At the age of 18, Truth Wins Out founder Wayne Besen 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 5 seconds.” Then he worked up the courage to say the most difficult words he had ever spoken. “Mom, dad, I’m gay.” They were stunned and clearly in a great deal of anguish.
A week after the “great reveal”, Wayne’s family went to the Broward Mall in Fort Lauderdale. Suddenly, his parents’ faces lit up and their eyes widened with hope and joy. In Waldenbooks they spotted “Gay & Unhappy?”, which was an “ex-gay” healing tape. They rushed over and snatched it up, hoping it was a magical cure.
Wayne got home and listened to the bizarre tape. The A-side was hypnotic featuring a deep voiced man who tried to help him uncover alleged wounds from his childhood. The B-side had soothing New Age music, like an anti-gay version of Enya. The tape blamed Wayne’s sexual orientation on a bad relationship with his parents and his not participating in sports.
Wayne had always, however, had a close relationship with his parents and was a second-team All-City basketball player in high school. When his parents heard the conclusions of the tape, it deflated their lofty expectations. In their moment of suffering and desperation, an unscrupulous con artist had sold them false hope.
What Wayne realized from this experience is the danger of “ex-gay” programs. If they were able to appeal to his non-religious parents, imagine how seductive they would be to religious fundamentalist parents who were sold the lie that their children could “pray away the gay”?
“Ex-gay” conversion programs are particularly egregious because they seek to negate the very existence of LGBT people and strip them of their humanity. They falsely label LGBT people sick and sinful, while offering a justification for discrimination. Such programs gaslight LGBT youth, leading them to depression, substance abuse and suicide. They often persuade parents to offer ultimatums: Join an “ex-gay” program or become homeless and live on the mean streets.
Ten years after coming out to his parents (who have since become warriors for LGBT equality), Wayne began working at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. In his first month on the job, 15 extreme right wing organizations launched the national “Truth in Love” ex-gay advertising campaign, with the infamous tagline, “It’s not about hate, it’s about hope.”
Wayne was tasked with investigating these far right organizations and helping to craft a response. He authored HRC’s “Finally Free” report, which told the stories of “ex-gay” survivors. During this period, he made international headlines by photographing a leader of the “Truth in Love” campaign, John Paulk, in a gay bar. (John is now an out and proud campaigner against “ex-gay” programs)
In 2003, Wayne wrote a book on the topic, “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.” (Harrington Park Press) He embarked on a national book tour where he had the honor of meeting many survivors of “ex-gay” programs.
“I was so moved by their inspiring stories and humbled when they said my book helped them accept themselves for who they are,” said Wayne. “My goal has always been to tell the truth and save lives. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing people shed a façade and live honestly and openly as their genuine self.”
In 2006, the unthinkable happened. In an audacious effort to ban same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment, George W. Bush invited “ex-gay” activists to the White House. The message was despicable: LGBT people don’t need marriage equality, they need to change their sexual orientation to marry the opposite sex.”
“I was sickened that the imprimatur of the Oval Office was used to push the ‘ex-gay’ myth,” Wayne said. “I felt like I was eighteen again, but this time the President of the United States was peddling the “ex-gay” tape that ripped off my parents.”
Enough was enough! The “ex-gay” charade needed to be exposed as a dangerous and ineffective farce that preyed on vulnerable LGBT youth and their desperate families.
“The day the ‘ex-gay’ activists went to Washington, I launched Truth Wins Out,” Wayne said. “The rest is history – and thanks to our work, many of these groups are now history too.”