It's fun to laugh at John Paulk, the former drag queen turned ex-gay poster boy who made the spectacularly bad decision to stop by Mr. P's in September of 2000. But the man who snapped the picture of the erstwhile homosexual fleeing the scene of his temptation, Wayne R. Besen, doesn't think the ex-gay movement is any laughing matter.
That picture of Paulk graces the cover of Besen's new book, Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. Besen is criss-crossing the country promoting both his book and the idea that the gay and lesbian movement has to deal with the myth of "transformation" in order make real, lasting progress.
Gay marriage, military service, equal employment, hate crimes legislation: victory on any or all of these "is contingent on people not believing it's a choice," Besen says, pointing to polls that show "people who believe homosexuality is a simple choice like choosing what kind of cereal to eat for breakfast are less likely to support gay rights."
Besen says that anti-gay politicians and activists are using the ex-gay movement -- a collection of ministries and programs that offer to "cure" people of their homosexuality through a combination of Christian prayer and support groups -- to keep that idea of choice and homosexuality alive at dinner tables across middle America.
"When people talk about it, [they] talk about whether it's a choice and whether gay people can change," Besen says.
His goal is to combat that effort by exposing leaders of the ex-gay movement, such as John Paulk, and making them such "political hot potatoes" that politicians won't -- or can't -- have anything to do with them. And those are the "real villains," he says, the Falwells and the Robertsons who use ex-gays to undermine the gay movement.
While he initially began working on ex-gay issues for political reasons, Besen says he has since become so focused on the issue because it's an important way to help others: "That's what's kept me on this project."
And there definitely seem to be people in need of help -- coming out as gay or lesbian is still a daunting or terrifying step for many people, and ex-gay ministries offer misguided hope. "These people are taking advantage of people in pain," he says.
Although their movement is opportunistic, Besen sees them in many ways as puppets of others, deserving in some ways of sympathy. But that sympathy can only go so far. Besen expresses "disdain and disgust" at the story of Michael Johnston, another ex-gay poster boy who was recently exposed as still leading a secret gay life. Johnston also is accused of intentionally infecting a much younger gay man with HIV, an act Besen calls "horrible and reprehensible."
Earlier this year, Besen left his job with the Human Rights Campaign where he had been heading up that group's efforts exposing the truth behind ex-gay programs. After a brief stint with the Sirius satellite radio network he decided to take six months to travel the country and promote his book.
Working out of his current home base of Ft. Lauderdale, where his parents live, he's driving himself from city to city, sometimes with the company of his father, sometimes on his own. And the people he meets who are working for gay and lesbian rights across middle America are a sign of the continued success of the movement. Their activist work is "on par with anything I've seen in New York," he says.
Looking ahead to the end of his cross country tour, Besen says he's still considering what he'll do next, although it's a lock that he'll remain an activist. After all, this book tour to "educate America" has turned out to be "the best year of my life."
Wayne Besen signs copies of his book Anything But Straight Friday night at 7 p.m. at the HRC Action Center & Store, 1629 Connecticut Avenue NW. For more information visit www.anythingbutstraight.com.