Should the LGBT community forgive former “ex-gay” superstar John Paulk who offered a seemingly 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.
Why did our opponents choose this precise moment in time to embrace the “ex-gay” message?
During the 1970’s and early 1980’s both Christian fundamentalists and the LGBT community regarded “ex-gay” programs as a joke. However, as AIDS forced more people out of the closet and gay rights battles raised the profile of once invisible LGBT issues, the Religious Right saw it was losing ground in the polls. Anita Bryant-style fire and brimstone was beginning to boomerang as Americans increasingly realized that they had gay friends and family members.
In a cynical shift, anti-gay organizations latched onto the “ex-gay” myth to appear “loving,” while at the same time working tirelessly to keep LGBT people as second-class citizens.
One of the first examples of the new strategy was seen in the book “Legislating Immorality,” written in 1993 by George Grant, a former vice president of the late D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries. (Grant was a Reconstructionist who had also written another book, “Changing of the Guard,” that claimed the Bible justified stoning homosexuals to death.)
“Legislating Immorality” features the story of a cured “ex-gay” named Lance:
“I had become convinced that I was born a homosexual. Now I know that I was just born a sinner. I never could find a cure for the former. Thankfully, the cure for the latter found me.”
As a result, his life has become an emblem of hope to any and all trapped in the vicious downward spiral of licentiousness. He is happily married and the proud father of four beautiful children. “People can change. Sexual orientation is not cruelly predestined by some freak genetic code. There really is hope. I’m living proof.”
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 three goals of the conference:
1) Prove to the American people that heterosexuality is best for individuals and society
2) Prove to the American people that homosexuality is not immutable
3) Prove to the American people that society needs to make certain demands on people sexually
Clearly, goal number two required emotional testimonials from “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 people 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.
A former neighbor, Stuart Koblentz, wrote about his experience with Paulk in an essay, “Before His ‘Ex-Gay’ Days, John Paulk Was My Flaky Neighbor:”
Seeing where John Paulk has landed himself today comes as no surprise to me. John always craved to be the center of everyone’s attention in life’s theatrical production, so it’s no shock that he is still at home in the limelight.
By the middle of that winter, the local department store began to visit John’s heat-less apartment. Furniture delivered that summer was removed. Friends began to open their homes to John so he could have a hot shower or a warm meal. He lived huddled in an electric blanket. He dropped out of school. He owed money…
Having the utilities turned off and your furniture repossessed isn’t caused by being a homosexual either, it’s caused by not honoring your obligations. Being a homosexual also doesn’t cause dishonesty or create suspicion either. These are character issues that affect all people, regardless of their sexual orientation…. John’s issues were, and I believe continue to be, those of integrity. During the time that I knew John, the truth was always something that was treated as an afterthought. He regularly mistreated himself as well as those who cared about him. Because of this, I will always mistrust him, his actions and deeds, including his very public salvation.
Given his personal failures, it is not surprising that this truth-challenged, chameleon-like individual decided to have a very timely and lucrative Jesus epiphany at a gay discothèque, which he vividly describes in his book, “Not Afraid to Change:”
“Then for some reason I glanced upward, and my eyes were suddenly transfixed by a mirror ball that was rotating slowly near the ceiling. I smiled as I watched the intricate patterns of light swirling across the ceilings and walls.
Suddenly, all at once, I seemed to enter another place and time…
‘Come back to me,’ the voice said, ‘and I will change your life.’
I immediately recognized it as the voice of God. ‘Come back to me,’ he repeated.”
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. According to Mel White’s book:
…[The Gay Agenda] had been distributed to voters in Colorado and Oregon in time to influence voting on antigay initiatives that were on the ballots in those states. According to Bill Horn, video producer for the Antelope Valley Springs Life Ministries, exit polls in Oregon showed that 70-percent of “yes” votes said they were influenced by the video…
The Gay Agenda was also used to undermine President Clinton’s attempt to allow openly gay people to serve in the military. The result of the anti-gay campaign was the creation of the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy that cost thousands of LGBT military personnel their dignity and careers.
According to Horn, in December 1993, Marine Commandment General Carl E. Mundy received a copy of “The Gay Agenda.” “After viewing it,” the general wrote in a letter to Representative Pat Schroeder, “I reproduced copies for each of my fellow service chiefs, the chairman and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It appears to be extreme, but its message is vivid and, I believe, warrants factual assessment.”
Paulk’s role in “The Gay Agenda” was to provide ammunition to the plotters of our demise. Here is how Paulk described the so-called “gay lifestyle” at a time when much of America was still ignorant about the lives of LGBT people:
“The majority of homosexuality, especially male homosexuality is centered around anonymous sexual encounters. Relationships, long term partners are very rare. Most people don’t even know these activities are taking place. If they knew they would be extremely shocked, because they are going on right underneath your nose.
Some of the places, for example, could be, public parks in a big city where there are secluded areas. Um, homosexuals will meet and cruise one another and go behind a clump of bushes and have an encounter. This is very, very common from the people that I knew. Also, they go to public restrooms in malls and have sex.
There used to be a joke in New York City about shopping bag day. You would take a shopping bag and go into a restroom and close the door and stand in the shopping bag. And someone else would sit on the stool, and so you would only think one person was in there because the feet were obscured by the shopping bag.
Another location that’s probably the most prevalent place for gays to go is called a bathhouse. And I know when the AIDS scare became really prevalent, a lot of the bathhouses in larger cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, supposedly closed them down. But, I know for a fact that as recently as just this year, I know that people are going to bathhouses. And what a bathhouse basically is, is a large building in a very obscure part of town. It has nothing to do with baths at all or taking baths.
But you usually pay $12, get a little membership card. You go into a locker room and check your clothes, basically into a locker. Put a towel on and you walk around with with as many as one, two hundred people. And what would go on is, what does go on is, they have a series of rooms. Private rooms with doors. Or large rooms with mats on the floor or bunks and things like that.
Most of the rooms are either pitch black or very dimly lit. And, for example, orgies go on in there. People will walk in there and have sex with multiple partners and have no idea who they are having sex with. I know this first hand. And from the many, many people I was associated with in the gay lifestyle.”
In the early 1990’s, John Paulk also appeared in an equally infamous video, “Gay Rights Special Rights,” which was used to persuade Americans to vote against laws that would protect gay people against discrimination.
It took a several years for the Glen Eyrie plot to come to fruition. But it finally did so with a bang in July 1998. Several leading anti-gay organizations, most of which were present at the Colorado meeting, banded together to launch the ($600,000-$1 million) “Truth in Love” ad campaign. The sponsors included:
Alliance for Traditional Marriage, American Family Association, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, Christian Family Network, Christian Coalition, Citizens for Community Values, Colorado for Family Values, Concerned Women for America, Coral Ridge Ministries, Exodus International, Family First, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Kerusso Ministries, Liberty Counsel, Mission America, and the National Legal Foundation.
It is important to put this hideous campaign in context. It came at the height of the culture wars when the outcome of equality was far from certain. A Newsweek poll in the summer of 1998 showed that 56% of the general public and 11% of gays believed that homosexuals could become heterosexuals through therapy. (Compare this to a March 2013 ABC News poll that showed just 24 percent of Americans see homosexuality as a choice)
A month prior to the ad campaign’s launch, Rev. Pat Robertson claimed on the 700 Club that the city of Orlando’s decision to allow rainbow flags to fly on light poles during “Gay Days” at Disney could provoke God to respond with “terrorist bombs…earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.”
In June 1998, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) compared homosexuality to alcoholism, kleptomania and sex addiction. Additionally, there was also a flurry of vicious anti-gay legislation on Capitol Hill.
Into this homophobic cauldron stepped Coral Ridge Ministries’ Janet Folger (now Janet Porter of Faith2Action) who spearheaded the Truth In Love campaign. Folger plainly articulated the sponsors’ goal in an National Public Radio interview: “That ex-gays exist shatters the foundation of the homosexual movement.” On ABC’s Nightline Folger admitted that she supported sodomy laws that would imprison gays. Robert Knight, who at the time worked for the Family Research Council called Truth in Love, “The Normandy Landing in the larger cultural wars.” John Paulk fully understood the raw hatred and nefarious mission of the organizations behind the ad campaign, yet he elected to play a pivotal role in disseminating their ugly message.
The first full-page campaign ad appeared in the New York Times and featured John Paulk’s wife, Anne, under the headline “I’m Living Proof That Truth Can Set You Free.” (It is worth mentioning the headline, “I’m living proof,” seemed to come directly from George Grant – who advocated for a movement that would stone homosexuals to death)
John, the chairman of Exodus, appeared in a second group ad under the headline, “We’re Standing For The Truth That Homosexuals Can Change.” A few weeks later, he and Anne appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the sensationalistic headline “Gay For Life?”
Truth in Love came to a screeching halt after University of Wyoming student Matthew Sheppard was murdered by thugs in the fall of 1998 – around the time Truth in Love had debuted its “ex-gay” television campaign. The ad sponsors retreated after they were rightfully blamed for creating a climate that was conducive to hate crimes.
However, John Paulk’s career was just taking off. He became the chairman of Exodus International and went on to found Love Won Out, which became 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. That evening, I directly confronted Paulk about the harm he had caused untold LGBT youth. He ignored my questions and his only concern was finding the nearest exit so he could abscond, like a coward, and save his own skin.
Instead of coming clean, Paulk appeared a few weeks later on James Dobson’s radio show. In a bid to keep his job, Paulk begged Dobson for mercy and claimed he got ensnared in “Satan’s trap.” Paulk’s acting skills saved his job for two more years, albeit he was eased out of a leadership role at Focus on the Family. (Until last week, the Religious Right stuck by Paulk’s fictitious story and swore that he was a success that had momentarily lapsed into sin)
Having fallen from grace, Paulk had to start over and moved his family to Portland in 2003. He reinvented himself as an upscale caterer who went by the moniker “Chef John.” When he first opened his company, Mezzaluna, he catered to born again Christians and featured testimonials on his website from Focus on the Family staff members.
However, 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.
For quite some time, Truth Wins Out was aware of his transformation and elected to give him space. We sat tight, even as stories filtered into our office about John Paulk sightings in the seedier corners of Portland’s gay community.
We found this odd because Paulk was still married and had spoken at an Evergreen “ex-gay” conference as late as 2010. Still, we thought that his exposure to the LGBT community would lead him to come out honorably on his own terms.
We were wrong.
The issue, which had long been on our backburner, came to a head last year, after Exodus International’s president, Alan Chambers, confessed that 99.9% of his clients had not changed their sexual orientation. He later acknowledged that Exodus was changing its direction and no longer supported reparative therapy.
In response, a radical fringe of malcontents jumped ship and created the Restored Hope Network, in a bid to overthrow Exodus. One of the leading voices of this breakaway group was Anne Paulk, who was still peddling her family’s bogus story of redemption, even as she and John were separated.
As Anne deliberately lied about the success of her marriage while speaking on the “ex-gay” circuit, TWO received multiple reports of John sexually harassing staff and partying at a gay strip club. As a courtesy, I contacted John to see if he would discuss the situation, but he angrily told me to get out of his life and blamed me for destroying it. In his bizarre rendering of events, he was the victim and I was victimizer for exposing his hypocrisy at Mr. P’s. Had my photographs not ruined the good times, it is likely that he would still be a highly paid “ex-gay” superstar working with the Religious Right.
In our brief encounter, there was bitter resentment, but not a shard of remorse for his actions. It was his view that the continued existence of his fraudulent “ex-gay” materials distributed at Christian groups and on the Internet was something “of the past.” I remarked to John that until he renounced this past, his books and fairytale story would continue to be widely available, where they could damage LGBT youth. Paulk couldn’t care less and announced that he owed no one, and that his strategy was to do nothing.
It was at this point that many of his clients began to learn of his “ex-gay” life and felt duped. He was soliciting LGBT organizations for business, even as his wife traveled to Sacramento and Minneapolis to peddle their “successful” marriage to Christian audiences.
At the request of several Portland residents, I launched an investigation. It turned out that the rumors were all true – Paulk was living as a gay man.
Contrary to the ramblings of some extremely ill informed and naïve people, Paulk was not (and is not) in the process of reconciling or taking baby steps to come out of the closet. He has been fully out for several years – the lone exception being that he stubbornly refused to take responsibility and tell the truth. He would not even do the bare minimum, such as releasing a public statement that claimed his tale of transformation was false. Again, he was victim of aggressive gay activists, and he had zero responsibility, in his opinion, to ensure his materials weren’t destroying the lives of youth in places like Oklahoma and Mississippi.
On Dec. 18, 2012 we publicly released the results of our investigation, which led to confrontations with locals. In such moments, Paulk would feign concern and promise to make amends for the people he had harmed. And the moment he left these uncomfortable scenarios, he would continue his pattern of doing nothing.
Gay Portland businessman and LGBT advocate Terry Bean was one of the people who felt exploited when he found out the truth about Paulk. Chef John had catered a party in his home and solicited business for HRC parties. Having read our investigation, Bean contacted Paulk and urged him to publicly come out. As usual, Paulk promised to make things right, and then went back on his word and did absolutely nothing. This dishonest behavior and the avoidance of reality had become a disturbing pattern.
To help Paulk along with his sputtering journey, I penned a letter offering him a series of potential actions he could take to make things right. These were not demands, as some with agendas suggest. They were a list of opportunities where Paulk could make good on his repeated promises to Portland residents to make amends. The ideas included speaking engagements, media interviews, a public statement, and testifying in favor of bills that would prohibit reparative therapy from being practiced on minors.
The ball was in John’s court and he had the option to take some of the ideas – or none of them. Regrettably, he chose the latter, which 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. I have worked at giving generously to the gay community in Portland where I work and live. I am working hard to be authentic and genuine in all of my relationships.”
Even Paulk’s so-called apology was half assed and solipsistic. 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.”
When it was finally time to act with integrity, Paulk adamantly and defiantly refused. Let the record show that Truth Wins Out had to drag him out of the closet kicking and screaming. Not for one moment did he ever cooperate or try to help LGBT youth. Indeed, he only offered his qualified apology after angry customers no longer wanted to patronize his business.
To the bitter end of my fifteen-year struggle to successfully debunk the Truth in Love campaign, John Paulk has been a self-absorbed opportunist devoid of principles and seemingly unable to feel genuine remorse. He has not taken a single step on his own to help anyone in the LGBT community unless it benefits his personal life or career. This is a man who willfully worked with political assassins to strangle the modern LGBT movement in its cradle – and now he believes he has little responsibility to undo the damage.
There are some easily manipulated individuals in the LGBT community who believe that Paulk’s weak apology absolves him of his sins. This crowd thinks we should immediately embrace him and forget the depression, dissolution of families, drug and alcohol addiction, and deaths that his actions spawned. By doing so, they are cherry picking the Bible, cheapening the concept of grace, and conveniently ignoring other powerful biblical traditions, such as soul searching, penance, and atonement.
As far as I’m concerned, my work exposing this loathsome hypocrite is over. I’ve done my part and the historical record will now show that he and his wife are frauds, the Truth in Love Campaign was a monumental failure that backfired, and ex-gay programs are a destructive sham.
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.
To the original question of this essay, should we forgive John Paulk?
This is America and we love to give charlatans second chances. Although, John Paulk has wasted his life and left a trail of destruction, there is certainly time for a second act that involves decency, honesty, love, and integrity. The way people will react to Paulk – and decide if he should be forgiven — will directly depend on what he does with his remaining years.
Still, to be honest, I have little faith in Paulk and think of the maxim, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” For the easily deceived who are eager to take Paulk at his word, I offer sage advice from his former Ohio neighbor Stuart Koblentz:
“If the Christian right wing sleeps better at night safe in the comfort that people like John Paulk are there to defend their ideals and promote the ‘Exodus cure,’ then I would advise them to start sleeping with one eye open. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I predict that John Paulk will yet recreate himself again when this folly, like the ones before, runs its course.”
If Paulk is serious about turning his life around he can begin by recalling a tagline from the “ex-gay” ad campaign he once starred in: “Truth Will Set You Free.”