<% IssueDate = "08/01/03" IssueCategory = "Interview" %> GayToday.com - Interview
Wayne Besen: Exposing Scandals Behind the Ex-Gay Myth

Interview by Raj Ayyar

Wayne Besen, author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth Raj Ayyar: Wayne, it's a pleasure and a privilege to interview you. You are a gay activist, an active debunker of the 'ex-gay' myth. Can you share some of the highlights of your life odyssey with us?

Wayne Besen: The greatest part of my work is meeting people who thank me for helping them free themselves from the ex-gay trap. I have spoken to many people who said they were considering suicide or were terribly depressed because of these ministries and that I helped them accept themselves as proud, openly gay men and women. This aspect of my work is extraordinarily rewarding and has kept me focused on my mission to dismantle the ex-gay myth.

Another highlight was writing Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth a book that will be published on October 1. It took several years to complete this project but it was very gratifying and I think it will help a lot of people struggling with this issue.

Finally, photographing ex-gay poster boy John Paulk at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. after my colleague Daryl Herrschaft spotted him and called me was a once in a lifetime opportunity. This dealt a devastating blow to the ex-gay myth - one in which they have not recovered.

Raj Ayyar: Your book Anything but Straight is a grand expose of the 'reparative myth', of the idea that same-sex love is a sin or a disease that can be 'healed' through prayer or therapy. Can you tell us a little about the book and how and why it challenges the reparative myth? How can readers of Gay Today find out more about you and about the book?

Wayne Besen: Anything But Straight www.AnythngButStraight.com begins with the John Paulk scandal. It then goes on to debunk the ex-gay and reparative therapy movements and exposes them as frauds that hurt a lot of people. It is also the first ever-definitive history of these groups and is really the Bible for anyone who is interested in learning about this topic. I wrote in a way that I hope people will find funny and entertaining. It is a quick read - but packed with a lot of great information.

Raj Ayyar: Tell us about that fateful night when you outed that 'ex-gay' poster child John Paulk in a gay bar.

Wayne Besen: I had already decided to write a book debunking the ex-gay myth. I was sitting in my dining room trying to figure out what Chapter 1 would be about - when Chapter 1 suddenly calls me. Daryl frantically told me to get down to the bar Mr. P's near DuPont Circle because ex-gay poster boy John Paulk was there hitting on him and trying to buy him cocktails. This was huge because Paulk had proclaimed he was straight on Oprah, 60 Minutes and on the cover of Newsweek with his ex-lesbian wife.

I slowly entered the bar to take a look when Paulk recognized me. So I yelled, "John Paulk is that you?" And then bedlam and mayhem swept the bar. The bouncers thought that Paulk was just a regular customer and that I was taking pictures to show to his wife or use against him somehow - so they ejected me. Paulk eventually had to come out of the bar and when he did I actually yelled at him and took him to task for hurting a lot of men and women with his lies. I was completely disgusted by his hypocrisy and the damage he had done and I told him this to his face. I have to admit that it was a very satisfying moment.

Believe me - there are many more ex-gays to expose and I'm working on a couple of extremely big cases right now. I think that if our movement spent as much money unmasking ex-gays as the religious right does promoting them - there wouldn't be one left standing within five years. They'd all have their pictures taken at gay bars. Quite simply, ex-gays don't exist.
'Ex-gay' John Paulk photographed by Wayne Besen leaving a Washington, D.C. gay bar

Raj Ayyar: You point out in your book that when the APA decided to take homosexuality off its list of psychiatric disorders, some of it was due to psychiatrist Robert Spitzer who advocated the change. How and why did Spitzer change? Why did he end up claiming that some lesbians and gay men could change their sexual orientation?

Wayne Besen: Sptizer's key position in 1973 was that homosexuality is not a mental illness - and this has never changed. He still believes this. I think Spitzer was first seduced and then suckered into getting in bed with the Religious Right. While he is not one of them, he realized a study on the ex-gay ministries was a way to generate controversy and get his name and face back in the news.

I feel bad for Dr. Robert Spitzer because he sold his good reputation down the river with his embarrassingly flawed study. He basically asked people handpicked by the religious right - many of who were paid anti-gay lobbyists - whether they had changed. But if there is one thing we know about ex-gays, is that their testimonies of change are essentially meaningless.

What is going to happen is that the people he naively believed had changed are going to be scandalized or come out of the closet within a 5-10 year period. His study will unravel one defection at a time until it becomes a punch line. I warned him and I wish he would have listened to me because at heart I don't think he is a bad person.

Raj Ayyar: The 'Religious Reich' (as Jack Nichols calls it) is behind many of the so-called 'ex-gay' ministries. What are the links between right wing Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and these ministries?

Wayne Besen: The Religious Reich is the only reason the ex-gay ministries still exist. The myth that people can change through therapy and prayer has already been largely debunked through episodes like finding John Paulk at a gay bar. So, the survival of this myth depends on a deliberate multi-million dollar misinformation campaign by politically motivated hate groups like Focus on the Family, Coral Ridge Ministries and Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

These political groups want to send the message: "Gay people can change so they need therapy and God - not laws to protect them from discrimination and hate crimes. But, I think that one more major ex-gay scandal will make the right wing rethink their use of ex-gays. Why invest so much money into a something that will prove terribly embarrassing down the line?

Raj Ayyar: Does Anything but Straight offer hope and help to those who are ready to leave the 'ex-gay' scene?

Wayne Besen: Yes, Anything But Straight offers insights and resources for people who want to escape the ex-gay trap. One of the primary reasons I wrote this book was to assist people who want to live a life where they can be happy and proud of themselves.

The ex-gay ministers' slogan should be: "Misery Loves Company."

If you go to these groups they primarily consist of people sitting in a circle complaining about how miserable they are. In all honesty, these groups are not really about turning people straight - that is the slick PR angle the right wing wants to bamboozle the public into believing. A more accurate description of these groups is "Closet Assistance Programs". They offer tips to keep men and women out of places that might lead them to temptation. They teach very religious people techniques to live a happier life in the closet - including the pursuit of sham marriages. It is all about changing certain behaviors- not ones sexual orientation. The amount of conflict, turmoil, suffering and human misery these groups cause people is astounding.

Raj Ayyar: Did the AIDS-phobic hysteria of the eighties help to fuel the 'ex-gay' movement in the U.S.?

Wayne Besen: If it wasn't for AIDS, I truly believe that the ex-gay ministries would have gone out of business by the mid to late 1980s. AIDS saved these groups because they were able to position themselves as a way to help people escape contracting the disease.

Unfortunately, I believe these groups actually added to the spread of HIV. They take people with extremely low self-esteem and make them feel even worse about themselves. These suffering individuals may not pursue same-sex contact for long periods of time. But when the dam finally bursts - and it almost always does - these folks are more likely to go on irresponsible drug or alcohol induced sexual binges. It becomes a sad cycle of sin and repentance that I believe puts people at a higher risk for HIV.

Raj Ayyar: To what extent is the homophobic hate lurking behind the 'ex-gay' ministries responsible for gay bashings, hate crimes and discrimination against LGBT people?

Wayne Besen: I believe that there is definitely an indirect link between gay bashing and the ex-gay ministries. The hateful messages that these groups espouse demean, degrade and diminish GLBT individuals in the eyes of many people. This creates and atmosphere of intolerance where the life of a gay person is valued less. This harmful message given to a violent bigot can be deadly.

The right wing says we are not people of faith. They say we are child molesters and that we spread disease. And they combine these messages with the lie that we are too stubborn to take the help that is available to change our ways.

Given these messages, how can the right wing act surprised when a less sophisticated bigot uses violence against GLBT people? If the right wing and the ex-gay ministries would stop their verbal assaults against the GLBT community - I believe that physical assaults would decrease dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

Raj Ayyar: Tell us something about the scandalous history of Love in Action (LIA), America's first 'ex-gay' ministry.

Wayne Besen: Love in Action was the very first ex-gay ministry. It was founded based on a book called The Third Sex. The book profiled six people who said they had changed from gay to straight. All of these people now say that they are gay. The co-founder of Love In Action, John Evans is now an outspoken opponent of the group. The other co-founder of LIA is straight disgraced pastor who got caught having an adulterous affair.

Today, Love In Action is a strange cult-like residential facility located in Memphis that confiscates a persons underwear when they check-in if they deem the garments "too gay". In other words, no Calvin Klein, but BVD's are acceptable.

Raj Ayyar: What are some of the bizarre 'therapy' techniques used by the 'ex-gay' ministries?

Wayne Besen: One technique is having an ex-gay and a rubber band. Anytime the person sees an individual of the same sex who is attractive he or she is instructed to snap the rubber band.

Exorcisms are very common, as well as fasting and all-night prayer sessions. There are also lipstick seminars for the lesbians and touch football lessons for the guys. But based on the history of these ministries, however, these folks have to be really careful not to touch too much during the football game. A very common technique is to make people grocery shop only a half hour before the store closes. This will limit the number of people in the grocery store, thus decreasing the chance of temptation. It's pretty wacky stuff.

Raj Ayyar: To me, it seems that declaring oneself 'ex-gay' comes from a frothy compound of self-loathing, religious guilt and internalized homophobia. Any comments?

Wayne Besen: It is usually an explosive cauldron of self-loathing and religious guilt, combined with pressure to conform by the community, church and family. A lot of people cannot handle the pressure of breaking away and living their own lives. It is a really difficult process for a lot of individuals and these vulnerable and desperate people are susceptible to the false hope offered by ex-gay groups and reparative therapists.

I highly recommend that gay people who are very religious find accepting churches such as the Metropolitan Community Churches. To stay in a church that dehumanizes each Sunday is harmful to the soul and can do severe damage to a person's psyche over a period of time.

Raj Ayyar: You worked for Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for five years. Why did you quit that job? What were some of the high points of your stint with HRC?

Wayne Besen: HRC was a wonderfully gratifying experience and I cherish the opportunity I had to serve the GLBT community under Elizabeth Birch and David Smith for five years. It was really a top-notch organization that treats its employees very well. However, I was ready for some exciting, new challenges and decided to enter some new arenas.

My immediate endeavor is a huge multi-city book tour that I will announce in the coming weeks. My book comes out in early October - and during the months of October - November, I will be traveling to different cities throughout the country for book signings.

After the book tour - who knows? I'm open to new challenges and very energized about the future. Maybe I'll get back into politics/activism in Washington or New York City. Perhaps I'll do something radically different like open a gay bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. During the day I would write books and at night I'd run my mesmerizing gay saloon.

What I'm really looking forward to, however, is going back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for a couple of months and catching up with old friends and sitting on the beach. Every time I've gone back to Florida for the past nine years I've always been in a major hurry. It will be great to just chill, hang out and reconnect with people I care about. I have a long book tour on the horizon and a few weeks resting on the beach will be refreshing and reenergizing.

Raj Ayyar: Is there anything else that you would like to share with readers of Gay Today?

Wayne Besen: If you are interested in learning more about Anything But Straight or purchasing a pre-ordered copy on-line please visit www.AnythingButStraight.com Or you can go straight to www.Amazon.com to place an order.

Also, if any readers think their town would be a good place for me to stop on my booktour, please e-mail me at Wbesen@aol.com.

Finally, if you see a famous ex-gay cruising inside of a gay bar - please contact me immediately!
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