Ex-Gay Leader Confronted in Gay Bar
by Joel Lawson
Southern Voice, Thursday, 21 September 2000
A prominent ex-gay leader once featured as "going straight" on the cover of Newsweek magazine was confronted and photographed by activists Tuesday night patronizing a gay bar in Washington, D.C.
John Paulk, board chair for the umbrella ex-gay group Exodus International, admitted in an interview with Southern Voice that he was in Mr. P's, a gay bar in Washington's DuPont Circle neighborhood, but said his only intention was to use the bathroom.
A gay man who works for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay political group, was at the bar on Tuesday night, recognized Paulk, and immediately called Wayne Besen, HRC's associate director of communications. Besen, who recently authored an HRC report on the ex-gay movement, rushed over to Mr. P's, camera in hand, and confronted Paulk.
Paulk is well known not just for the Newsweek cover story on him and his wife Anne, a self-described ex-lesbian, but also dozens of advertisements placed in mainstream newspapers trumpeting "conversion" to heterosexuality through prayer.
Author of "Not Afraid to Change; The Remarkable Story of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality," Paulk is also on staff with Focus on the Family, where he manages the organization's Homosexuality and Gender Department.
Daryl Herschaft, an HRC staffer, first spotted Paulk in the bar at approximately 10 p.m. "He walked in and sat at the bar," Herschaft said. "I recognized him almost immediately, but I wanted to be absolutely sure, so I called Wayne." Herschaft also called another HRC colleague, Ryan Obermiller, a merchandise assistant for the organization.
While waiting for his colleagues to arrive, Herschaft engaged the man he believed to be Paulk in conversation. According to Herschaft, the bar patron identified himself as "John" and later said he "was from Colorado Springs, Colo."
"I asked him if he was gay," Herschaft recalled, "and he said 'yes.'" Herschaft then asked "John" his last name. "He said his last name was 'Clint,' but he wanted to know why I was asking. He became evasive, but he was good at it, he was very calm."
After the other HRC staffers arrived at the gay bar, they too recognized the man as Paulk.
"I walk in, and right there at the front bar, I see John Paulk, I was floored," Besen said. Obermiller also said he immediately recognized the man as Paulk.
Paulk acknowledged in an interview with Southern Voice on Wednesday that he was present at Mr. P's on Tuesday night.
"I was walking around DuPont [Circle], and I needed to use the bathroom, so I walked in, but I did not know Mr. P's was a gay bar," Paulk said. "Once I was inside, I thought, 'Oh, this is a gay bar, and I probably shouldn't be in here.'"
Mr. P's is well known to Washingtonians as the city's longest standing gay bar, operating in the same location since 1976. The bar is located in a block with several establishments offering public restrooms, including two major hotels, a coffee shop, and a number of restaurants.
With its dark exterior, including a small tinted window, Mr. Ps offers a foreboding appearance reminiscent of gay bars of the 1970s, compared to the brightly-lit hotels and restaurants that line P Street.
"I thought I'll go in and go to the bathroom," Paulk said. "I wandered back, thinking it was weird to be in a gay bar again. I got a glass of water, sat down and chatted with patrons, including a gentleman who was married." Paulk said he had not been inside a gay bar since 1987.
Besen said his intention was to confront and photograph Paulk in the gay bar. In his role at HRC, Besen has led the group's effort to counter the "ex-gay" ministries, which claim the ability to convert gays and lesbians back to heterosexuality. Just last month, Besen personally assisted an ex-gay spokesman in making a public statement that repudiated "ex-gay" ministries.
Paulk said he was in the gay bar "only 20 minutes," primarily to use a bathroom. Yet Herschaft said Paulk was in the bar "at least 40 minutes" and socialized with a number of men during that time, including "speaking intimately with one man."
Paulk denied encountering Besen until he exited the bar. Besen disagreed and provided a photo of Paulk inside the gay bar.
In an interview Tuesday night, the bouncer at Mr. P's, Robert Rosa, confirmed that Paulk encountered Besen inside the bar. Rosa confronted Besen as he attempted to photograph Paulk, enforcing bar policy prohibiting photographs inside the establishment.
Paulk said that after the confrontation with Besen, he exited the establishment out of fear for his life.
"He came to me and said he was being pursued, and asked if there was another exit other than the front door," said John Mako, owner of Mr. P's.
Herschaft recalled Paulk as calm until the encounter with Besen. "He was smiling, laughing, and socializing," Herschaft said. "He offered to buy me a drink."
"Until I tried to photograph him, I would say he was having a gay old time," Besen said. "I didn't know that using the bathroom involved 40 minutes of socializing in a bar and offering drinks to strangers."
Besen managed to capture one image of Paulk before being evicted by the bar's bouncer. The image shows Paulk turning away from the camera, as another member of the bar staff attempts to intercept Besen, entering the frame at the right. The second image shows Paulk walking away from Besen, after having exited the establishment.
Besen said he tried to explain to the bar staff why he was taking Paulk's photo.
"I was yelling to the bar staff, 'Do you know who this is?'", said Besen. "The staff ushered me out of the bar. I tried to take another picture, but couldn't. The staff kept blocking me. Paulk was hunched down while trying to cover his face."
The bar's security guard, Robert Rosa, confirmed Besen's account of the confrontation. "I told him [Besen] he had to leave, that he couldn't take pictures inside the bar" Rosa said. "But he could wait outside and take pictures of the guy out there."
Paulk said he was in Washington, DC to attend a meeting, but declined to identify the meeting other than as "a pro-family meeting with conservative representatives."
Paulk first rose to prominence in 1998 with his appearance on the cover of Newsweek, the release of his book that same year, and in numerous media appearances in which he claimed to be "ex gay." Paulk's story was also featured on "Oprah" and CBS's "60 Minutes," among other programs.
That same year, Paulk was featured prominently in the debut of an unprecedented national advertising campaign produced by a coalition of conservative religious groups and ex-gay ministries. The full-page ads, which ran in major national newspapers, featured Paulk, other ex-gays, and football player Reggie White, an outspoken critic of homosexuality.
"I want to make it clear that there was no sexual, homosexual intention of any kind," Paulk said of his experience in Mr. P's. "That was not my intention. Focus on the Family is supportive of me and I have the support of my wife Anne, who I love very much."
Paulk's Exodus International cites about 100 ministries in 35 states, as well as Latin America, the South Pacific and Europe. Two of Exodus' founders, Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee, left their wives for each other in 1979, and remained together until Cooper died of AIDS several years ago.
Besen said he made an impassioned plea to Paulk in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon to abandon the ex-gay ministries.
"I asked him to think of the closeted gay kids who have contemplated suicide because of what he does," Besen said. "I told him the game was up, that they had no credibility left."