That chat led to a tragi-comic chase after Paulk as another HRC staffer showed up with a camera to photograph Paulk who went running into the night. The reaction from his backers on the religious Right has been swift.
"We are saddened to confirm media reports that our board chairman, John Paulk, visited a gay bar in Washington, D.C, last Tuesday evening, where he was seen and photographed by several gay rights activists," said the Seattle-based Exodus International in a Sept. 21 statement.
Paulk, a self-described former drag queen, became a figurehead for the ex-gay ministry, which encourages "conversion" from homosexuality through religion and so-called reparative psychotherapy, touted himself as a role model for those struggling to leave the homosexual lifestyle. "My wife [a reported ex-lesbian] Anne and I, and thousands of others, serve as living proof that change is possible. By taking a bold stance against the lies that say homosexuality is biological and unchangeable, we hope to encourage others desperate to escape homosexuality," he said in a statement posted on Focus on the Family's Web site.
But Paulk, author of "Not Afraid to Change; The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality," hardly seemed desperate to leave the gay life behind when he was spotted at Mr. P's, a watering hole in D.C.'s gay ghetto DuPont Circle. Daryl Herschaft, the HRC staff member who was in the bar when Paulk walked in at about 10 p.m., recognized Paulk almost immediately. Wanting to be sure, the fast-thinking Herschaft called two HRC colleagues, Wayne Besen, associate director of communications and Ryan Obermiller, a merchandise assistant, to come and confirm his suspicion.
As he waited for the pair to arrive at Mr. P's, Herschaft struck up a conversation with Paulk, who identified himself as John Clint, from Colorado Springs, Colo. which is where Paulk actually resides in the city at ground zero for the nation's religious Right. Herschaft asked Paulk if he was gay, to which he replied, "Yes." Paulk offered to buy Herschaft a drink.
During his approximately 40 minutes in the bar, Herschaft observed Paulk speaking with several other men, including a particularly intimate conversation with one man. According to Herschaft, Paulk was smiling and laughing and appeared to be enjoying himself.
But the party ended when Besen and Obermiller showed up and confirmed "John Clint" was none other than Paulk. "I was absolutely shocked," Besen, who has previously come face to face with Paulk, told Bay Windows. "That's the last place I expected him to be," he said, not so much surprised to find Paulk in a gay bar, but at one located in such a highly politically charged environment as the D.C. area. Armed with a camera, Besen confronted Paulk inside the bar and began snapping photos, at which time Paulk's relaxed demeanor turned hostile as Paulk avoided having his picture taken. "He tried to take the camera away from me, drawing physical contact," explained Besen. At that point, bouncer Robert Rosa intervened to enforce the bar's prohibition of photographs being taken inside the establishment, as Besen tried to explain who Paulk was. Besen tried to snap another photo, but Rosa blocked his view and ejected Besen from the bar, but not before he captured a shot of Paulk inside Mr. P's an image of him turning away from the camera as a bar employee trying to intercept Besen enters the frame on the right.
Paulk exited the bar pursued by Besen, who snapped another photo of him outside Mr. P's and attempted to speak with the visibly shaken Paulk. "I wanted to get to the bottom of it," Besen said of Paulk's visit to the bar. Telling Paulk that he had hurt a lot of people with his work in the ex-gay ministry, Besen asked him to give up his double life to help undo some of the damage he and the ex-gay movement have done to others.
But Besen's pleas fell on deaf ears and fast feet, as Paulk said not one word to Besen as he hurriedly left the area. "He started sprinting at one point," Besen recalled. "He looked like he was in the Olympics."
Paulk, who was in D.C. on business, has insisted that when he stopped by the well-known gay bar, located on P Street since 1976, he did not know what he was in for. According to Julie Neils, a Focus on the Family spokeswoman, Paulk is no longer giving interviews on the incident, although he did speak with Atlanta's gay newsweekly the Southern Voice, the day after the incident and admitted he was in the bar to use the restroom. In a Sept. 21 statement made by Paulk and Focus on the Family, he stuck to that story as his reason for going to Mr. P's:
"The true story is simple," he wrote. "Needing to use a restroom while walking in D.C., I went into a tavern. Seeing men and women there, I mistook the establishment as a safe environment. I soon realized I was in a gay bar. I had not been in one in 15 years and I was curious, because I speak frequently about the gay bar experience. I stayed for awhile. That was my mistake. As I attempted to leave, I was accosted by several people who recognized me including a gay activist. He immediately began snapping pictures as I left. He was screaming, 'John Paulk, you are guilty of murdering thousands of people with your message,' and continued to chase me down the street. I feared for my safety.
"My intentions were innocent, but my actions were unwise," he continued. "This situation has constituted a lapse in judgment, not a lapse in heterosexuality. Unfortunately, the gay community has begun twisting this around to say that I have returned to homosexuality. Both my wife and I, along with thousands of others, are testimonies of real transformation through Christ and we fully intend to continue sharing the message that for those who want change is possible."
Although Neils refused to discuss Focus on the Family's take on the situation with Bay Windows, it appears they may supporting Paulk's story, which gay activists find suspicious given his lengthy visit inside the bar almost 40 minutes according to Herschaft and the fact that the nondescript Mr. P's is located on the same block as other establishments offering public restrooms, including brightly lit hotels, restaurants and a nearby coffee shop. The Colorado-based organization accused gay activists of "embellishment" of the story on their Web sites. Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family's vice president of public policy, told the Sept. 22 Colorado Springs Gazette that the organization is worried that the publicity would hurt the ex-gay ministry and that Paulk had exercised "extraordinarily bad judgment." He declined to say whether any disciplinary action had been taken and that Paulk still headed the ministry.
Exodus International which claims to be the world's largest "homosexual recovery" organization has been more vocal in criticizing Paulk. "We are deeply saddened over this whole situation," said Bob Davies, Exodus spokesperson, on Sept. 21. "We are grieved over the heartache and trauma that this is bringing to John and his family. We are thankful for his years of hard work and commitment to our organization. At the same time, we recognize that this incident, while unintentional, has dealt a severe blow to John's credibility as an Exodus spokesperson." Davies told the Sept. 23 Gazette that the organization's board has decided not to take immediate action against Paulk, but over the next two weeks it would consider whether or not Paulk should keep his unpaid post as chairman.
The claims of ex-gay ministries that insist the "homosexual lifestyle" is a choice and that one can be "cured" of homosexuality have long been seen as suspect or experimental by most psychology and psychiatry professionals due to lack of peer-reviewed scientific research on reparative therapy. Moreover, other ex-gay spokespeople have become disillusioned with the ministries, leaving them to come out of the closet again. Wade Rogers was a 21 year-old ex-gay who touted the ex-gay movement to other young people across the country through his work with a Los Angeles based Christian organization. As recently as this year's Millennium March on Washington, Rogers spoke out against homosexuality at a press conference sponsored by the anti-gay group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, though he had doubts that he had changed his sexual orientation. Not long afterward, with Besen's help, Rogers denounced his ministry and signed a pledge stating that his sexual orientation had never changed and that he does not believe ex-gay ministries can ever change one's sexual orientation. Rogers recently told the gay magazine the Advocate that "he is finally at peace" and hopes to form a non-profit group to support gay and lesbian youth.
Besen, who has recently compiled a collection of testimonials of ex-ex-gays called "Finally Free," said that Paulk's fraternization in a gay bar is particularly damaging given his prominence in the movement and the fact that the ministry is the centerpiece of the religious Right's endless attack on gay civil rights. "The ex-gay ministry is in a real quandary now," he said, noting that the religius Right pours a large amount of their funds into the movement. Exodus International launched a large print advertisement campaign several years back, which included not only Paulk and his wife, but notoriously anti-gay football star Reggie White. Paulk's indiscretion "hampers the entire claim of these ministries," he said.
Jeff Ford, an ex-ex-gay whose story was included in "Finally Free" agreed with Besen. "I think it's a fairly serious thing," said Ford, who directed a Minneapolis, Minn., ex-gay ministry called "Outpost" for five years in the 1980s. "It's hard to accept his story of stopping in [a gay bar] to go into the bathroom." Ford also believes that Paulk's possible removal from the board of Exodus would further damage the organization's credibility, as it "calls into question their ministry of healing and change."
Ford, described his own "relapse" into homosexuality as an "ex-gay" saying he was made to confess in front of his organization's board of directors, an experience he described as "humiliating."
So, as a licensed psychologist who practices marriage and family therapy, Ford offered his services to Paulk and his wife provided "they want to do the work and they're ready to get honest." Ford, who gave up trying to change his homosexuality in 1987, made the offer "because I've been there. I know what he's going through ... He's in a very stuck place right now."
"I'm glad this has happened," said Ford. "I believe the deception has to be revealed. But again I do have a lot of compassion for him." Despite his sympathy, Ford, who has also treated ex-gays in his private practice, added that he is also angry with Paulk for perpetuating his hurtful ex-gay ministry, particularly among teens and young adults. "It's a very destructive message," he said.
Besen is also anxious to see Paulk walk away from the ex-gay ministry for that very same reason. He encouraged him to do so during a telephone conversation with Paulk the day after his visit to Mr. P's, during which the ex-gay leader asked Besen not to go public with the story. "I said, 'John you've hurt a lot of people, I know them personally. You have an opportunity to right your wrongs." But Paulk gave every indication that he will do no such thing.
His response to Besen? "He said he was happily married to his wife and she supports him."