Some might say that it has been Janet Folger's mission ever since. "What I've done with my life is try to make a difference for good," says the former Christian-radio talk show host, "and to have as much impact as I can." At 36, Folger is known—even feared—in her native Ohio as a die-hard champion of right-wing causes, in particular as a zealous antiabortion lobbyist. Now, as head of the Center for Reclaiming America in Fort Lauderdale, she is hoisting what may be her most controversial banner to date—a national advertising campaign, including newspaper ads and TV spots that are set to air this fall, touting the theory that gays can change their sexual orientation through willpower and prayer.
"Thousands of former homosexuals can celebrate a new life," trumpeted the headline on one of the ads, which appeared this summer in nine major papers, including USA Today and The New York Times, "because someone cared enough to share with them the truth of God's healing love."
The inspiration for the $600,000 campaign—cosponsored by a coalition of 18 conservative groups—came to Folger in June, after Senate majority leader Trent Lott drew fire for likening homosexuality to disorders like alcoholism and kleptomania. "The hostility and backlash was phenomenal," she recalls. When then-White House press secretary Mike McCurry called Lott and his supporters "backward in their thinking," she says, "I thought to myself, 'We must respond.' "
At a time when gays have made inroads in everything from politics to prime-time TV, Folger's views may be a hard sell. "The right wing has seized on homosexuality because they think it's the last politically acceptable prejudice," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is gay. "Their sole purpose is to justify discrimination and disguise their cruelty. The question is why they put so much time and money into something so implausible."
Science isn't in Folger's corner either. An overwhelming majority of medical and behavioral professionals agree that true sexual orientation cannot be deprogrammed, and last year the American Psychological Association warned that so-called conversion therapy may well be harmful. "I have never seen it work," says Richard Isay, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College. "You can make behavior modifications for short periods of time by brainwashing, but at great personal sacrifice to the emotional well-being of the homosexual person who submits to it."
Unswayed, Folger insists the ad campaign "shatters the foundation" of what she calls the homosexual argument: "We know homosexuals can change because tens of thousands have done it." As evidence, she points to John and Anne Paulk of Colorado Springs, self-described former gays who married each other in 1993 and are now the parents of 23-month-old Timothy. John, 35, describes himself as a boy who was "skinny, uncoordinated" and without "any male role models in my life." By junior high, other kids called him "a fag and a queer." He had his first homosexual experience in high school, and in later years, while drinking heavily and working as an $80-an-hour male prostitute, he transformed himself into a busty blonde female impersonator named Candi. "The gay lifestyle," he says, "became the biggest part of my identity." In 1986, feeling "empty and miserable," Paulk met a sympathetic, born-again couple who suggested he immerse himself in therapy at a California branch of Exodus International, a Christian group dedicated to gay conversion. He did so in 1988, and several months after he completed its yearlong live-in program, a woman at a local church caught his eye. "All of a sudden," he says, "I was attracted to her."
At about the same time, Paulk met Idaho-born Anne Edward, now 35, who had lived unhappily as a lesbian before entering Exodus in 1989. During the course of therapy, she began to notice changes in her sexual identity. "At first they were very subtle, like maybe I'd put on moisturizer," she says. "But the interest in female things grew." Three years after she and Paulk met, they began dating, and then suddenly "I found myself physically attracted to him," she says. "If I hadn't been a Christian, I just don't know how much restraint I would have had."
Now her impulses are sanctioned by wedlock, and she and John are starring in the conservative ad campaign. They were enlisted this summer by Folger, whose kitchen is decorated with an I Don't Believe the Liberal News Media refrigerator magnet and whose desk displays a plastic, five-inch model of a fetus. ("This is you at 12 weeks," she tells a visitor, parodying her own in-your-face persona. "Let me shove it down your throat.") Her rightist crusades have been so diverse that ideological ally Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, described Folger in The New York Times as "an issue entrepreneur. Some entrepreneurs try to figure out what the new hot stocks are. Janet is someone who tries to pick the hot new issues."
The daughter of a retired trucking company sales manager and a daycare provider, Folger dates her activism back to the day an antiabortion crusader showed her 10th-grade class a photograph of discarded fetuses. "I remember thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening,' " she says. "I was kind of in shock." In 1988, after earning a master's degree in communications from Cleveland State University, she shelved plans for a TV career to work as chief lobbyist for an Ohio right-to-life group. There, Folger earned a reputation for badgering state representatives, sometimes barging into their offices unannounced. "She likes to intimidate legislators," says veteran pro-choice Democrat June Lucas, "and to make threats."
The guerrilla tactics proved effective; Folger helped pass three anti-abortion measures in Ohio before turning her focus to gays in 1997. Ironically a grueling travel schedule now leaves little time for Folger—who has never been married and who recently ended a six-month relationship—to start mapping out some family values for herself. But for now, at least, does this road warrior have any regrets? "No," says Folger. "I know lives have been changed because people have heard the truth."
Fannie Weinstein in Fort Lauderdale, Johnny Dodd in Colorado Springs and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.
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