By Jeff Walsh
Despite his 22 years, Wade Richards has already gone through more highs and lows than most people will encounter in a lifetime. A religious boy at 15, he fasted, prayed, and had his entire church pray for him to remove his homosexuality. It didn't work.
One day, he checked himself out of school, and ran away to New York City, where he began hanging out in gay bars, and using drugs and alcohol. Finally, he became fed up with the downward spiral his life was taking, and he turned to the church again. This time, they offered more than prayers, instead offering him a solution to change his homosexuality once and for all. So, he entered the program, and before too long was being heralded by the religious right as a successful "ex-gay." But despite their positioning, things weren't that clear cut for Richards.
"This ex-ex-gay posterchild... I hate that," Richards said, in a recent interview with Oasis. "I hate that more than anything. Just call me a youth advocate. That was my past. I know there are a lot of street kids out there living what I went through. But there are so many gay kids whose parents are supportive, and are involved in their GSAs on campus."
Despite appearing in The Advocate and on primetime news shows, Richards recounted his dealings with the ex-gay community in our interview like he was telling his story for the first time. Richards was very chatty in our interview, so much so that most of the interview was him telling his story unprompted from end to end. So, rather than fashioning a narrative structure out of it, and since there was far more A than Q, here in his story in own words (albeit edited for continuity and story structure):
"When I was 12 years old, I started going to a Pentecostal church. I was heavily into my church youth group and led a junior bible club on campus. When I was 15, after a good, solid year of fasting and praying, and having the church pray that God would change me and make my homosexuality leave, I was just discouraged. I said, 'You know what? This is a big joke. I'm gay and can't change my sexual orientation.' And I came to that when I was 15.
"When I was 15, I signed myself out of high school. It was the first week of my sophomore year in high school. I have no why, even to this day, that I was allowed to do that. But I was, for some reason. I was a rambunctious high school student, so I think they were relieved when I signed myself out. So, I signed myself out and ran away from home, so I had not been home since I was 15 years old.
"At that time, I didn't have any adult supervision, no role models, no gay peers, and I just went down a road of destruction. All I knew were gay bars. That was all that catered to the gay community back then, except for MTV's Real World with Pedro Zamora and Ricki Lake, there was just those tidbits of gays on television. I had nothing, really. So, I got into drugs and having all sorts of awful relationships, not knowing who I was at all. That went on for about three years, until I was 18.
"I was really afraid of hardcore sex, because the whole AIDS thing was going on and really in your face. MTV did an incredible job to get the information out there while I was growing up, like with the whole Pedro Zamora thing, and I followed The Real World very closely. That whole thing with Pedro was going on when I was 15, so at least in all my chaotic mess and unhealthy behavior, it scared me enough to not be as promiscuous as I could have been. I was just looking for intimacy, so as long as I was physical with someone in any way, there was intimacy.
"I had no passion for life. I had no goals. No direction. And no one to tell me... I didn't know, I didn't... all I knew about the gay lifestyle was what I saw on Ricki Lake. Honestly. I just thought it was all about partying and going to gay bars, because I was getting into gay bars since I was 15 years old. I was fresh meat, and I was getting invited to all these parties and going to nude beaches.
"My mom and my dad divorced since before I was even one year old. So, all my life, I was really starving for male affirmation and male attention and male affection. And I found that going to gay bars. Although it was inappropriate, it was there, and it was real.
"When I was 18, I moved to New York City to be a houseboy for a gay couple, and the job fell through. I realized I was making some major life-altering choices and I needed to take inventory of my life. Instead of moving back to Wisconsin, where I was from, I decided I was going to stay in New York, with forty dollars, live at Covenant House Youth Shelter, and pick up my life from the pieces I had left at that point.
"Some of the girls that lived in the youth shelter had invited me to go Times Square Church in New York City, which is a huge 5,000-member church, and the pastor had ties to the church I had started going to when I was 12 years old. So, there were ties there, and it was neat to be in New York City and see this pastor I met when I was 12 years old at this youth conference, who actually prayed for me when I was that age.
"I was in this 5,000 member church, and the pastor pointed me out and said, 'God has a plan for your life, Wade.' There are some major things that happened. There were a group of men at the church who just took me in and loved me, and weren't afraid of my effeminate behavior. They loved me where I was at, for no charge. I didn't have to have sex with them. They didn't want anything from me. It really changed my life.
"They were everything I didn't think a heterosexual man was. Every heterosexual man I had known had either beat me up, called me faggot, or wanted to use me for sex. That's how I viewed men at that point. So, I started doing Bible studies with them, and they just said 'God's desire, Wade, is for you not to be gay,' and I was like, 'Goodness gracious, I've been through this whole road before. I can't imagine going through the anguish and trying to change this again.' But if God brought me this far, you know, and all these things have happened, maybe I am not gay.
"My life was a perfect picture of what the Christian Coalition and Exodus International say the lifestyle is. It was a perfect synopsis for someone who would be ex-gay. From their teachings, I wasn't really homosexual. I was just vulnerable to homosexuality. That was the means to receive male affirmation, male affection, and male attention, three things I never received.
"When I went into the Christian Coalition and thought all these things I had learned about what they taught me were the non-sexual root causes of my sexual orientation, I thought, 'Wow! You guys are so right! This is perfect!' And then when I left, I felt so betrayed. I struggled with that. I struggled that they didn't tell me there were gay couples that had been together 20 years who have dedication ceremonies and live normal lives and have children. I didn't know that. I was naïve. I was friggin' 15 years old, what do I know about life, and about decisions.
"My pastor mentioned to me that he had mentored someone out of homosexuality, who was the executive director of Love In Action International, and they had just moved from California to Tennessee. So, I contacted then, and they said 'You're really young. We've never had someone your age go through the program and succeed.' In my interview process, I told them that this was life or death for me. I'm not playing. I'm on the streets literally. I need this program like I need the air I'm breathing now. They accepted me, and my life changed overnight. I went back to school and got a diploma, all these positive things. I started changing my character, just life-altering changes.
"There were all these steps that I began to be applauded for. 'This must really work, Wade is literally changing before our eyes. How amazing that because of Love In Action he is changing his sexual orientation through the power of God and the steps in this program.' But what was really changing was my character and behavior traits. The psychological steps that they do use, which are also part of the twelve step programs, they work. Narcotics and Alcoholic Anonymous work. When you are serious about it, you can change your traits. But I thought I was literally having my sexual orientation changed.
"I graduated through the program successfully, got accepted to Bible College, and thought I had this picture-perfect life now. I started dating a girl who was one of my very good friends in New York City. She moved down to Memphis to go to Bible College with me, then I got accepted to work with this national Christian youth organization in Los Angeles. Now, Love In Action is a residential ministry. You live there. It's not just something you go to bi-weekly. They are very sheltered and strict and you're under 24 hour surveillance all the time. So, I'm leaving my very sheltered, un-gay world -- all I did was go to church and college -- and moving to Los Angeles, four blocks away from West Hollywood.
"At first, I was so filled with zealousness, nothing would be a stumbling block for me. But, then I realized, I couldn't even go to the grocery store without having issues struggling with same sex attraction. It really began to puzzle me, because the tools I had learned didn't seem to work in the real world. I started to get very frustrated and beat myself up. I got very depressed and ashamed. I went through a two-week phase of closeted drinking behind this Christian façade, because I was literally, overnight, the ex-gay poster teen. I was the John Paulk of the ex-gay teen generation. I was going to be pushed into leading the ex-gay youth movement. I was speaking to the Christian Coalition and the PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays) conference, all over the country, and I didn't even know what was going on in my mind.
"Then it just hit me, that although I did learn a lot of amazing things at Love In Action about character and behavior traits, but there is no need to go through this thing again with destructive lifestyle choices. And it hit me, 'Wade, your life was not destructive because you were gay. Your life was destructive because of the choices you were making.' That light bulb went off and I knew I had to get out of there. I can't do this. I'm not going to be caught in a big scandal with some 'ex-gay guy caught having homosexual relations.' I need to get out of here. And I was starting to get lots of threats from the gay community, because of my involvement with Proposition 22 and the whole scandal with Dr. Laura. So, I figured the gay community really knows who I am here, and I'm really struggling because I want to go hang out in West Hollywood and find out what's going on down there, and I can't do this. So, I resigned from my position and moved back to Wisconsin."
After he had returned to Wisconsin, a friend urged him not to throw away all the work he had done, and urged him to live with other ex-gays in Maryland, which he did...
"That was just a big mess. The most unhealthiest choice I made. Here I was trying to live with these people who had not gone through a ministry like I had, so there were a lot of things I questioned in their lifestyle. One guy was obsessed with Mariah Carey and I thought 'to be saying he's a Christian, and changing his sexual orientation, that's a big no-no to be so infatuated with Mariah Carey.' Those things started to bug me.
"Back when I was in L.A., I had a media debate on a Fox News program with Wayne Besen of the Human Rights Campaign. Wayne and I had this huge debate and, at the end, Wayne said 'Wade, when you decide that you're really gay, I want you to know that we're not going to reject you like the right wing will.' So, to be a smart ass, I told him that when he decided he wasn't a homosexual and admitted he was living in sin, we wouldn't reject him either. But, while I was in Maryland, I was an hour away from him. So, I wrote to him and let him know that I was dealing with some major issues.
"What had happened was, I went to get an HIV test and the nurse saw me and said, 'My goodness, you look so familiar. Aren't you that boy that was on 20/20?' So, I told her that I was, and she said, 'I just thought, if I ever saw that boy, I just wanted to let him know that he is okay and not to worry about who he is.' And this total stranger just hit me and I broke down in her office, just bawling. My life was just about to crack and this woman said that I was OK. That was it. That was really the straw that broke the camel's back. And I said to myself, 'You know what? I'm OK.'
"So, I talked to Wayne and ended up hanging out with him in D.C. and then I was suppose to have this huge coming out, flying into San Diego and do this massive coming out thing on MSNBC and Fox News. I wasn't ready for that, though, so Wayne told the Advocate that I was interested in coming out.
"When I came out is when the vision for StandOut! really started. And that's where I am now. StandOut! has really become a national gay and lesbian youth advocacy organization. Our goal is to get youth involved in their community, activism, and education. Right now, we're working on the Diversity and Discrimination Awareness Project, and we've gotten all the contacts of the guidance counselors of Alabama and Tennessee area, and we've given them information to host a diversity awareness day, where one of our members will come and speak at their school. It allows us to make contact with the schools, so that our members can start GSAs there.
"We just had a new member join StandOut! and he's 20 years old. He's a virgin. He has no doubts that he's gay, but he's never had anonymous sex with anybody, never had issues with having to find sex in a park or a bathroom, and I just thought, 'God, he's such a breath of fresh air for me.'
"There's a whole stereotypical lifestyle as a gay person, and that's why John Paulk and myself were so perfect for the movement. Everything they're saying that's negative about the gay community, here we are.
"I'm a very rare case with the whole ex-gay thing. Not until recently have I really spoken out about how I really feel about it, because I did find a very good experience in it, but it's because I came from a very bad life experience. So, what I really needed was stability and I found that in a programmed setting, a structure.
"The only people who are still successful to this day that I went through with the program, are still involved with the program. Now they work for the program. And I think, as horrible as this sounds, if you're so healed, why can't you go out in the real world? Because you know you're going to fall? That's great comfort to the people you're trying to help.
"I talk to so many people who went through the program with me who didn't graduate, who either had a 'sexual fall' and either got discharged or left on their own, who are still trying to live this double life. I have a really good friend who, bless his heart, continues to solicit gay sex in adult bookstores and public parks, and he's trying to live this secret life. He said, 'Wade, I wish I could come to a place where you are. You're comfortable with your homosexuality, and you don't view it as sin. It's just another issue in your life, like you have blonde hair.' And I tell him all the time, 'You've just got to get to that place. Your life is so destructive right now. How different are your sexual actions than mine? They're not, except that they are covered up and unhealthy, whereas mine are healthy, monogamous, and safe.' And I'm finding unbelievable fulfillment. It breaks my heart. He left the ex-gay movement more disturbed, more guilt-stricken, more ashamed than he did when he started.
"They're offering a false hope. Don't say it's freedom from homosexuality, because it's not. I struggled with the whole Christian thing and homosexuality thing, and I'm just so over it now. "
Richards explains how he found his boyfriend Lance, upon his return to Wisconsin...
"I went through a week of going back to the gay bar, drinking, and hanging out, and seeing if that's what I liked. And it got old after one week. I had just moved to Madison, and we just got the Internet hooked up, and I was in a chat room looking for new people to chat with, because I was working a lot. But Lance was moving to Wisconsin, and he was online looking for friends in Wisconsin, so he would know someone before he got there. So, we started talking, and he was the only person I ended up talking to on the Internet. He moved to Wisconsin three weeks later, and we just celebrated our one year anniversary on November 30. So, I hadn't been dating.
"I look back at my life now, and it's so fulfilling. Our relationship is so pure. It's everything the Christian Coalition said would never happen and couldn't happen, because it's wrong. And, honestly, sex used to be just a means for getting off. But now it's so intimate. I never had the best sex in my life until now. Now I know what it's all about. It's amazing how complete my life is."