Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar

John Paulk, chairman of the board for the conservative, Christian, “ex-gay” movement group Exodus International, was photographed leaving a Washington, D.C., gay bar in the fall of 2000. A former drag queen, Paulk married a woman after his experiences with Exodus and became its spokesperson. He also was a spokesperson for the conservative group Focus on the Family. Paulk claimed to have stopped at the bar to use the restroom, but not many believed him. He lost his position as Exodus board chairman.

Summary of Event

In the year 2000, gay rights campaigning had reached into the legislatures of many U.S. states. For example, Vermont legalized gay civil unions that year, setting a favorable climate for gays and lesbians. Much of the controversy over gay rights had settled into debates about the morality of Marriage;and homosexuality[homosexuality] gay marriage. Conservative backlash against the movement remained strong, with right wing fundamentalist Christians leading the groups opposed to homosexuality. [kw]Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar, Ex-gay Leader John (Sept. 19, 2000)
[kw]Gay Bar, Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a (Sept. 19, 2000)
Paulk, John
Exodus International
Focus on the Family
Paulk, John
Exodus International
Focus on the Family
[g]United States;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
[c]Public morals;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
[c]Sex;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
[c]Politics;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 19, 2000: Ex-gay Leader John Paulk Is Photographed Leaving a Gay Bar[03000]
Herrschaft, Daryl
Besen, Wayne
Dobson, James
Paulk, Anne

Vermont’s civil unions earned nationwide backlash, as voters in other states initiated constitutional amendments against same-gender marriage. Other groups, in particular, the Evangelical group Focus on the Family, hoped to “end” the practice of homosexuality altogether. With its claimed Christian focus on condemning the perceived sin, rather than the perceived sinner, the group hoped to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuality. Focus on the Family’s subgroup, Exodus International (Exodus), carried particular weight in what was called homosexual “conversions.”

To that end, Exodus had two real stars. Board chairman and spokesperson John Paulk and his wife, Anne Paulk, claimed to be former gays who were now married with three children. John Paulk went on regular speaking tours to promote Exodus, with the hope of drawing other gays and lesbians to conversion. The couple wrote a book, Love Won Out (1998), and were featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1998.

The “ex-gay” movement, as it is best known, became a source of much controversy. Opponents claimed it was a discriminatory farce. Gay rights activists argued that conversion groups produced more same-gender partnerships than traditional heterosexual ones, and that the groups caused irreversible emotional trauma. It came as no surprise then, that after Paulk went into a well-known gay bar in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and was exposed for doing so, the stage would be set for a noisy showdown between gay rights supporters and the activists of the ex-gay movement.

On September 19, Paulk was in Washington, D.C., participating in one of his many speaking tours for Exodus. While on his own time, he paid a visit to Mr. P’s, a gay bar. Mr. P’s, named for its location on P Street, existed in stark contrast to the other buildings on the block. Where those other buildings were brightly lit and modern looking, Mr. P’s was stubbornly dark and concealing. The bar had a policy against photographs being taken indoors, presumably to protect its clientele. While Paulk sat and chatted for forty minutes in the bar, he was recognized by another customer, Daryl Herrschaft, who also was a member of the gay rights lobbying organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Cannily aware of what Paulk’s presence in the bar could do to Exodus’s reputation, Herrschaft contacted another HRC member, Wayne Besen, a journalist and gay activist. Besen rushed to the bar, camera in hand. In the dramatic showdown that followed, Besen was ejected from the bar for violating its policy against photography, but not before he had captured a fleeing Paulk on film outside the bar. From other customers, Besen learned Paulk had been flirting and using an alias.

Besen later published an exposé on Paulk that focused on his hypocrisy and the dangers of the ex-gay movement. Initially, Paulk claimed he had only stepped into the bar to use the restroom, but began chatting and stayed inside. To his credit, Paulk never pretended to have been on a conversion mission. However, given the length of his stay, the restroom excuse was quickly dismissed in both the popular press and among Paulk’s colleagues who knew better.

James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, confronted Paulk after the published exposé and demanded a full explanation for his apparently aberrant behavior. Paulk initially denied any homosexual inclinations, insisting he had both the support of Focus on the Family and his own wife. However, his explanation still did not hold up to scrutiny. Too many witnesses in the bar had seen him buy drinks for other men, heard him claim to be gay, and heard him use an alias from his own drag queen days. Finally, Paulk confessed that the pressures of the limelight made him want to escape, so he had been toying with the idea of again having sex with men. He quickly added that he was grateful to have been caught, feeling that God was protecting him from his own aberrant desires.

Anne and John Paulk in 1998.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Focus on the Family removed him as Exodus’s chairman of the board and sent a chaperone with him to speaking engagements. Although it was committed to supporting him, the group expressed its disappointment in what it considered a lapse in judgment, particularly as he lied about his motives until the truth was extracted from him. The group tried to downplay the incident, claiming that thousands had “escaped” homosexuality and that these successes should be considered more important than Paulk’s aberrant behavior.


Paulk’s lapse, however, effectively derailed the antigay and ex-gay movements at the height of their popularity. Although gay conversion groups, ex-gay ministries, and Exodus continued to exist, they no longer flourished. The scandal was used by gay rights supporters as an example that the ex-gay movement was harmful, and ultimately ineffective. Exodus’s choice in leadership came under heavy criticism from both sides, and the media gleefully picked apart Paulk and his hypocrisy.

For his part, Paulk continued in a lower leadership role with Focus on the Family, acting as the manager of homosexuality and gender issues until his resignation in 2003. He went on to become a chef and moved, with Anne, to Oregon, far from Washington, D.C.

Besen, in contrast, made a career out of Paulk’s downfall. Always concerned with gay rights and already a vocal opponent of ex-gay ministries, Besen escalated the case against the ex-gay movement even after the hubbub over Paulk’s lapse died down. Besen became executive director of the group Truth Wins OUT, which exposes hypocrisy within the ex-gay and antigay movements, started a weekly column on his own Web site, and published a book, Anything but Straight, in 2003. Furthermore, Besen educates parents thinking of sending their gay and lesbian children into conversion programs by demonstrating the psychological harm done by such programs. Paulk, John
Exodus International
Focus on the Family

Further Reading

  • Besen, Wayne R. Anything but Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003. Focuses on the hypocrisy of the gay conversion movement. Discusses “converts” who have suffered psychological harm and those who eventually affirmed a positive homosexual orientation after their participation in conversion programs.
  • Kirby, David. “After the Fall: Man Allegedly Cured of His Homosexuality Visits Gay Bar.” Advocate, November 21, 2000. Examines the consequences of Paulk’s being photographed at Mr. P’s bar, including the loss of his position as board chairman of Exodus International.
  • Leland, John, et al. “Can Gays Convert?” Newsweek, August 17, 1998. Interviews with John and Anne Paulk discuss their support for the ex-gay movement. Also includes the words of those who oppose the movement, including gay rights activists and the American Psychological Association.
  • Muzzy, Frank. Gay and Lesbian Washington, D.C. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Press, 2005. Double focus on the presence of gays and lesbians in the U.S. capital and their impact on politics.
  • Paulk, John, and Anne Paulk. Love Won Out: How God’s Love Helped Two People Leave Homosexuality and Find Each Other. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1999. Summarizes the couple’s journey to heterosexuality with the help of ex-gay ministries and Christianity in general, as well as their own meeting and marriage. Generally argues that heterosexual love is stronger than homosexual love.

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