REVIEW. Fall 1998 Vol. 23 No. 4.
Not Afraid to Change: The remarkable story of how one man overcame homosexuality by John Paulk with Tony Marco (Winepress, 1998), 252 pp.
by Dr. Ralph Blair
The dust-jacket promises: “Finally, there’s proof that homosexuals can change.” Says D. James Kennedy, whose ministry launched a national “ex-gay” ad campaign: “John Paulk has the most hopeful and promising message for gay men that I have ever read.” How could he say this if he’d read the book? Here’s columnist Cal Thomas’ blurb: “The greatest cover-up in America has nothing to do with party politics, but with the politics of sex. The myth that many are forced to accept is that homosexuals can’t change their orientation, and God help the person who says they can.” Did he read the book or is he just recommending it? If he read it he didn’t understand it or his own politics of sex is mounting a cover-up. But then, can Right-wing religionists afford to plow through page after page of gay Harlequin sex and camp merely to endorse what their market savvy says must be true at any rate? Can heterosexual advocates stand to read Paulk’s graphic reminiscences of “cutoff blue jeans with bleached-out holes … providing glimpses of pale flesh … pelvises unabashedly writh[ing] together … my eyes danc[ing] along with the hundreds of writhing male bodies?”
Catholic psychologist Joesph Nicolosi, known for so-called reparative therapy for homosexuality, supplies a “clinical” Foreword. “The homosexual condition,” he posits against scientific consensus, “is not really about sexual preference; it’s about gender-identity confusion.” This itself is confusing for in his own book he writes of homosexuals who “are inappropriate for reparative therapy because they show no signs of gender identity deficit.” He asserts that Paulk’s homosexuality was about “his alter ego, Candi” (Paulk’s drag queen persona) and that “Christ and Candi could not coexist within the same soul. When Christ came in, Candi went out. It had to be, simple as that.” He applauds Paulk’s “shift in self-concept from ‘gay’ to the new understanding, ‘I am a (still unactualized) heterosexual man.'” Accordingly, Paulk “overcame his homosexuality” by changing his identity. Nicolosi allows for “years of sublime and seemingly random occurrences [or] ‘little miracles’ [that] can cure.” Yet in his own book, he says that instead of a “cure” as such, it’s about an “improv[ment in] a man’s way of relating to other men.” Indeed, Paulk’s book reveals no cure. But it’s not as Nicolosi has it: Candi or Christ. It’s Candi and Paulk’s other masks (drugs, alcohol, prostitution, promiscuity, poor choices in boyfriends, or marriage to an “ex-lesbian”) over against Paulk’s inability to accept his homosexual orientation and achieve a mature homosexual relationship as a Christian.
Paulk doesn’t get into the “ex-gay” program until late in the book – and his homosexuality continues there. One day, house leader John Smid comes to Paulk and tells him: “something very significant has just happened, and I feel I need to tell you: … you were healed [past tense] from homosexuality.” It’s news to Paulk. But he takes it as “hope … that God was actually going to change me” – future expectation. Meanwhile the residents are still having sex on the sly and Paulk’s in love with one of them. But that guy’s in love with another guy and Paulk’s furious. He hides his hurt and anger by testifying at churches that he is “changed.”
He poses in a group photo for an Exodus “ex-gay” ad captioned: “Can Homosexuals Change? WE DID!” But he writes that he and the others were “disappointed … that our homosexual struggles were still so strong and frequent. Shouldn’t we have been at least half-way healed by now? And what about heterosexuality? That seemed distant, unattainable.” Claiming to be “ex-gay,” he wasn’t, “no matter how hard I tried.” Smid’s solution: “The label of ex-gay is still connected with your past. … So from now on … you’re not an ex-gay; you’re a man. And not just a man, but a heterosexual. That’s how everyone sees you.” So Paulk decides to gain so much weight that “I was looking less and less gay.” He throws away all his designer clothes and “felt an incredible new sense of freedom.”
While giving his “change” testimony on a Christian talk-radio show, “I found myself attracted to the man who was screening the incoming calls.” After the show Paulk tries to engage him in conversation. Noticing the man’s wedding ring, he thinks to himself: “This man is heterosexual and married. He doesn’t want sex with you. And would you want to tempt him into something that might destroy his marriage?” Paulk backs off.
Thinking that he needs to get married, Paulk begins “going out” in mixed-gender “ex-gay” groups: “We could relate to each other as if we were brothers and sisters.” And so it goes.
In his chapter on this wedding with an “ex-lesbian” – and it’s the next to the last chapter of the book – he still worried he’s not “sufficiently changed … I questioned whether I would be sexually compatible in a heterosexual relationship.” So a mentor gives him “some details about female anatomy.” At the wedding, during the vows, he finds himself day-dreaming about sex with men. As his “past [boyfriends, prostitution, drag shows, etc.] careened through my mind … I heard myself say, ‘I John, take you, Anne … .” At the wedding reception, he resists leaving until it’s so late “I was out of excuses.” Finally getting to the bridal suite, he carries his wife “over the threshold (how light she felt!) and into the room. Lush, wood trim stretched everywhere.”
After two miscarriages they have a baby boy. Paulk fantasizes his son as “a tall, thin young man … a younger version of Billy Graham … travel[ing] the country someday” telling thousands he’s “living proof [that] sexual orientation can change.” He’ll be “a living defense for us.” That vision, he says, reminds him “of other spotlights I myself once basked in” on the drag queen circuit. Thus ends “the remarkable story of how one man overcame homosexuality.” For now.