I interviewed John Paulk years ago for a feature in a Conservative Christian magazine. The focus on that article was John’s healing from a homosexual lifestyle.
I was working as a freelance journalist and had contracted with the editor for the story. I had a childhood friend who had just been diagnosed with AIDS at age 25, so I was definitely curious about the subject matter. I had read Jerry Arterburn’s achingly honest memoir “How Will I Tell My Mother? A True Story of One Man’s Battle with Homosexuality and AIDS.”
But as the mother of four young children, I was an ardent supporter of Focus on the Family and all things Dr. James Dobson. (I know, hard to believe, right?) What I knew about homosexuality could be summed up by the soundbites out of Focus on the Family: It was a great sin, usually the result of having been molested as a child, or from being a pedophile in the making.
I am so sorry.
I remember a great deal of my interview with John and his wife Anne. They lived in a charming custom-home in Portland. Although not a large home it was so tastefully decorated. John took great pride in that. Both he and Anne were delightfully honest throughout the interview.
John spoke fondly of his mother, but there was hurt there and that hurt played into all the wrong-headed stereotypes I held of gay men: Absentee father. Controlling mom feminizing her son to suit her own emotional needs.
Explaining his struggle with his identity as a gay man, John spoke about drug and alcohol abuses. Drinking or drugging, he said, was the only way he could do the things he did with other men.
John spoke about his journey toward “healing”. He attributed his healing to the reparative therapy he received at Exodus International. He longed to be married, to have children, to be a good father.
I have conducted hundreds of interviews over the years but few have stayed with me the way the interview with John and Anne did. In my mind’s eye I still see them posing for the photos I took that day.
My views on homosexuality evolved over the years. I parted ways with Focus on the Family in the late 1990s. My friend died a cruel death of AIDS, abandoned by his partner, and at odds with a family afraid of AIDS and homosexuality.
I am not sure even to this day that my thinking on the subject is “right” — whatever that means. I have written many times on the matter, in columns and at length in Where’s Your Jesus Now? , which not surprisingly earned me a cult following among the LGBT community while getting me banned in Lifeway Bookstores.Shortly after my interview with John and Anne hit the churches, John was pegged to head up Focus on the Family’s ministry to Gays. A ministry with one goal — to transform Homosexuals into Happy Heterosexuals.
I was working as a reporter when I read the news that John had been seen at a Gay bar in D.C. By then John was a dad and was still in leadership within the Evangelical Community. I took it to mean one thing — John was still struggling.
I have known for sometime now that John was back in Portland and that he and Anne were split up. I also knew that he was living life as a gay man. So I wasn’t surprised when the headlines hit yesterday: Ex-Gay Leader Apologizes:
“I no longer support the ex-gay movement or efforts to attempt to change individuals — especially teens who already feel insecure and alienated. I feel great sorrow over the pain that has been caused when my words were misconstrued,” Paulk said. “I have worked at giving generously to the gay community in Portland where I work and live. I am working hard to be authentic and genuine in all of my relationships.”
After John’s apology was made public this week I had a discussion with a clinician who sees first-hand the damage inflicted on the LGBT community:
I live in Colorado Springs and in my therapy practice I have worked with a number of LGBTQ clients who underwent the “reparative therapy” John and Focus so ardently supported. I am glad John is coming to peace with this sexual orientation and mourn the pain he has endured over all these years. I am praying for the day when Christianity can move past demonizing LGBTQ people and their relationships. The pain and anguish I have witnessed in my therapy room is indescribable, and I firmly believe God weeps over how “his people” treat gays and lesbians.
Thankfully, God hasn’t abandoned me over the years. He’s put me in relationships that have forced me to reconsider my preconceived and wrong-headed notions about the LGBT community.
I don’t claim to be a theologian, or to have all the answers, but this one thing I know for sure: Anything that calls us to live a dishonest life cannot be following Christ’s example.
Jesus is Truth.
I am praying that John Paulk will know a peace that for far too long escaped him.
His story is a good reminder that Jesus can and will transform any of us from the inside out, even repentant heterosexuals like me.
For more on this topic check out Candace Chellew-Hodge’s article at Religion Dispatches.