Is John Paulk ready to renounce his ex-gay gospel?
And is the LGBTQ community prepared to welcome him back into the fold?
John Paulkâ€™s biography on Mezzalunaâ€™s website boasts that his â€œclient list reads like a whoâ€™s-who of sports figures, national celebrities, CEOâ€™s, and politicians.â€
By Byron Beck, PQ Monthly
It was late in the evening at The Eagle Portland, a notorious gay bar that hosts a once-monthly queer dance party, MaricÃ³n, on the first Saturday of each month. MaricÃ³n (roughly the equivalent of â€œfaggotâ€ in Spanish) is popular and attracts a big crowd of queers. That night it also attracted John Paulk, a short, stocky ,and perpetually tan 50-year-old man who is the owner and executive chef of Mezzaluna Catering. Paulkâ€™s company website says Mezzaluna is an â€œexclusive, upscale alternative to mundane, run-of-the-mill catering companies.â€ His client list has included numerous politicians, local leaders, and nonprofit agencies tied closely to the LGBTQ community â€” as well as possibly the most powerful gay man in Oregon, Terry Bean. What Paulkâ€™s site fails to mention: heâ€™s also probably the worldâ€™s most recognized member of the ex-gay movement and for many years was a poster boy for conversion therapy â€” also known as â€œreparative therapy,â€ pseudo-scientific treatments that aim to change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Paulk was the movementâ€™s face â€” until he was spotted at a gay bar in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19, 2000, by Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out. Then, Paulk was founder and leader of the ex-gay ministry Love Won Out, as well as the chairman of the board of Exodus International, an organization that offers â€œfreedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.â€ Not long after Paulkâ€™s â€œouting,â€ his leadership position in the ex-gay movement was greatly reduced â€” although his wife, Anne, a â€œformer lesbian,â€ is a star of the movement to this day.
Stephen Cassell, a public relations expert and queer activist, was among the first to spot Paulk at The Eagle, and he wasnâ€™t about to let the chance to speak to the ex-gay poster boy pass him by. â€œThe work John has done is exactly the kind of work I have fought against my entire adult life,â€ Cassell told PQ Monthly. â€œWhen I saw John I was conflicted. I decided I couldnâ€™t let my feelings go. I approached him and asked him if he would mind having a hard discussion with me.â€ The two chatted, and Cassell asked John if heâ€™d publicly come out against his work with the ex-gay movement. According to Cassell, Paulk said he couldnâ€™t because of his â€œrelationship with his children.â€ â€œI told him by not saying anything he validates the work that his wife does against our community,â€ Cassell recalled. â€œHe then offered me an apology for the damage he caused if he hurt me. He was tearing up.â€ Roey Thorpe, former director of Basic Rights Oregon and a leader in the national LGBTQ rights movement through her job with the Equality Federation Institute, is familiar with Paulkâ€™s work and words. She first heard about him when the Love Won Out tour came to Portland in June of 2003. â€œIt was aimed toward LGBT people, telling them that they could be cured by Christianity, but also toward our families, telling them that acceptance is not the loving thing to do, but instead pushing LGBT people to repent and change,â€ Thorpe said. She and BRO put on an alternative conference called Love Welcomes All, aimed at those hurt by the ex-gay movement. Thorpe is concerned Paulk is currently pursuing catering work in Portlandâ€™s LGBTQ community without disclosing his past. She believes people have a right to know about his background. â€œJohn Paulk isnâ€™t just a conflicted man who hasnâ€™t been able to reconcile his sexuality with his faith â€” we are all sympathetic to that and many of us have had that struggle. This is different,â€ Thorpe said. â€œThousands 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. This is how the Paulk family has made their living. I have dear friends who have been through hell and are still exiled from their families because of John Paulk. Itâ€™s important for people to know who they are doing business with.â€ Michael Sorensen, director of development for Cascade AIDS Project (CAP), heard about Paulk from friends who worked for him as servers and bartenders. Sorensen said he was aware of Paulkâ€™s work in the ex-gay movement and what Paulk refers to as his self-described efforts at â€œreparations.â€ â€œI interviewed him over the phone and email,â€ Sorensen recalled. â€œI talked to others who had used him.â€ Sorensen then hired Paulk for an event but said CAP cancelled the contract due to what he called â€œcommunity pressure.â€ When asked if he thought the LGBTQ community has a right to know about Paulkâ€™s past, Sorensen replied, â€œI think people have a right to work.â€
Paulk began Mezzaluna in 2005 â€” not long after he and his family moved to Oregon â€” as a personal chef business and over a few years it grew into catering and executing larger events. â€œHonestly, I love catering non-profit events,â€ Paulk told PQ Monthly. â€œI am passionate about causes and giving back to the community. I get as excited about my clientsâ€™ passions as they are and want them to feel that, as their caterer, I have their back and am going to represent them well.â€ One of the nonprofits Mezzaluna has served is Our House, which provides healthcare, housing, and other vital services to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS. Last year Paulk was a celebrity chef for two of Our Houseâ€™s popular dinner series. â€œWe appreciate the sentiment that John showed when he offered the donations of his time and services ... to the Our House Dinner Series for 2012-13,â€ said James Lindqust, Our House associate director of development. One of those dinners was for longtime partners Gary Nelson and Minh Tran. The couple had no knowledge of Paulkâ€™s involvement in the ex-gay movement until 24 hours before the dinner â€” too late to change the caterer, according to Tran. â€œWe just kept it quiet,â€ Tran said. â€œWe had no other choice but to work with him.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any group thatâ€™s done as much damage to gay kids as Love Won Out,â€ says Terry Bean, seen here with his frequent sidekick, former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts. Photo by Jules Garza, PQ Monthly
Wayne Besen does anything but keep quiet about John Paulk. The founder of Truth Wins Out, which works actively against the ex-gay movement, Besen said Paulkâ€™s long career in anti-gay activism began in 1992, with appearances in the propaganda films â€œThe Gay Agendaâ€ and â€œGay Rights Special Rights,â€ which portrayed LGBTQ people as mentally ill, disease-spreading sex fiends, subversive elements hell-bent on undermining society, and pedophiles. According to Besen, Paulkâ€™s position in the ex-gay movement put him in the spotlight, with appearances on â€œOprah,â€ â€œ60 Minutes,â€ and â€œGood Morning America.â€ â€œJohn was quoted in nearly every major newspaper in America,â€ Besen said. â€œIt is no exaggeration to say that the ubiquity of [his] media efforts ensured that the vast majority of Americans were subjected to testimony that Paulk had â€˜prayed away the gay.â€™â€ As Besen sees it, Paulkâ€™s impact in this arena only grew with his ascension to Focus on the Family, where he helped found its Love Won Out national ex-gay road show. â€œAt these splashy Love Won Out shows, Paulk sold a vision â€” for a profit â€” that offered false hope and healing to desperate and vulnerable Christian parents who were terrified and confused when their children came out of the closet,â€ said Besen, who attended several of these events. â€œThe most heartbreaking part of these events was when these parents were either blamed for turning their children gay, or they were falsely told their childâ€™s homosexuality was the result of molestation.â€ In a letter to Paulk, Besen outlined a series of key steps he thinks Paulk needs to take locally to help begin to compensate for his earlier actions against the LGBTQ community. They include renouncing Portland Fellowship, a local â€œex-gayâ€ organization and Exodus affiliate; going on a speaking tour with fellow LGBTQ advocates to show that he has come full-circle; and supporting an Oregon bill prohibiting so-called reparative therapy for minors. Thorpe, too, thinks Paulk needs to take action if he wishes to atone. â€œI believe that people can change and that we need to recognize change when it occurs,â€ she said. â€œBut even though John may be personally reconsidering his views, the fact that he has remained silent and not publicly renounced the ex-gay movement has allowed Anne to continue to earn a living as an ex-gay leader who lies about her family and her husband. Itâ€™s appalling that his silence perpetuates her lies and the direct damage to LGBT people and our families. Itâ€™s good that he wants to help the community, but it is meaningless until he speaks out and puts a stop to the bad things that are happening because of this lie. â€œJohn Paulk has blood on his hands,â€ Thorpe added, â€œand he does not deserve our acceptance until he stops the damage that he is allowing to continue. Then he can give back, and not in a way that builds his need for attention and his business, but in a way that is selfless and non-self-promoting. Itâ€™s time for him to come to terms with himself and stop being at the mercy of his own shame, and inflicting it on everyone else.â€
Paulk does have his fair share of local supporters. â€œChef John is an amazing person to work for,â€ said Jeremy Neel, Mezzalunaâ€™s openly gay catering captain. â€œHe is very compassionate, friendly, caring, encouraging, and supportiveâ€¦. I love my job. It is sad that some people in the LGBT community are saying negative things about him yet have not given him a chance. Oneâ€™s past should not define who they are.â€ Kurt Granzow, aka â€œSister Krissy Fictionâ€ of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, has a background similar to Paulkâ€™s. â€œI was in the ex-gay movement and a conservative Christian minister for over a decade before I moved to Portland and came out,â€ Granzow said. â€œIâ€™ve been trying to support John in his process of leaving that stuff behind. I remember what it was like to look in the mirror with shame and self-loathing. The process of learning to be who you are is tough. Iâ€™ve just tried to be a compassionate friend.â€
â€œThe process of learning to be who you are is tough,â€ says Kurt Granzow, aka â€œSister Krissy Fictionâ€ of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. â€œIâ€™ve just tried to be a compassionate friend [to Paulk].â€ Photo by Izzy Ventura, PQ Monthly
Paulkâ€™s emailed response to PQâ€™s interview questions suggest that he might, in fact, be moving toward accepting who he is. â€œUntil recently, I have struggled all my life in feeling unloved and unaccepted,â€ Paulk said. â€œI have been on a journey during the last few years in trying to understand God, myself, and how I can best relate to others. During this journey I have made many mistakes and I have hurt many people including people who are close to me. I have also found a large number of people who accept me for who I am regardless of my past, any labels, or what I do.â€ Paulk continued, â€œI no longer support the ex-gay movement or efforts to attempt to change individuals â€” especially teens who already feel insecure and alienated. I feel great sorrow over the pain that has been caused when my words were misconstrued. 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.â€ Gay activist and political fundraiser Terry Bean, who booked Mezzaluna for an event at his home before he discovered the companyâ€™s ties to the ex-gay movement, would like to see Paulk do much more than say he is sorry. â€œI will personally encourage people to boycott him until he rectifies some of the damage heâ€™s done,â€ said Bean, who in addition to his high-profile political work is the owner of Bean Investment Real Estate. â€œHe needs to go on a nationwide tour â€” to tell people what a sham the ex-gay ministry is, and tell people nationwide he understands the damage heâ€™s done and he encourages other people not to do it. Until he does that, I think itâ€™s critical that people boycott him and his business. â€œItâ€™s much bigger than Oregon,â€ Bean continued. â€œThis is damage heâ€™s done to millions of kids â€” kids who tried to â€˜pray the gay awayâ€™ and when they couldnâ€™t, killed themselves. Every hour he waits to do this, there are kids being badly hurt by the stuff thatâ€™s out there â€” the things he continues to not refute publicly. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any group thatâ€™s done as much damage to gay kids as Love Won Out. John is in a unique position to make a very real difference.â€
Daniel Borgen contributed additional reporting to this story.