Thursday, September 30, 2004
by Wayne Besen
The shamed "ex-gay" ministries have finally come out of exile. There, they have cowered following a grotesque series of humiliating scandals. The ex-gay renaissance includes the launch of a huge print ad campaign, a new book, a billboard in Virginia, and a gaudy new video, all which claim to help homosexuals pray away the gay.
For the unacquainted, ex-gay ministries are the hokiest of hoaxes. They are fundamentalist "12-step programs" that teach masculinity to gay men by having them gulp Gatorade and help lesbians become feminine by taking them to beauty school, where they can learn the fine art of growing big hair. Once the boys are biblically butch and the lesbians lipsticked, a delighted Jesus magically turns these newly minted caricatures of heterosexuality into actual heterosexuals.
This foolishness has little to do with religion, and much do with polarizing politics. Polls show that those who believe homosexuality is inborn or genetic are more likely to vote pro-gay. Knowing this, right wing groups, such as Focus on the Family, spend huge amounts of money to trick Americans into believing homosexuality is a casual choice.
As part of this effort, Exodus International, the nation's largest ex-gay ministry, recently unveiled a $200,000 full-page ad campaign headlined "Question and Answer" that appeared in major daily newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The Cincinnati Enquirer. Too bad these ads don't feature the group's two male co-founders who left their wives to marry each other.
Anti-gay activist Warren Throckmorton is releasing his new video, "I Do Exist", on Oct. 11, in his effort to mock National Coming Out Day. The video stars ex-gay lobbyist Greg Quinlan, who is portrayed as a former volunteer for the Human Rights Campaign. Having previously worked at HRC for five years, I can fairly say that no one I know had ever heard of this guy.
Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) have placed a bilious billboard on Virginia's busy I-64 highway in the Richmond area. The billboard shows a photo of a man who claims to be ex-gay beside the dubious headline: "Ex-Gays Prove that Change Is Possible."
Finally, there is a new book edited by Pastor Talbert W. Swan, II, offering up 23 tall tales of transformation. What is most notable about this book is its extreme bias. It appears that most of the "coming in" stories are from professional ex-gays who have lobbied against gay rights or profiteered off their fairy tales.
Thanks to the well-financed PR blitz, interest in this topic is once again percolating in the mainstream media. But for the old gimmick to gain new traction, the ex-gay ministries are counting on Americans having amnesia. Their last major media crusade, in 1998, ended disastrously after I photographed the ex-gay star of the campaign, John Paulk, imbibing in a gay tavern.
Around the same time Paulk plummeted, Wade Richards, another prominent ex-gay spokesperson, came out of the closet, renouncing the ex-gay myth. And in London, Exodus International's spokesman Jeremy Marks repudiated the group, turning his ex-gay group into a pro-gay ministry. In ads and articles these folks said they were "living proof" change is possible. But they only proved that they were "living proof" that even the most motivated people couldn't change their sexual orientation.
Additionally, every respected medical or mental health organization, such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say attempts to change sexual orientation are harmful. The American Psychological Association reports that "conversion therapy" can lead to anxiety, depression and self-destructive behavior.
Tragically, even with scientific and empirical evidence showing the futility of these groups, the ex-gay charade persists. Much of this has to do with media outlets that are lazy or refuse to disseminate the truth to their readers.
For example, The Virginian-Pilot failed to report on the fall of local ex-gay leader Michael Johnston. He had been Rev. Jerry Falwell's personal ex-gay poster boy and was featured in the celebrated 1998 ad campaign. His façade, however, came crashing down after it was alleged that he was having unsafe sex with men even though he was HIV positive.
The Pilot is not alone when it comes to shoddy journalism on this subject. The media has a bad habit of showing up when the far right unveils glamorous flashy and splashy ex-gay ad campaigns. But when the various "stars" of these vultureistic ventures dash and crash, the media fails to adequately follow-up.
I believe journalists have a professional and ethical obligation to tell the whole story, from start to finish. If a reporter touts the tale of an ex-gay leader, he has a duty to follow-through and report when that leader inevitably reverts back to his or her true, natural sexual orientation.
Don't let the latest chameleon-like incarnation of the ex-gay ministries fool you. It is the same, tired assembly line of lies where phonies are replaced by frauds. The fate of the 1998 ad campaign stars is certainly more telling than what the current crop of ex-gay min-celebrities tell you in today's ads.