John Paulk: "Pray the Gay Away" Poster Child Announces He is Still Gay, Truly Sorry

John Paulk, an icon of the "ex-gay" movement who long claimed to be "cured" of his homosexuality, has officially announced he is still gay and is "truly, truly" sorry for the harm he caused.

In a formal, public apology Wednesday, Paulk said, "For the better part of ten years, I was an advocate and spokesman for what’s known as the 'ex-gay' movement, where we declared that sexual orientation could be changed through a close-knit relationship with God, intensive therapy and strong determination. At the time, I truly believed that it would happen. And while many things in my life did change as a Christian, my sexual orientation did not."

Paulk's new view that so-called "reparative therapy" is harmful echoes the opinion of every major medical and psychiatric association in the U.S., which view "gay cures" as "inappropriate, unethical and inhumane."

"Today, I do not consider myself 'ex-gay,'" said Paulk. "And I no longer support or promote the movement. Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people."

Paulk also announced his 20-year marriage to "ex-gay" woman Anne Paulk is ending. In 1999, the pair wrote a book called Love Won Out: How God's Love Helped Two People Leave Homosexuality and Find Each Other. They also starred in two films, The Gay Agenda and Gay Rights, Special Rights, denounced by many as homophobic.  

After the book was released, Paulk appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, and on the cover of Newsweek. The pair toured the country promoting reparative therapy. Paulk also wrote Not Afraid To Change: The Remarkable Story Of How One Man Overcame Homosexuality.

Anne Paulk is continuing her work in "ex-gay" activism. She released a statement acknowledging the divorce and encouraged people to pray for John.

Paulk was chairman of the board at Exodus International from 1995 to 2000, an organization that advocates for "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ." He was also founder of Focus on the Family’s "Love Won Out" initiative, a quarterly "ex-gay" symposium.

Exodus International posted a euphemistic response to the incident, acknowledging Paulk no longer supports "reparative therapy" but not mentioning he is gay. Focus on the Family has not yet commented.

At the height of his activism in 2000, Paulk was photographed in a Washington, DC gay bar. The incident was a major embarrassment for Focus on the Family and Exodus International, and he was forced to step down amid the controversy. At the time, Focus on the Family spokesperson Julie Niels said the incident was a "significant lapse in judgement but not a lapse in heterosexuality ... the reality is that John has 1,000% left homosexuality."

While many gay rights activists are celebrating Paulk's change of heart as a victory for the movement, some are still conflicted and angry. They blame him for contributing to harmful stereotypes and to the rash of suicides among gay teens in the U.S.

LGBTQ activist Roey Thorpe said that "John Paulk isn't just a conflicted man who hasn't been able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith — we are all sympathetic to that and many of us have had that struggle. This is different. Thousands of young people have been forced into religious conversion programs, shamed into believing they are sinners. Families have been encouraged to reject their children, and queer kids end up on the streets or committing suicide. Others live silently, filled with shame ... I have dear friends who have been through hell and are still exiled from their families because of John Paulk."

Paulk now runs a successful catering company and recently donated money to AIDS advocacy organizations. He says he wants to leave the public eye until he can contribute to the community.

"From the bottom of my heart I wish I could take back my words and actions that caused anger, depression, guilt and hopelessness," Paulk said. "In their place I want to extend love, hope, tenderness, joy and the truth that gay people are loved by God."

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Julie Strupp

Julie Strupp is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She's worked for a variety of publications including the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and AllAfrica, and typically writes about social issues, solutions, and politics from the local to the international. You can reach her on Twitter at @struppj or at juliestrupp.com

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