FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, a political arm of theocratic-leaning Coral Ridge Ministries, has closed its doors. In 1998, the Center, which was then led by anti-gay activist Janet Folger, gained notoriety by leading a divisive national advertising campaign that featured so-called “ex-gays.”
‘Ex-gay’ Michael Johnston was a spokesperson for The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ before he was exposed as a participant at a bareback sex party.
The Center’s influence quickly declined after its “ex-gay” poster boy Michael Johnston was caught in a 2003 sex scandal.
“We celebrate the demise of one of the most insidious anti-gay groups in America to incite intolerance by pumping out virulently anti-gay propaganda,” says Wayne Besen, executive director for Truth Wins Out (TWO), a non-profit organization that counters right-wing propaganda. “The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ bet the bank on the ‘ex-gay’ message, and by doing so, bankrupted their credibility after their rising ‘ex-gay’ star crashed and burned.”
The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ featured Michael Johnston, an HIV-positive “ex-gay” leader in a million dollar print and television advertising campaign in 1998. In the notorious TV ad, Johnston’s mother, Frances, used convoluted logic to explain how homosexuality led to her son contracting HIV. In a full-page print version that ran in the Miami Herald, Johnston is shown as a young boy blowing out birthday candles under the headline, “From Innocence to AIDS.”
In August 2003, Johnston’s claims at sexual conversion collapsed. Michael Hamar, a Virginia attorney, contacted Besen to say he had a client who had been having an affair with Johnston, not realizing, at first, Johnston’s true identity as a prominent “ex-gay” figure. Besen was also introduced to another young man who claimed to have had unprotected sex with the ex-gay leader. While in Virginia, Besen was shown a video of a man that looked eerily similar to Johnston having unprotected sex with several men. Hamar’s client signed an affidavit swearing the man was Michael Johnston.
The news broke in Southern Voice, a respected gay publication in Atlanta. Johnston resigned his ministry in disgrace and fled to a sex addiction facility in Kentucky called Pure Life Ministries, where he sought counseling. The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ never recovered from this scandal and lost much of its self-proclaimed moral authority on gay issues.
“This is a cautionary tale for right-wing organizations that think jumping on the ‘ex-gay’ bandwagon is good politics,” said TWO’s Besen. “In the short term, it might cause some opponents to shudder, but in the end, it may lead to the shuttering of windows and doors with a sign that reads, ‘Out of Business.’”