ministry's founder and leader, James Dobson, has always insisted on using the word "homosexual" and has derided gays for "stealing" the word. Paulk also strays from the company line when he acknowledges, in the interview, that many people engage in sexual experimentation with the same gender when young and that marriage is no sure sign that people are straight. "Lots of gay people are married," he says. "I got married, but my marriage is not a proof of change. It's evidence. I'm against getting married to cure homosexuality."
Paulk admits that the process of change for ex-gays can actually take a lot of time, especially to reach what he calls the "third stage," the development of heterosexual feelings.
Does he still have urges for gay sex? "No, not really." What does "not really" mean?
Paulk explains: "I had over 300 sex partners and a mass quantity of gay porn. That will always be a part of me. It's not like my mind was zapped. I may be lying in bed, and an encounter from the past will pop into my mind. It's not like your memories disappear."
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