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.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
by Wayne Besen
One would think allegations charging that a close colleague of Rev. Jerry Falwell was possibly spreading HIV to Norfolk/Virginia Beach area men would pique the interest of The Virginian-Pilot, the hometown newspaper.
In July 2003, I got a call from Norfolk attorney Michael Hamar, who was representing a client who feared he might have been exposed to HIV through sex with “ex-gay” poster boy Michael Johnston.
Before the scandal, Johnston founded National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day. He frequently gave his testimony of praying away the gay to Rev. Falwell’s followers. He starred in a television ad campaign produced by Coral Ridge Ministries. He also appeared in videos by the American Family Association, viciously attacking the gay community.
I went down to southeastern Virginia to investigate, and found that Johnston allegedly picked up numerous Hampton Roads area men via the Internet and had unsafe sex with them, even though he was HIV+. I personally spoke with two such men. Atlanta’s gay newspaper, Southern Voice, did some great reporting and broke the story.
When I contacted the Virginian-Pilot and spoon-fed them this scoop, I thought they would at least dispatch a reporter to follow-up on the allegations made in the front page Southern Voice article.
Instead, I was dismissively brushed off and told that they were not interested in covering the ex-gay ministries.
So, imagine my surprise last week when I read a major feature in The Virginian-Pilot on a local ex-gay group! The unbalanced puff-piece was virtually a free advertisement. Indeed, the story, written by Steven G. Vegh, takes fifteen paragraphs to offer a dissenting viewpoint.
Most disturbing, Vegh had personally been informed of the Johnston scandal by Mike Hamar in autumn 2003. Nonetheless, he chose not to mention it in his story. How on earth could a fair and responsible journalist write a story on this topic without mentioning the most notable ex-gay catastrophe in the history of Virginia? Especially, when the alleged horrors happened on his home reporting turf.
I spoke with Vegh, his editor Dave Mayfield and Public Editor Marvin Leon Lake. All three men failed to offer a coherent explanation.
“I can’t really tell you why. I have no answer,” offered Mayfield.
The answer may be very simple. I’ve obtained a memo that shows The Virginian-Pilot’s official advertising policy explicitly denies the existence of gay people.
“Gay/Lesbian advertising that promotes a homosexual lifestyle will not be accepted,” the memo reads.
I reasonably figured “promoting a homosexual lifestyle” would be construed to mean banning ads deemed objectionable, such as sweaty, half-naked men gyrating at a circuit party. So, I called the newspaper, posing as a potential ad buyer, and asked advertising representative Sarah Ridenour to explain what type of ads the Virginian-Pilot would prohibit.
“We won’t allow ads that use the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ or ‘homosexual.’ However, we can run an ad if it uses a phrase like, ‘alternative lifestyles’ or ‘diverse lifestyles’,” Ridenour explained.
I asked why a paper that ran a fluffy, adoring feature promoting the ex-gay myth would not allow a commonplace word like “gay” to appear in an ad?
“It violates standards of acceptability,” she said.
Deacon Maccubbin, owner of the gay book chain Lambda Rising tried to run an ad for his Norfolk store. The innocuous ad was headlined “Gay?” and the “controversial” part of the copy stated:
“The bookstore for gay men and lesbians, their families and friends…Celebrating 30 years of gay and lesbian pride.”
Wow! Now that’s obscene and risqué! Practically a gay print version of a Janet Jackson Super Bowl moment!
This institutional, homophobic policy sets a negative tone that shows upper management’s antipathy for gay people, labeling them unmentionables. Well, actually, you can use the “G-word” at the Pilot, as long as it is used primarily in a pejorative way.
Gay people can be discussed if they are repenting. However, when a failed ex-gay leader tied to Falwell has a moral collapse while potentially endangering lives, it goes unreported.
Gay people can appear in advertising, as long as they don’t have normal lives, but oddball “alternative lifestyles” that differentiate them from the population at-large. And precisely what do the yahoos at the Pilot think gay people do that makes their daily lives different than that of their neighbors?
With outright censorship at Virginia’s largest metro newspaper, can it be any surprise that Virginia is fast becoming one of the most homophobic states in the nation?
The citizens in southern Virginia deserve better. They are worthy of objective reporting where readers can be trusted to make up their own minds. These folks can handle seeing the word “gay” in an ad, instead of being subjected to an embarrassingly retrograde, 1950’s-style advertising policy.
The Virginian-Puppet must decide if it is a legitimate newspaper that reports all the facts, or an Orwellian church bulletin that censors and suppresses. It must choose if it publishes all the news that’s fit to print, or prints only news that fits into its narrow, backwards view of gay life.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
by Wayne Besen
With roughly 50 days to go before Election Day, this is our choice: The Flip Flopper vs. The Flop. Bush wants to convince the nation that Kerry can't make up his mind, while Kerry wants to persuade America that Bush is mindless.
With the economy tanking, the deficit ballooning, Iraq exploding, Afghanistan imploding, North Korea near detonating and AK-47s proliferating, Americans should be sick and tired of Bush. Well, hopefully just tired because it's likely they lost their health insurance on the president's watch.
The anemic job market has Republicans stretching denial to new, surreal lengths. Vice President Dick Cheney even implied that people aren't really jobless; they're just self-employed and selling goods on E-Bay.
"That's a source that didn't even exist 10 years ago," Cheney said. "Four hundred thousand people make some money trading on E-bay."
Did it occur to our compassionate VP that some of these folks are desperately unemployed and using E-Bay as a cyber pawn shop so they can afford an extra box of Hamburger Helper to feed their kids?
Even though Kerry has everything working for him, he'll never win unless he stops working against himself. The public understands the Bush family put the "nasty" in Dynasty. In a post 9-11 world, people are waiting to see if Kerry is mean enough to fight back.
So far, Kerry has failed the toughness test. As his aides judiciously ponder whether to take the high road or low road, Republicans focus on the brutal, muddy road to victory.
The most obvious example is Kerry's sluggish and flaccid response to Republican efforts to discredit his distinguished war record. The Kerry campaign hoped the outrageous charge that he didn't deserve his medals would die.
In the old media paradigm you could make a few calls and squash a fallacious story. With the advent of 24-hour news and a well-oiled right wing propaganda machine, there is no charge that can go unanswered.
The moment the ad questioning his record was put out, Kerry should have held an indignant press conference surrounded by veterans and growled, "I know making up stories about military service or lack thereof is a specialty of this administration. But I'll be damned if I'm going to sit here and let AWOL George and Deferment Dick mislead America about my honorable service. I call on them to denounce this smear campaign by their sleazy front group."
Because the campaign didn't respond in this way, many people, and not necessarily Republicans, believe there is at least a grain of truth in the allegations. They assume where there's smoke there's fire, because Kerry didn't answer the smoke with enough fire.
This lack of killer instinct surfaced again in the Kerry campaign's tepid response to Deferment Dick suggesting that a vote for Kerry was akin to a vote for terrorism. Senator John Edwards meekly replied that Cheney, "Absolutely crossed the line".
Um, yeah, so what are you going to do about it? For Republicans there are no lines. They play by a different set of rules on a different playing field.
Kerry got another shot to flex his muscles when it was revealed that Bush lied about his service in the National Guard. They even received a gift word in one of the incriminating memos that said Bush's commander felt pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's performance rating.
Why isn't Edwards out exploiting this for maximum gain like Karl Rove would have Cheney do? This is what Edwards should repeat every day until Election Day:
"George Bush has led a charmed life where he has created catastrophes for others without personal consequence. He is a man of special privilege who has gotten breaks on the backs of others.
"During Vietnam, while others died, Bush had his performance rating sugarcoated. Today he sugarcoats the fact he turned he biggest surplus in history into the biggest deficit. He sugarcoats his war of choice by forbidding Americans to see pictures of the 1000 coffins of patriotic soldiers lost in Iraq.
"Bush sugarcoats that he is the first President since the Great Depression to preside over a net loss of jobs, while he applauds sending your jobs overseas. In four years, the coat of sugar has worn off and we are left with the bitter pill of Bush's failed legacy."
For Kerry to come back he needs to set the terms of the debate. He should start referring to Bush's tax cuts as "slashing services". When discussing Bush's plan for permanent tax-cuts, he should call them "permanent deficits." When Bush exploits same-sex marriage, Kerry should accuse him of "pandering for votes by dividing America, the way he has already divided the world."
Bush did nothing to stop a 10-year-old law from expiring this week that banned assault rifles such as Uzis and AK-47's. Kerry should change the name of these weapons from "assault weapons" to "Terror Weapons" and run ads that say Bush is in favor of "Terror weapons flooding America's streets."
Onstage during the Democratic convention, Kerry saluted and barked, "reporting for duty." Now that you've reported, sir, get off the windsurfer, put on your combat boots and start fighting, while you still have a fighting chance.
Thursday, September 02, 2004
by Wayne Besen
As if we needed another reason to root for George W. Bush's demise, conservative columnist David Brooks provides one in the New York Times Magazine:
"Should Bush lose, it will be like a pack of wolves that turns on itself. The civil war over the future of the [Republican] party will be ruthless and bloody…The immigrant-bashing nativists will battle the free marketers…The social conservatives will war with the social moderates."
Can we get advanced tickets, because front row seats to this show will be harder to come-by than a chair next to P-Diddy at this week's MTV Music Video Awards.
Unfortunately, Karl Rove is doing all he can to ensure that the Republican Party avoids destruction by trafficking in deception. In New York, it's early Halloween in perverse reverse where scary people put on friendly masks to win votes instead of treats.
Rove hopes to keep Republican leaders like Rep. Tom DeLay and Sen. Trent Lott out of sight, out of mind, because he knows they're out of their minds and the sight of them terrifies moderates. That's why we see a Prime Time line-up laced with tough, yet huggable Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain.
Because this phony mask of moderation is a joke, the true Republican spirit was best expressed this week by Republican comedian Chris Warren who complains about automatic teller machines that offer banking services in Braille.
"I say, 'Fill the machine with ones,'" he said. "How will they know?" Now that's the Republican spirit we've all grown to know and love!
The genuine Republican agenda was most evident in the GOP's pugnacious platform, where hate groups like the Family Research Council bragged of helping to edit the dictatorial document. The 93-page screed calls for a total ban on abortion, came out against potential life-saving stem-cell research, supported tax cuts for the richest Americans at the expense of the middle class and called for not only a Constitutional ban on gay marriage, but on humane domestic partnership benefits too.
Commenting on the terrible text, Cheryl Jacques, President of the Human Rights Campaign said, "It's one of the most discriminatory platforms in modern history."
Conservatives on the GOP Platform Committee were so extreme that they tried in vain to stop the "Unity Plank". This simple gesture acknowledged that party members of goodwill might disagree.
But as the fundamentalists on the committee fought reality, they were confronted by it as Vice President Dick Cheney spoke in favor of his lesbian daughter and of his opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment. His announcement was a living embodiment of the Unity Plank, as he and the President, presumably party members of goodwill, agreed to disagree.
What Cheney did was not necessarily courageous, because he waited until after the Senate voted on the Federal Marriage Amendment before he spoke. In fact, his comments may have had little to do with the issue of same-sex marriage or his daughter. From a strategic political perspective, I think the main goal of Cheney's statement was to show going into the convention that it is not he, but the president who is in actually in charge.
This is no small deal because even today many people, including some Republicans, think Cheney is the shadow calling the shots in the White House. Forests worth of newspaper have touched on this subject. There is even a popular book by John Nichols called, "Dick: The Man Who Is President".
I believe Cheney may have picked the gay issue because it was sure to garner a lot of media attention. But the underlying, and perhaps most important message was: "The president and I clashed on a hot button issue and he won. See, I'm not running the country after all." This certainly made Bush look like a strong and decisive leader before the convention.
Whether his remarks were personal or political, candid or canned is now inconsequential. The fact is, an archconservative Vice President acknowledged in no uncertain terms that he has a lesbian daughter. That she is running his campaign shows that he loves and respects her.
This acknowledgement is huge and will have a long-lasting impact on this nation. While states in America are politically divided into red and blue, both colors are part of the gay rainbow. Gay children are born into families of both Republicans and Democrats. Somewhere in red state America today there is a Republican father whose kid said, "I'm gay." Instead of feeling alone, he is likely saying, "if Dick Cheney can accept a gay kid, so can I."
In the midst of the most anti-gay platform in memory, 2004 may be remembered as the year the gay conservative closet began to crumble.
Wednesday, September 01, 2004
by Wayne Besen
In last week’s Missouri Massacre, voters overwhelmingly passed an Amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage 71-29 percent. In the Show Me State, the gay movement was shown up. We were about as competitive as Dennis Kucinich running for president in a Mississippi Republican primary.
This humiliating loss follows similar Constitutional Amendment defeats in Hawaii, Alaska, Nebraska and Nevada. When it comes to fighting for gay marriage, it is painfully obvious that Plan A is not working. It is time to reverse course and radically overhaul the gay movement if we wish to remain competitive.
The biggest problem is that the movement focuses too much on politics. We make the fatal blunder of believing that if we just elect the right prophet we will be lead to the Promised Land. The people we put in office, however, are usually not elected leaders, but elected followers. Rule number one of politics: A politician will never lose so that an interest group can win.
I am certainly not calling for a withdrawal from politics. The single most important mission our movement has is helping to elect John Kerry. However, if we don’t work equally as hard at swaying public opinion, there is a limited amount John Kerry or others can do to help us.
Unfortunately, our movement’s structure is like the guy at the gym with the massive upper body and Popsicle stick legs. We are all political muscle, yet we have virtually no foundation to support our political strength.
To change this, an organization has to emerge to fill the education vacuum that has left gay people vulnerable. Perhaps this can be an existing group or maybe a new organization must be created. An overtly political group, however, can never successfully play the role of educator. Politics by definition is the art of short-term deal making and compromise. What is needed is a deliberate plan to change minds tomorrow, not necessarily win votes today.
This conflict has played out in our state-by-state marriage battles. Our strategy has been to sell the public on the notion that the danger of changing a state’s constitution outweighs the danger posed by same sex-marriages. So far, people aren’t buying it because we haven’t alleviated their fears, nor have we clearly articulated a compelling argument FOR same-sex marriage that touches their hearts and minds.
"We will not trick our way to equality, while everyone is looking the other way," wrote Washington Blade Executive Editor Chris Crain. "The case for our freedom to marry is a strong one, and it’s way past time we started making it."
If you thought the Missouri Massacre was tough, the road ahead only gets worse. Louisiana will vote on a similar amendment Sept 18. Eight states: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah have placed marriage amendments on the November ballot. Ballot initiatives and petitions are waiting to be certified in Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio.
Look, we are going to lose many of these battles. We can cry in our beer and continue to robotically follow the same shortsighted "strategic" road to ruin. Or we can start to view these fights as wonderful opportunities to showcase our beautiful, stable, loving relationships and educate the public.
In our upcoming Amendment fights, our leaders must begin to view each sate as a large classroom - a laboratory for learning that views citizens as pupils, not voters. These pupils must personally meet same-sex couples and their families so a true dialogue can begin.
Why not also produce ads featuring the many adults who grew up in same-sex households who can ask why their first-rate parents are being treated like second-class citizens?
How about TV commercials featuring a lesbian who was unfairly turned away from her life partners hospital bedside? Isn’t it time we used emotional appeals instead of using legalistic arguments to conceal what we truly want?
As we watch our DVD’s and listen to our exciting new I-pods, sometimes it is hard to figure out why our modern world isn’t, well, more modern. But if you think about it, we are really only baby steps from a time of backwardness and barbarism.
In the last 100 years we have seen the women’s movement, the civil right’s movement, the birth of the gay movement, the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan and the savagery of the Holocaust. The human race is only in the dawn of the new age of freedom and liberation.
Surely if the world can change as much as it has in the last several decades, we can continue to make similar progress as well. And demographically speaking, time is on our side. Polls show that people under 30 are much more likely to support same-sex marriage.
First, however, we must embrace the time period in which we now live. And that is in a time of struggle, pain, tears and turmoil where we will have to fight to convince Americans that our families are deserving of freedom, respect and legal equality. There are no shortcuts at the ballot box.
As the next Constitutional Amendment fight looms in Louisiana, we can waste no time in launching Plan B. When we stop running away from our relationships, so will the public. We have patiently waited thousands of years to showcase our families, and now we must embrace our brilliant moment in history. Let’s educate state-by-state and fix the problem, instead of relying on the failed strategy of the quick political fix.