In September, I stood with a handful of protesters outside Sunrise Community Church on the outskirts of Sacramento. We were demonstrating against a new “ex-gay” organization, the Restored Hope Network. This radical group was comprised of Exodus International defectors who were staging a mutiny because Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus, had recently denounced reparative therapy and claimed that 99.9% of clients didn’t transform from gay to straight.
The Restored Hope leadership saw themselves as purists and viewed Chambers as a traitor who had sold his soul to appease gay activists. They had convened to take back the “ex-gay” industry and demanded that followers adhere to a hard-edged fundamentalism – one with miracles and magical transformations from gay to straight.
One of the primary movers-and-shakers in this hard-line separatist movement was “ex-lesbian” Anne Paulk, a major figure in “ex-gay” circles for two decades. Fourteen years earlier, she and John, her “ex-gay” husband, campaigned against LGBT rights under the advertising slogan: “I’m living Proof that Truth can set you free.”
It was part of the 1998 “Truth in Love” campaign that was launched by a coalition of more than 15 virulently anti-gay organizations, such as the American Family Association, The Family Research Council (FRC), The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, and the Christian Coalition. These groups hoped to use the tales of “ex-gay” rock stars like John and Anne Paulk to drive the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement back into the closet. Robert Knight, who at the time worked at FRC, was so confident in the ultimate success of this “ex-gay” advertising campaign that he referred to it as “the Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars.”
It was now 2012, but just as in 1998, Anne Paulk was peddling her mystical story in Sacramento, crying out to the world that miracles are real and that she and her perfect family were still “living proof” of God’s power to transform lives. According to Kathy Baldock who attended the conference:
Paulk mentioned her marriage once publicly during the conference saying, “I never thought I would be married and the mother of three sons.”
It is also safe to assume that she probably never thought her allegedly straight husband would frequent gay strip clubs, constantly proposition men for sex, and parade around town with male “eye candy.” But that is exactly what was happening back in Portland where the couple lives, even as she posed on stage and held up her marriage as a shining example of traditional family values.
“I felt like fish food to him,” Dan Burrell, a former Mezzaluna staff member told me about his ex-boss, John Paulk. “He was like, a predator.”
“He came in and wanted to do all kinds of things to me,” said Michael Phillips, a bartender at Silverado, the local strip club in downtown Portland. “Um, he wanted to date, he wanted to have sex, he wanted to give me a blowjob in the bathroom, he wanted to give me money, he wanted to do all kinds of stuff.”
This is not the first time that John Paulk had lived a double life. On Sept. 19, 2000, I photographed John inside Mr. P’s, a Washington, DC gay bar. He originally claimed that he was in the establishment, drinking cocktails and flirting with patrons, because he had to use the bathroom. He then swore that he thought Mr. P’s was a straight bar because there were both men and women inside. Of course, as a former Columbus, Ohio drag queen named Candi, he knew there weren’t any women — it was drag night. Finally, Paulk admitted to his boss, James Dobson, on Focus on the Family’s radio program, that the evening he was photographed was actually his second appearance at the bar, which he referred to as “Satan’s Trap.”
As a result of the scandal, Paulk resigned as Exodus’ board chairman and was no longer their chief spokesperson. Over the next couple of years, Focus on the Family slowly diminished his role in Love Won Out, its “ex-gay” road show, even though the multi-million dollar organization sold an eponymous book co-authored by John and Anne.
As the Paulk family’s star fell in Colorado Springs and they were eased out of the spotlight they needed a fresh start. They found one in Portland, Oregon, where John had previously lived while he attended the local “ex-gay” ministry, Portland Fellowship. A credit to his ingenuity, John quickly reinvented himself as a chef and started Mezzaluna, an upscale catering business.
In the beginning, the company was endorsed by Focus on the Family. However, having such anti-gay friends could make enemies in a liberal and pro-gay city like Portland. It wasn’t long before Paulk understood his customer base and unveiled a new marketing strategy — hiring attractive male models to serve gourmet refreshments at posh house parties. Needless to say, this tactic appealed to many upper crust gay men who procured Mezzaluna’s services.
In December, Dan Burrell, an attractive young man, was approached by John Paulk at 24 Hour Fitness and offered a position within the company.
“He said I fit a certain aesthetic image that he was looking for and asked me if I wanted to work for him,” said Burrell. “It didn’t feel right…my instinct was telling me that something wasn’t right. I just had to find out and experience it.”
Dan describes a bizarre, yet, at times, mutually beneficial relationship where he was “supposed to be his arm candy” accompanying John to catering gigs and nights out on the town.
“Him and I both admitted to one another one night that we were both using one another,” said Burrell, who expressed regret over the situation and said he wished he had lived in truth. “However there is no amount of money that could justify someone touching me personally.”
And was John gay?
“He definitely was interested in men,” Burrell explained. “Was interested in having a relationship with me. I didn’t want a relationship with him. I wanted to simply work for him. But not be in a relationship with him…We’d have good days if he didn’t put his hands on me. Which he sometimes had issues with. He’d put his hands on me and I’d politely step back and reject him….He was obviously making comments all the time. Sexual comments about me…It was grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit, like, if I really wanted to push it. I really don’t care to. I don’t want his money.”
John sometimes assumed the role of sugar daddy, buying Burrell and others clothes and jewelry to win their affections. Indeed, during our interview Burrell claimed to be wearing clothes that Paulk had purchased for him. Here are a couple of text messages that John sent to Dan:
John would also become quite possessive of Burrell, even accompanying him to roommate interviews. Andrew Loriego remembers searching for roommates and having John and Dan come by for a visit. Paulk referred to Dan as “his boy” and would hardly let him speak during the session. For the final round of interviews, Loriego insisted that Dan come alone so they could meet without the overwhelming and dominating presence of Paulk.
He and Dan became roommates. It did not take Paulk long before he was also hitting on Loriego, even though he had a partner. The flirtation occurred in person, but also on Facebook. In one explicit message, Paulk solicited Loriago for sex asking, “Will you suck my dick from behind?”
“I have nine months worth of Facebook messages that he actually would proclaim his love for my roommate,” Loriego told me…And not only that, he would also make comments about other guys and how hot they were, and so on and so forth. In addition to that he also made passes at me on Facebook as well too, to the point where it got so uncomfortable that I actually had to tell him that it was inappropriate, that he needed to stop.”
While Paulk was living in the fast lane, hitting on young guys, and attending wild parties, the vast majority of Portland residents were clueless about his notorious anti-gay past. They did not know that he and Anne had starred in the Truth in Love advertising campaign that landed them on the cover of Newsweek. They had no idea that John had been on Oprah, 60 Minutes, and Good Morning America to claim that he had converted from gay to straight. There was no memory of John appearing in the notorious and destructive anti-gay propaganda videos The Gay Agenda and Gay Rights Special Rights. To most gay Portland residents, Paulk was an affable homosexual simply known as “Chef John.”
The Religious Right also appeared to be unaware of his new life as a flamboyant Sugar Daddy who enjoys strippers at Silverado with “eye candy” wrapped around his arm. Earlier this year, for example, I debated Focus on the Family spokesperson Timothy Dailey on a radio show. From a hotel room in Phoenix, I explained to the host over the phone that most “ex-gay” poster boys, including John Paulk, reverted to homosexuality. Dailey breezily dismissed my words by claiming that Paulk was a happily married heterosexual man who merely had one slip over a decade ago.
The tall tale of Paulk’s supposed redemption is now conventional wisdom on the Religious Right. For example, here is a snippet from SameSexAttraction.org.
“It was a significant lapse in judgment,” says Julie Niels, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family referring to Paulk’s outing in a gay bar, “but not a lapse in heterosexuality. We know that for sure. And one person’s serious lack of judgment does not negate the fact that thousands of people have struggled out of homosexuality….We all make mistakes. People are very understanding, and they have been very supportive of John. But a lot of homosexual activists are trying to turn it into an example of someone returning to homosexuality, and it’s not. It’s been misportrayed in the media…the reality is that John has 1,000% left homosexuality.”
John has been active in the so-called “ex-gay” industry as recently as 2010 when he spoke at an Evergreen International conference, the Mormon “ex-gay” organization. According to the event program:
Together, John and Anne have shared their remarkable stories of overcoming homosexuality to audiences world-wide and extensively in the national media. Both John and Anne have served on the Exodus board of directors and in 1998, John went on staff with Focus on the Family and founded the Love Won Out ministry and conference which toured the country speaking to audiences for 11 years.
Additionally, books featuring the Paulk family are often still sold at “ex-gay” conferences and widely available on the Internet. There are also the many endorsements John has made of other “ex-gay” works, including Dr. Joseph Nicolosi’s controversial book that he co-wrote with his wife Linda, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality:
“Dr. Nicolosi’s principles on prevention of homosexuality would benefit any parent of a young son to raise him with a healthy sense of gender identity,” wrote John Paulk. “I wish my parents had this material when I was in my formative years. The practical knowledge and timeless — but often unknown — principles would have saved me from years of heartache when, as an adult, I began the tough road to overcome my homosexual struggle. Joseph and Linda Nicolosi’s book should be required reading for all education classes on child development.”
The real life that John Paulk was living in Portland was clashing with the phony “ex-gay” version that was still shamelessly accepted by anti-gay political organizations.
Instead of publicly exposing Paulk, as I had the first time in DC, I wanted to give him an opportunity to come out with dignity. It was my hope that he was now on a journey to self-acceptance and would gladly renounce his “ex-gay” past and demand that materials with his story were taken out of circulation. I called John on the telephone and he angrily yelled: “get out of my life. I never want to hear from you again.”
I could understand his apprehension about speaking with me. However, I could not comprehend how he wouldn’t want to stop his damaging books and videos from harming LGBT youth. Surely, there were young men and women reading his book Not Afraid to Change or Love Won Out, the book he co-wrote with his wife. These kids were on their hands and knees begging Jesus for a miracle – just like he had provided for the Paulks. Each day that John lived a secret double life, his fraudulent products and fake testimony would hurt more people.
This had to stop.
A mutual acquaintance volunteered to talk to John privately. They spent hours conversing, but John obstinately refused to behave respectably, expressing no remorse about his victims and not caring if the damage continued. In his warped view, he was the real victim of persecution and had no responsibility to the LGBT community he now inhabited. He blithely dismissed the need for publicly ending his “ex-gay” lies by claiming that his company had given free food to AIDS charities.
Still, I was extremely hesitant to re-out John Paulk, because I did not want to invade his privacy. He wasn’t as active on the “ex-gay” circuit, I reasoned, so I decided to leave John alone and let him enjoy his stinking hypocrisy.
The equation changed, however, when Anne became a self-righteous and outspoken critic of Exodus’ Alan Chambers, leading the charge to form the Restored Hope Network. It was simply unacceptable for her to use her failing marriage as “proof” that the “ex-gay” charade actually worked.
I tried contacting John, once more, and our mutual acquaintance patiently explained that unless he stopped lying he would be exposed. For whatever reason, Paulk preferred the publication of this story, which I desperately tried not to tell. All I reasonably wanted was for him to distance himself from his poisonous “ex-gay” products, and apparently that was too much to ask. John saw no incongruity about partying at Silverado by night, and having Anne sell their “ex-gay” fairytale by day. That he would prefer public humiliation to coming out with class is a baffling decision that I will never understand.
Prior to this story, Paulk had one last chance to do the right thing. Portland resident Kevin Cunningham sent John an e-mail over the summer urging him to come out. John never replied to his note, but in October Kevin got the opportunity to confront John at a party that took place at a mutual friend’s home. (Full disclosure, I’ve known Kevin since 1994):
“There were about thirteen of us,” Kevin said about the intense and emotional confrontation…“he said that he was going to start his new life as a gay man again.”
Paulk pledged that he would come out and make a difference and the awkward quarrel ended with a hug. However, Anne continued her anti-gay activism with the Restored Hope Network and John still refused to take steps to set the record straight. As usual, John simply told people what they wanted to hear.
How much Anne actually knew about John’s gay activities is debatable. She would have to be rather naïve not to notice that John’s staff was comprised of attractive, well-scrubbed, musclemen. However, Dan Burrell says that she seemed surprised when they met for the first time. He recounts the day Anne spontaneously showed up at Mezzaluna:
“And he [John] goes, ‘Oh shit, Anne’s here,” Burrell recalls. “I was wearing like, some of the Tiffany jewelry she had given him…he was like, ‘take off the necklace’ and I took off the rings and stuff. And he went into his office and put on his game face. And he’s like, ‘Dan go ahead and introduce yourself to Anne…pretty much when I saw her for the first time she looked at me in the eyes and she knew…I remember, like, feeling really bad for her…she would cry if she knew, like, half of the stuff that was, like, going on.”
Soon after this incident Anne allegedly fasted and prayed to try to save the family. It did not work and John moved out of the house. According to someone who knows the couple:
John no longer lives there but Anne and their kids still do. He bought himself a new Mercedes convertible after he moved out.
Meanwhile, the consumer fraud continues with Anne Paulk scheduled to speak on March 15-16 at Janet Boynes Ministries “Power of Change” conference. No doubt, she will try to win converts by telling them about her wholesome and “healed” family.