Wayne Besen: Longtime activist who doesn’t back down

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Wayne Besen

With the possibility of impeachment on the table against the sitting president, the pipe dream was that we’d be rid of our current unpleasant situation, but the reality is that we then would have to contend with a (close your eyes) President Pence. The man who wanted to hold back the Ryan White Care Act until assured that the money would go toward organizations that “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior” — a not so subtle endorsement for conversion therapy. This week’s portrait is someone who has been battling men like Pence, and who believes that all we need is a little prayer to cure what ails us. 

Wayne Besen is one of my new heroes. I spent time watching tapes of him on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, along with countless other clips, starting from when he was a campaign organizer in Broward County, Florida, in 1994. There, he helped get signs supporting LGBTQ rights in buses around the city. Footage of him fighting the “ex-gay” movement in the late ’90s, getting into it with Roseanne Barr and exposing the ex-gay movement on “The Daily Show” can be found easily. An imposing figure, he didn’t back down to shouting opponents like Sean Hannity and, in most cases, topped their rhetoric. But the thing I loved best were the zingers that he quickly tossed off — about homophobic pundit Dr. Laura, he said on air, “She’s got no more credibility than Dr. Seuss or Dr. J!” On an edition of “Hard Copy,” he said, “Fred Phelps is a walking hate crime.” When defending a poster from Folsom Street East depicting the Last Supper with the disciples all in leather, he said, “If the conservatives were really worried about how Christianity is portrayed, they’d get Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter off the air.” He’s been written about and quoted in Rolling Stone, USA Today, The Washington Post and many more. Besen is the founding executive director of Truth Wins Out, the Center Against Religious Extremism (TWOCARE.org) and author of “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.” 

Always outspoken, at 18, he sat his parents down and said he had something important to tell them. Sensing something was wrong, his father nervously blurted out, “Did you get your girlfriend pregnant?” To which Wayne replied, “You’re going to wish that was true in about five seconds.” 

What was your parents’ initial reaction?

They were completely shocked. My dad was like, But you still like sports, don’t you?” My mom was totally stunned. It was a different time; there wasn’t a lot of information out there for them or me. When I came out to myself the year before I was in high school in Honolulu, there was nothing for me. I called the Gay and Lesbian Hotline, and it basically just listed the bars and bathhouses in town. That’s all there was! So at 17, I knew nothing, and my parents had very little information either. Their first response was to get me an ex-gay DVD that could supposedly hypnotize people and turn them straight. 

I’m guessing it didn’t take.

No, no. And their response soon turned. It took them a minute to come around, but the activist that I am, I really pushed them hard, and in two short years, I had them appearing in LGBT ads with me! That was during the Dan Quayle “Family Values” charade, and I had them modeling in an ad that said, “Our family values our gay son.” When it came out, the newspaper blackened out our faces. I was furious, but they wouldn’t give us our money back when I complained. We had all sorts of problems with the newspapers back then. I give my folks credit, they turned everything around and became my biggest supporters and advocates. In fact, my mom edited my first book. I’ve been very fortunate.  

It sounds like it. 

But the experience taught me how difficult it can be and how important it is to have self-respect and to demand it of your family. If you say you love me, you want a relationship with me, you’ll treat me with dignity and respect, and if you treat me differently, we will end the relationship until you’re able to do so. I think too many people stay in toxic family relationships at great harm to themselves. They have to learn to walk away until they can be respected. 

You said you went to school in Honolulu. Where are you from originally?

I was born in Miami, and we lived there until I was 10, and then we moved to Texas. While living there, we went on a family vacation to Hawaii, and my parents liked it so much, they sold everything and moved there. That crazy thing that everyone talks about — leaving it all for paradise? We did it. And it was beautiful. I went to school on a crater overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and we picked papayas off of the school tree at lunch. How many people can say that? It was pretty cool.

What was on the “ex-gay” tape your parents got you?

It was really weird; it was part self-hypnotic. There was a guy with a deep voice literally saying, “You like breasts, you like the way women smell, you like the way they feel…” and the other side was like an anti-gay Enya song, soothing quiet music to turn you straight! You were supposed to discover the roots of your sexuality. It was surreal. I was lucky because I saw through it. Back then, they would say that you were gay because you had a lousy relationship with your parents, false, or if you were gay, you couldn’t play sports. Well, I played football. I was one of the best bowlers in the state of Florida, and I was an all-city basketball player. They said you were weak and cowardly, and I’d never lost a fight. So I was like this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and when I showed my parents, even in their desperation, they couldn’t ignore how absurd it was. 

When did you first figure yourself out?

I’ve always known, and it was very difficult to keep it to myself because I don’t like to lie. It’s very draining to have to play a role and be a professional liar — that’s what everyone is when you’re in the closet. Then you have to try to remember your lies, and it’s something I just couldn’t do anymore. 

Since you didn’t have much of a struggle with your parents, what got you into this fight?

Well, it was a struggle for quite some time. As captain of the basketball team, I had to have a girlfriend. She’s the first person I told. I was being a gentleman for a little too long. It’s cute for the first few dates, and then she was like, “OK already!” I felt like an actor playing a role. I remember one game where I scored 25 points and had 15 rebounds, but we still lost the game. Afterward, our coach was yelling and slammed the chalkboard down and said, “Everybody on this team played like a bunch of fa—ts … except for Wayne!” And I was thinking coach, “If they’d all played like one, we would have won!” So it was tough. It was terrifying, and coming out was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. But I never thought of any type of advocacy; I wasn’t politically engaged at all. I didn’t even watch the news. I just spent all day trying to sublimate my orientation by playing basketball for six hours a day. So when I came out, I had no idea about anything. I didn’t start reading or watching the news until college. I was in school in Florida at the time. I used to sneak into a bar called “The Copa” when I was 17. I had a fake ID, but it wasn’t very convincing. Just in case, I would go in really early before the bouncers came on duty, so I had a lot of time to kill. There was a gay newspaper in the bar, The Weekly News. I would read it and learn — “Wait? I can go to jail for having sex? You’ve got to fucking be kidding me? If that’s true, I’d already have 20 counts against me!” Then I learned that you could be fired and all these things I didn’t know. I would sit there, appalled and getting angry because I was always a fighter and very competitive. I was like, “How dare these f–king people talk down to us and treat us like this. How dare they try to impose their stupid religion. They tried to sign me up for their church before, and I didn’t want the membership. I rejected it. I didn’t believe what they were peddling, so now they want to go through the government in a circuitous way to make me adhere to their church beliefs? F–k ’em! I was mad when I realized the state of things, and I started getting engaged. I knew we were battling AIDS at the time. It was very scary — this was 1988 before there were many drugs, and Florida was the epicenter of the country for HIV. So there was that aspect of activism because people were dying, people you knew. Someone who looked fine the week before would come in looking like a skeleton or had gone blind or some other horrific thing. The indifference to the suffering I saw was mind-boggling — all these people dying, and the President of the United States barely mentioned it. They didn’t care, and I was very angry about it. It was around the time of Queer Nation and Act Up. I wasn’t the only one saying “enough” and coming to the realization that you are on your own and not going to get anything without a fight. And that’s what spurred me to activism. It felt like we were at a Stonewall 2.0 — it was a flashpoint. We were battling AIDS and having fights with Anita Bryant. Then after that, it was gays in the military. And it was a time of supercharged visibility for us, which was different. We’d never been this is visible in society before. The love that dared not speak its name became the love that wouldn’t shut the hell up. We were on the front pages of magazines; we were in the news because before that; we were pretty much hidden. That was my first campaign. I had an organization in college called Sons and Daughters of America, and it was all about visibility, to force visibility where it didn’t exist. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We put full-page ads in college newspapers saying things like, “Your gay and lesbian friends welcome you back to school.” We put up billboards; we had one over the federal highway in Florida and all over the country. We advertised on buses to raise visibility, and we got a lot of press. I was interviewed by CNN in college. It was a special time to be an activist. 

What led you to fight against conversion therapy?

My first experience was that tape. It was a small dose, but my second experience had to do with this young guy at the University of Florida. At the time, we had Paul Cameron, the supposed psychologist talking about branding gay people because we’re all child molesting serial killers, and he was doing a debate on campus. And there was this kid running around screaming to everyone, “I am changed! Exodus International and Jesus saved my life!” This was a kid who was like Richard Simmons times 10 proclaiming he’d prayed the gay away. I found out later that he was blackmailing guys on campus if they wouldn’t have sex with him. That was my second exposure to the bulls–t. Later I got a job at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in 1998, and just as I was getting started, the right-wing launched a huge “Truth in Love” ad campaign, which basically said that their homophobia was for our own good. That it was because they loved us so much that they wanted us cured and wanted to help us pray away the gay. Reggie White and Trent Lott were involved — it was a big thing. Because I was new, I was able to go to their press meetings without them knowing who I was. I was able to get information other people didn’t have, so I became the go-to guy for information. 

So tell me about your big get, which is how I first heard about you.

Well, there were a few. The first one I outed was Wade Richards. I was on a radio show with him, and he was saying, “I have changed. Jesus has saved me.” And on the air, I said, “Yeah, you sound very convincing right now, but you’re not who you say you are, I know that to be true.” He responded, “That’s a lie!” So I said, “OK when you’re ready to come out, you know how to get me, give me a call.” He told me that it would never happen. Six months later, the guy calls me, and I arrange for him to come out in The Advocate. Then, of course, there’s John Paulk.

This is the one I want to hear about.

Well, I was writing a book about ex-gay ministries like Exodus, chapters two, three and four were done, but I was really stuck on what to write for the first chapter. Then I got a phone call from a friend who I shared an office with, and he whispered, “Get down to Mr. P’s right now!” I told him I was working on my book trying to figure out the first chapter, and he said, “Chapter One is at the bar hitting on me! John Paulk, the king of ex-gay ministries is trying to chat me up! Get here now!” I don’t think I ever ran so fast in my life. I almost got hit by a car. I had one of those little Kodak disposable cameras in hand. I open the door to Mr. P’s, and there he was. I couldn’t fucking believe it! I snapped the picture, but the crappy little camera was slow, so he was able to cover a little. He tried to take the camera from me, and I pushed him into a cigarette machine. He tried to leave, and I followed him outside yelling, “You son of a b—h! How many kids have you killed with your lies! Here you are, Candy — that was his drag name from before he was saved — in a gay bar after going around the country and on national TV, Oprah and the cover of Newsweek magazine telling everyone you were cured and happy. Do you know how many people you’ve hurt telling them they can just pray away who they are? How dare you?” I kept following him until this homeless guy croaked out, “Hey pal, leave that guy alone!” [Laughs] I realized maybe I went a little too far. But I did send out the picture, and the story became national news. After that, there was Michael Johnston. After Paulk, he was the face of the ex-gay movement. They had a horrible story of “Innocence to AIDS” with his mom saying, “My son was such a good boy until he found drugs and homosexuality, and now he has AIDS!” He started the National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day and was Jerry Falwell’s personal ex-gay, and at the same time, he was holding orgies. [Glancing over] I have tapes of them, which we never had to use, but I would have. The organization came out saying he had some kind of moral fall and sent him to some sodomy addiction facility in Dry Ridge, Kentucky, and he’s still there to this day. And many more, I feel so lucky to have been able to expose these creeps. 

You are in the news often, and I love your comebacks. You do not back down.

They’re bullies, and I learned early on how to deal with it. When I was about 5-years-old, there was a kid in our complex, he was a scary looking boy, and he used to pick on me. I didn’t want to go outside, and my dad said you have to, and you have to fight him. One day I was outside with my dad, and we ran into him. My dad insisted that I take him on, and we went toe to toe. We fought until he finally fell. He never messed with me again. Once you hit a bully, they back down most of the time. Our opponents are bullies. They think they can shout and act like Jim Jordan, and you’ll be scared of them. But we can’t be weak because they will destroy us and they do hate us. They would kill us if they could, and I don’t say that lightly, but the evidence of what they did with HIV shows that. When we went to see our partners in the hospital, these mean sons of bitches would deny us visitation rights. They would snicker and enjoy our pain. It was very sadistic. The fact that they would deny funding for medication that would allow us to live, that they think it’s OK for us to be fired from our jobs just because we’re gay — I don’t see humanity there. Our opponents are dangerous. They do whatever they can get away with, and I don’t know what their limit is or if they have one.

I think we were lulled into complacency. Many young kids don’t feel the necessity for gay bars or community centers because they are fairly comfortable being out in a straight environment, and they don’t feel as many threats.

I think it’s even greater than that. I think the movement is on hold until we deal with the fascism that is taking hold all over the world. Because the laws we pass protecting us are only effective if there is the rule of law. If we lose our democracy and don’t have the rule of law or a constitution, then we are at the whim of a dictator and our opponents. One thing I know, in every fascist or right-wing movement, they start out not being completely anti-gay, even Trump held up a rainbow flag, albeit backward. Still, even when they start out seeming to be our friends, they can’t be, and the reason for that is that they all depend on legitimacy from the church, whether it’s Putin or Trump, they make a deal with the church, “I’ll hand over the social policy to you as long as you legitimize me.” That is how every right-wing government maintains itself. They pay off the church with power in order to stay in power themselves. And we are the victims along with other minority groups. If we lose our democracy, and we may have already done so since, as of this month, we now have an unaccountable king who can cheat in the next election. If he can, he will subvert with help from a foreign government, purging voter rolls and 1,000 other methods. And if he loses, he will claim it was rigged, and he has the attorney general on his side. And it’s going to affect the whole world. Right now, in Europe, the fascists are gaining power left and right. Putin is bankrolling these oligarchs to get them in power. So our rights must be second to defeating right-wing fascism. If we don’t, every gain we’ve had in the past 20 years could evaporate. It’s only a short time before social acceptance begins to disappear, because people who are scared, as we have seen with the Republicans recently, do things they wouldn’t have done before, like cheering on dictators like Kim Jong-un. Next, they will take over the schools and start teaching a religious agenda, and in just a few school years, society will change, and people will go back in the closet if they are afraid of losing their homes or jobs. 

And a lot of folks have families with kids now who can’t afford to be unemployed.

Yes, we’re really at a precipice right now. Hopefully, we’ll get through this period, and things will be OK, but we may not. And we’ll be looking back at the recent past as an extraordinary time of freedom and mourn it. We need to get rid of this tyrant and his cronies. It’s not even about the political parties. The fact that they would allow him to extort a foreign government to do a fake investigation against a private citizen to cheat an election and you let that happen, and then allow him to purge anyone who spoke against him gives me chills. Seeing them obstreperously cheer every time he uttered a breath at the State of the Union — it wasn’t normal behavior. We have nine months to save this country. If not, Trump will give them whatever they want. Forget conversion therapy; we won’t have the basic freedom to rent homes or buy cakes. They’ll have a pass to discriminate. We are under surveillance all the time, and the justice department can do whatever they want. Right now, we have freedom of speech and the right to protest and peacefully assemble. Once they take those away, there’s nothing left. I’m not trying to scare people but just saying we need to be very focused on what’s going on or all that we’ve worked for could be taken away. The LGBT community needs to be the tip of the spear because we have everything to lose. 

What are some traits that you got from your parents?

I have a good balance. My mom’s a fighter, but my dad has the calm head, so whenever I’m in a situation, right before I do anything stupid, I try to channel my dad and take a moment to breathe. They were also both voracious readers, and I read every day. 

What was the worst interview you’ve done?

I was in Florida, and there was a hurricane coming, and I was arguing with Dennis Prager, and I wanted the interview over so that I could get out. I can’t stand him anyway, and we shouted so much that they canceled the interview. The other one was similar. The limo driver got lost, and we barely made it to showtime. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the king of reparative therapy, was there. I saw his face, and I was so disgusted that I called him a quack. He said, “I’m not a quack! How dare you! You can’t call me a quack!” and I started quacking at him. I think we were on Hannity and Colmes or maybe it was O’Reilly. It was ridiculous. He deserved it, but it was not my best day. I got back to the HRC office in D.C., and my boss was looking at the transcript and said, “Did you actually quack at him?” And I said, “I’m sorry, sir, but yes, I think I quaked a little.” [Laughing] Not my finest moment! 

To hear more, check out his podcast, The Wayne Bensen Show.