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Let Them Prey

By Wayne Besen

In 1998, ex-gay poster boy Michael Johnston starred in a television and print ad campaign sponsored by Coral Ridge Ministries and 17 other right wing political groups. A full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal featuring the HIV+ Johnston urged gays to go straight and proclaimed "the truth will set you free".

The truth finally came to light this week after five years of lies and deception. Instead of setting Johnston free, it may eventually end up putting him in the pokey on felony charges. Johnston, it turns out, was allegedly having unsafe sex with multiple partners in southern Virginia without telling them of his HIV status even though he knew he had AIDS.

"Michael Johnston ruined my life," one of his distraught young victims told me at The Wave, a nightclub in Norfolk.
Michael Johnston, in a 1998 ex-gay advertisement, has been accused of having unsafe sex with men in southern Virginia without telling his partners he has AIDS

When Johnston fessed up to the American Family Association, Reverend Jerry Falwell and Coral Ridge Ministries in late 2002 that he was again having gay sex, these groups did nothing to warn the public of Johnston's demise. Months later these groups quietly directed him to a rehab center in Kentucky to help him overcome his ravenous homosexual appetite.

For at least eight months, the pious Religious Right was aware that Michael Johnston was having sex with men. They knew that in the past he had sex without revealing his HIV status and that he might do it again. The right wing also knew that their propaganda promoting Johnston was a lie. Yet, they continued to promote his myth of change, destroying families and lives in the process.

Last week, I visited Norfolk to uncover this mess and the whole ugly right wing cover-up began to unravel. The devastating new revelations panicked the right wing and instead of admitting their failures their slick PR machine went into high gear. The plan of action and absolution was to place all of the blame for this tragedy on Michael Johnston. They stabbed him in the back faster than Johnston stabbed his alleged victims in the backside.

Michael Johnston appeared in a series of ex-gay ads for right-wing groups The AFA said Michael Johnston had a "moral fall" and Coral Ridge Ministries said he had a "moral failure". The ex-gay umbrella group Exodus International said in a statement that, "Michael failed and is no doubt reaping a portion of the grievous consequences of his actions." Concerned Women for America's Peter LaBarbera attacked his "friend" for making "selfish choices".

Johnston had more than a "moral failure". He had a spectacular moral avalanche that will likely destroy many lives. But the religious right is guilty of the larger moral monstrosity. Instead of simply blaming Johnston, they should apologize to America for covering up this scandal and continuing to promote ex-gay programs that clearly don't work and have had grievous consequences.

The facts are in - and it is clear the ex-gay ministries have failed. During the 1998 ad campaign the right wing asked Americans to see the gay issue from all sides. "We're asking you to reexamine the truth of homosexuality with all the facts in hand, apart from the half-truths and hostile name calling," implores one of the ads.

Fair enough. It has been five years since this inflammatory campaign transfixed America. Aside from the Johnston fiasco what has happened in these five years?

John Paulk had been the ex-gay guru working with Exodus and Focus on the Family. During the 1998 campaign he appeared in a full-page ad with a group of "former homosexuals" under the headline "We're Standing for the Truth that Homosexuals Can Change." He and his wife Anne also took this explosive message to 60 Minutes and Oprah.

The high point of his career came when he appeared on the cover of Newsweek with his ex-lesbian wife under the bold headline, "Gay for Life?"

Apparently so.

In September 2000, John Paulk was found guzzling cocktails at Mr. P's, a well-known Washington D.C., gay saloon. He offered a drink to Daryl Herrshcaft, a Human Rights Campaign colleague of mine, and proceeded to hit on him. Herrschaft called me from the bar, and I came by and photographed the "ex-gay." No, I didn't ask him to say "cheese".

Author Wayne Besen takes this candid shot of ex-gay spokesman John Paulk leaving a gay club in Washington, D.C. Paulk was suspended as the leader of Exodus Ministries, the world's largest ex-gay organization.

In a 1998 New York Times full-page ad, John Paulk's "ex-lesbian" wife Anne proclaimed, "I'm living proof the truth can set you free." Unfortunately, Ms. Paulk was caught in a lie. In the huge ad she says, "even though I had a lot of male friends, I just wasn't attracted to men sexually."

Yet, in "Love Won Out," a book she co-wrote with John, Anne acknowledges she felt sexual desire for a man named Mark. "He appealed to me sexually," Anne writes. "We were drawn together by sheer animal magnetism. I came to see I could be physically attracted to a male, but I just couldn't surrender my heart to him."

It is amazing that the right wing had so much trouble finding a real ex-lesbian that they had to recruit a straight or bisexual woman to lie in the ad about her past animal attraction toward men.

Finally, Wade Richards, an ex-gay spokesperson who worked with right winger Peter LaBarbera, has since come out of the closet since the ad campaign and denounced the ex-gay ministries.

If we reexamine the issue, as the right wing asked, the verdict is in.

The ex-gay ad campaign that was supposed to be a knockout punch for gay rights has instead become a punchline. It is a bust of epic proportions and would be laughable if it had not hurt so many innocent victims.

These failures are just the tip of the iceberg. Exodus and other ex-gay groups regularly hide the truth about failed leaders. Just recently, the leader of the Exodus ministry in Portland, Oregon., stepped down because, according to their newsletter, he was "emotionally entangled" with another man.

Right wing leaders want to pretend that these failures are the exception. But when failure keeps habitually occurring - at some point it must be admitted that the exception becomes the expectation.

The only thing these fundamentalist groups have the ability to set straight is the record - and they can't even get this right. So, they will squirm and lie and spin their way through another ex-gay scandal. They will act pious, holier-than-thou, and walk into church on Sunday and do what they do best - prey.
Wayne Besen is the author of Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth, due out in October. He is also a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. wbesen@aol.com
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