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John Paulk Was The Poster Boy of the Ex-Gay Movement For 25 Years. Here’s Where He Is Now.

For over a decade, John Paulk was the poster boy of the ex-gay movement. As a self-proclaimed converted gay man happily married to his wife, an ex-lesbian named Anne, he made countless media appearances, spoke at Exodus conferences, and publicly advocated for “gay reparative therapy” for “broken” homosexuals. But in 2013, he reached a point where he could no longer continue living a lie. He tells the story of his journey in a new Netflix documentary, Pray Away.


Paulk came out when he was a senior in high school, and his family accepted him, he writes in a 2014 Politico piece. But around the age of 24, he became depressed, which he attributed to his sexuality. “In reality, I was tremendously insecure, lonely and searching for an identity,” he explains. At the time, he was attending Ohio State, and turned to the campus pastor for guidance. The pastor introduced him to Exodus, a ministry in California especially for gay people who wished to be converted and become straight for religious reasons. Paulk immediately signed up for a year-long residential program called “Steps Out of Homosexuality,” in which he lived with 12 other people, studied the Bible, and went to church. It was at Exodus that Paulk met Anne, an ex-lesbian on a similar journey to him.

The two married in 1992 and began having children. John became chairman of the North American division of Exodus and a permanent figurehead of the organization on the world stage, as Netflix’s documentary shows. The couple was on the cover of Newsweek in 1998, and made appearances on TV shows including Oprah and 60 Minutes. “Even as I pursued this career as a professional ex-gay man, and raised a family and loved my wife, I was in utter torment,” Paulk wrote in 2014. “I struggled off and on with addiction and wanting to take my life…I wanted my homosexuality to change, but the truth is: For all my public rhetoric, I was never one bit less gay.”

John and Anne Paulk outside their home in 1998.

Paul Gallagher – INAGetty Images

In 2000, the facade began to crumble. Paulk got drunk and wound up at a gay bar in D.C., as he recounts in Pray Away. “I wasn’t looking for sex. I just wanted to be among my own kind, to feel at home, for a brief period,” he wrote of the night, which became a scandal in his conservative circle. He was photographed and forced to resign from Exodus after the news broke.

In 2003, he moved his family to Oregon to live a life away from the public eye. Paulk went to culinary school and became a chef, opening up a catering business in Portland. He was still living his life as a heterosexual man, and his wife Anne still believed in the ex-gay movement, but he only got more lonely as the years went by.

In 2013, the founders of Exodus were forced to confront and acknowledge the severe damage their “conversion therapy” had caused over the years, and the ministry closed down for good. That same year, Paulk divorced his wife, and came out again as a gay man. He issued a statement apologizing to those his preaching had harmed over the years, too. “I know that countless people were harmed by things I said and did in the past, ” Paulk wrote. “I am truly, truly sorry for the pain I have caused. For 25 years I felt guilty and filled with self-loathing, trying to reject this part about myself. I’m culpable—I spread the message that my sexuality had changed, and I used my marriage as proof of that.” Paulk’s ex-wife Anne remains part of the ex-gay movement today through the Restored Hope Network, an organization that cropped up in the wake of Exodus’ dissolution to “serve those who desire to overcome sinful relational and sexual issues in their lives and those impacted by homosexuality,” their website states.

john paulk

John Paulk in Politico in 2014.

Politico

Like John Paulk, many ex-leaders of Exodus including the founders of the ministry recount their trauma, the harm their programming caused, and their sincere regret for that period of their lives in Pray Away. “It’s internalized homophobia: you hate what you are. It is a form of self-inflicted torture that has haunted me my entire life, and I do not want young gay women and men today to go through what I went through,” Paulk wrote in 2014.

Today, Chef John Paulk owns Mezzaluna, a catering business, in Portland, Oregon, where he lives proudly and openly as a gay man.

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