Former Ex-Gay Leader Comes Full Circle
May 6th, 2014
A man of many lives, John Paulk’s first adult life began as “a prostitute, a female impersonator named Candi and an alcoholic who tried to kill himself.” At least that’s what he was saying in 1993 to fellow evangelical ex-gay audiences that love a good redemption story. His story included marrying his wife Anne, a self-professed ex-lesbian, having children, moving to Colorado Springs, and eventually becoming the head of Focus On the Family’s Gender and Homosexuality Division, and chairman of the Board of Exodus International. In 1998, he helped to found Love Won Out, a traveling ex-gay roadshow and infomercial conducted jointly by Focus and Exodus. At its height, Love Won Out staged a half a dozen conferences per year in cities across North American drawing audiences of two thousand or more. That same year, he and Anne landed on the cover of Newsweek as part of a larger billboard, newspaper, magazine and television advertising campaign promising “change is possible.”
In front of the crowds and cameras, Paulk was the image of certainty. But backstage, he was faltering. More than that, he knew he was lying.
“It’s funny, for those of us that worked in it, behind closed doors, we knew we hadn’t really changed,” he says. “Our situations had changed—we had gotten married, and some of us had children, so our roles had changed. I was a husband and father; that was my identity. And the homosexuality had been tamped down. But you can only push it down for so long, and it would eke its way out every so often.”
…”I would be in hotel rooms, and I would be on my face sobbing and crying on the bed,” he says. “I felt like a liar and a hypocrite. Having to go out and give hope to these people. I was in despair knowing that what I was telling them was not entirely honest. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
In 2000, he walked into a Washington D.C. gay bar — “not looking for sex, which is what people thought — but because I was missing my community” — where he was spotted and photographed by Wayne Besen. That got him removed as Exodus chairman, but he remained on the board, kept his job at Focus, and he continued to be the featured speaker at Love One Out for another three years. In 2003, he left Focus, moved his family to Portland, started a catering business, and dropped out of the ex-gay world, although his wife continued to write books and appear on the ex-gay speaking circuit.
In 2013, John Paulk renounced his prior association with the ex-gay movement, and followed that a week later with a formal apology to the “countless people were harmed by things I said and did in the past. …I am truly, truly sorry for the pain I have caused. From the bottom of my heart I wish I could take back my words and actions that caused anger, depression, guilt and hopelessness. In their place I want to extend love, hope, tenderness, joy and the truth that gay people are loved by God.” Newsweek fills out that point:
The tragedy that Paulk lives with to this day is that organizations like JONAH often specifically target minors, with summer camps and teen programs. “For 25 years I felt guilty and filled with self-loathing, trying to reject this part about myself. I’m culpable — I spread the message that my sexuality had changed, and I used my marriage as proof of that,” Paulk says.
That marriage ended last summer. Anne Paulk remains active in the ex-gay movement, after having helped to found a break-away group of former Exodus ministries following Exodus president Alan Chambers’s acknowledgment that change in sexual orientation was not possible and banned reparative therapy. She is now the executive director of that dissident group, Restored Hope Network.
John Paulk is the latest in a line of former ex-gay leaders who have left the fold and issued formal apologies. In 2007, three former ex-gay leaders — Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, Exodus ministry leader Darlene Bogle, and British former ex-gay leader Jeremy Marks — issued a joint apology to those “who believed our message that there is something inherently wrong with being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.” In 2011, John Smid, who used to operate the Memphis-based live-in ex-gay ministry Love In Action (since renamed Restoration Path), issued a formal apology, renounced his previous work at Love In Action, and now lives as an openly gay man in Texas. As for Exodus, Chambers apologized for “the trauma that I have caused” and disbanded Exodus last summer. Exodus’s former vice president Randy Thomas issued his own formal apology a month later.