Credit: (Robert Ullman)

Last month, Robert Rigby approached a booth at the Arlington County Fair staffed by volunteers with Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), a group dedicated to the rights of recovering homosexuals. Rigby was already familiar with the message the ex-gays were peddling. As an ex-ex-gay, he had considered the PFOX position for 17 years before deciding to live openly as a gay man.

Rigby didn’t stick around long enough to dispute the fine points of sexual orientation with the PFOX volunteers. All he wanted was the brochures, to make sure he was up to date on the ex-gay movement’s latest obsessions. “I didn’t discuss ex-gay anything. I talked to them about Latin,” says Rigby, 46, who for the past decade has taught the language to Fairfax County high schoolers. “The kids think I teach too much grammar, not enough mythology,” he announced to the PFOX volunteers as he discretely collected the organization’s pamphlets for further review.

Discretion is key in the vicinity of PFOX propaganda. Periodically, the group alerts its followers to assaults against an ex-gay manning one of the organization’s booths. In 2006, ex-gay activist Greg Quinlan claims he was assaulted at a National Education Association convention in Florida by gay activist Wayne Besen. In 2007, PFOX claimed that an unnamed ex-gay volunteer was attacked at the Arlington County Fair by an unknown (but gay) assailant. Weeks later, at the Falls Church Fair, a PFOX volunteer accused Falls Church News-Press editor Nicholas Benton—also gay—of “looking like the guy who assaulted the ex-gay at the Arlington Fair.”

“Their strategy is to create fake hate crimes,” says Besen, who says he ended up on the wrong end of a PFOX accusation only after first receiving a threatening chest-bump from the ex-gay. “They are attempting to portray ex-gays as victims of discrimination to get legal recognition. They’ll wait until there are four of them and one of you, and no witnesses, and then call the cops. But there’s never any ‘there’ there,” Besen says. “The fear is that somebody, under the right circumstances, could actually end up in trouble over this. So I urge everyone to do anything they can to just stay away from them.”

Steering clear of “ex-gay” propaganda is one thing. Sidestepping the legal and cultural impact of groups like PFOX is quite another. Over the years, PFOX’s fight for ex-gay rights has evolved past the convention pissing match. Wherever a “gay-affirming” message slips into a curriculum, a lawbook, or a convention floor, PFOX is there to demand that the “ex-gay” perspective be heard. In 2005, PFOX sued Montgomery County Public Schools in an attempt to halt the planned sexual orientation training in the revised sex-ed curriculum. In 2007, the group took on Arlington Public Schools for refusing to distribute ex-gay fliers to schoolchildren. PFOX’s court appearances are met with varying success—both school suits were settled out of court—but PFOX keeps filing.

Whether the group wins or loses, the effect is the same. By drawing attention to gay “conversion,” PFOX attacks homosexuality itself, along with campaigns for gay rights. And even when PFOX doesn’t manage to thwart progress in the gay rights movement, it ensures that the process will be extremely irritating.

The irritation is starting to spread to the District. This summer, a D.C. Superior Court judge issued a ruling in response to a discrimination complaint brought by PFOX. Though the court determined that the group hadn’t been victimized in this particular case, it did rule that ex-gays ought to be protected under the D.C. Human Rights Act’s sexual orientation clause, alongside heterosexuals, bisexuals, and gays.

Protecting various groups from discrimination is a noble pursuit. But are there any ex-gays in town?

Where would PFOX be without conventions?

In 2002, the group applied to secure a display at the National Education Association’s annual convention. PFOX submitted an application, signed a deposit check, and prepared its exhibit: an educational display, it claimed, “to promote tolerance and equality for the ex-gay community.” The NEA denied PFOX’s application, citing limited booth space. PFOX suspected there was another motive at play: sexual orientation discrimination.

In 2005, PFOX filed a discrimination claim with the D.C. Office of Human Rights against the NEA for “refusing to provide public accommodations to ex-gays.” When the OHR sided with the association, PFOX appealed. D.C. Superior Court Judge Maurice Ross handed down the decision in June of this year: PFOX’s discrimination complaint was again denied.

But Ross handed PFOX a symbolic victory. While he decided in the NEA’s favor, Ross also held that ex-gays should, in fact, be protected under the sexual orientation clause of the D.C. Human Rights Act. In Ross’ view, the Human Rights Act protects not only groups defined by “immutable characteristics,” as the Office of Human Rights’ decision claimed. The act also protects groups defined by “preference or practice”—like people who previously “practiced” gayness and now “prefer” to practice heterosexuality.

“OHR’s determination that a characteristic must be immutable to be protected under the HRA is clearly erroneous as a matter of law,” Ross wrote. “Indeed, the HRA lists numerous protected categories such as religion, personal appearance, familial status, and source of income, which are subject to change.” But while Ross found that the NEA couldn’t discriminate against ex-gays, it may legally discriminate against exhibits that are explicitly anti-gay: “In NEA’s judgment, PFOX is a conversion group hostile toward gays and lesbians,” Ross wrote. “Indeed, the HRA would not require NEA to accept an application from the Ku Klux Klan or a group viewed by the NEA as anti-labor union or racist.”

PFOX’s celebratory press release about the ruling didn’t mention that the judge saw fit to make an analogy to the KKK. The embrace of D.C.’s sexual-orientation law was a bit of a departure for PFOX, which has spent most of its history rallying against anti-discrimination protections for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Regina Griggs of Reedville, Va., who serves as PFOX’s executive director, called the case “precedent setting” and announced PFOX’s new position on sexual-orientation protections: “By failing to protect former homosexuals, the sexual orientation laws gave more rights to homosexuals than heterosexuals who were once gay.” Quinlan chimed in to announce PFOX’s newfound mission: “All sexual orientation laws and programs nationwide should now provide true diversity and equality by including former homosexuals,” he said. “I have experienced more personal assaults as a former homosexual than I ever did as a gay man.”

The idea of “ex-gay” protections in D.C. may inspire the litigious group to file more discrimination complaints, sue more school boards, and report more booth harassment in the District of Columbia. But the new tactical advantage also presents a logistical problem for the group. If PFOX intends to capitalize on D.C.’s broad anti-discrimination laws, it’s going to have to find some actual ex-gays to offer up for discrimination.

Unfortunately for PFOX and reporters on the sexual-orientation beat, ex-gay Washingtonians are hard to come by. Since each of my dozen or so calls to PFOX headquarters went unanswered, I am unable to confirm any of the group’s purported ex-gay offspring or friends. J. Matt Barber, a member of the PFOX board of directors, tells me that he has “a number of very close friends who are former homosexuals”—none of whom live in D.C. I do track down ex-gay minister Anthony Falzarano, who founded PFOX in Washington in 1995. Falzarano was happy to detail the hundreds of male sex partners he had in his former life, but his flamboyant ex-gayness is no use to PFOX now—Falzarano has since left D.C. for West Palm Beach, Fla. Quinlan, PFOX’s current go-to ex-gay, once called D.C. home, but he has since settled into his heterosexual lifestyle in Dayton, Ohio.

After cycling through the more outspoken members of the ex-gay movement, I attempt to join PFOX’s “ex-gay” Yahoo support group, which claims 138 possibly ex-gay members. Before being granted access to the listserv, however, I am forced to testify as to my support of the cause (“Why do you support the ex-gay community?”) and submit some notes on strategy (“What do you think America can do to stop its phobia of ex-gays?”). I never hear back. In desperation, I contact Mike Blasenstein, a 36-year-old D.C. resident who detailed his own run-in with an ex-gay on local blog the New Gay in June. Blasenstein had his chance ex-gay encounter in a mountainous resort three states away. In 12 years here, he’s never spotted one inside the District limits. Sometimes, even catching an ex-gay in Washington is enough to bring him back to gay. In 2000, John Paulk, former ex-gay leader of Focus on the Family’s “Love Won Out” programs, was re-outed after being spotted at D.C. gay bar Mr. P’s.

Do the inner suburbs count? Reverend J. Grace Harley is an ex-lesbian who runs her Jesus Is the Answer ministry out of Silver Spring. Before God called Harley out of homosexuality, he called her out of Washington. “My move to the suburbs was strictly the spirit of the Lord operating in my life,” says Harley, who was lured to Montgomery County by an attractive woman and ended up renting an apartment. “Even though I was a heathen then, I know it was divinely ordained by God,” she says. “Now, I go to the Montgomery County school boards and speak out against the gay agenda.”

If there are any ex-gays left in Washington, D.C., they are tucked discretely back into the closet. “There is a large population of ex-gays, but they dare not speak as I speak about being ex-gay,” says Harley. “They dare not associate too openly with me because then people may think they are ex-gay. They’re just going to church, living normal lives with their husbands, like happily ever after.”

In 1999, Rigby almost raised the local ex-gay population by one—but not quite. Rigby was fresh out of the ex-gay movement and a lapsed member of PFOX’s ex-gay Listserv when he moved to Fairfax for a teaching job. Rigby, who serves as a mentor to the county school district’s Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA), says he hasn’t encountered an openly ex-gay kid in a decade of teaching—though he’s met many who flitted in and out of the closet in their high school years. “It’s called the coming-out process,” says Rigby. “We all go through that.” In 2005, PFOX attempted to drum adolescent ex-gays out of hiding by offering up an antidote to the GSA. PFOX’s version, dubbed “Ex-Gays and Everstraights”—that would be heterosexuals who have never identified as gay—never really caught on. “Not one group started up in the entire country,” Rigby says. “I just don’t think an ex-gay student was interested.”

PFOX has always had a hard time getting ex-gays to join the club. PFOX’s board of directors includes a surplus of everstraights but few former homosexuals. Parents of openly ex-gay children are also in short supply. The closest the group comes to fulfilling its name is Griggs, who speaks publicly about her loving—and disapproving—relationship with her openly gay son.

Beyond the one hopeful parent of a future ex-gay, PFOX’s directors are more fit to provide political influence than ex-gay support. Paul Rondeau, the group’s president, is not ex-gay. Estella Salvatierra, vice president, is a civil rights attorney and is not ex-gay. If Scott Strachan, the group’s secretary, is ex-gay, he’s not talking about it. Michelle Hoffman, the treasurer, once told the Montgomery County School Board that “I know many former homosexuals and am proud to call them my friends.” Peter Sprigg, a director, is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council and has publicly identified as everstraight. Retta Brown, a director, is not ex-gay. Robert Knight, a former director of Concerned Women for America, is not a woman and is not ex-gay. Barber, a director, works at Liberty University Law School and is not ex-gay. Quinlan, a director, is ex-gay.

Thanks to Quinlan, the closest ex-gay connection that most PFOX members claim is that they are the “friends” of an ex-gay. They better be. The organization’s ex-gays are stuck with the dirty work: fighting off homosexual urges, inserting themselves into possibly discriminatory scenarios, and never, ever accomplishing the full heterosexuality of the everstraights. Ex-gays aren’t even welcome in PFOX meetings. In an e-mail posted on one ex-gay message board, a PFOX rep made the group’s target audience clear: “PFOX meetings are for families and friends of strugglers only, and not for ex-gays.”

How has PFOX managed to build the local ex-gay movement with the participation of so few actual ex-gays? Through the clever use of a smokescreen. The group claims to represent relatives and friends of ex-gays, which is code for the true constituency—Christian conservatives. Accordingly, PFOX does not deal in ex-gay counseling, therapy, or support groups; PFOX sues people. For that, it requires access to lawyers and lobbyists, not guys who can grant interviews about the decades they spent giving head in gay bathhouses. Never mind that Washington, D.C., is too liberal and gay to support any real ex-gay population—it provides the ideal base for an ex-gay front organization. For the past 14 years, PFOX has courted the attention of national conservative groups and legal funds in D.C. while waging its local turf wars across Maryland and Virginia—all the while quietly ignoring the interests of ex-gays.

Case in point: In 2005, PFOX secured its greatest victory yet when it sued Montgomery County Public Schools over the sexual-orientation training in its high-school sex-ed curriculum. PFOX and Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, who sued together, settled with Montgomery County for $36,000. The money was quickly whisked away to the Liberty Counsel, which provided legal assistance to the groups. But the settlement did secure one lasting victory for PFOX: an automatic seat on the county’s curriculum advisory board. Self-proclaimed everstraight Peter Sprigg filled PFOX’s seat. Jim Kennedy, who served on the board with Sprigg for four years, says the PFOX seat provided the committee with a right-wing perspective but little ex-gay advocacy. After a couple of years trying to sneak “ex-gay” into the curriculum, Sprigg “would bring up ex-gay thing like twice a year,” says Kennedy. “He didn’t seem too focused on it.”

Of PFOX’s 10-person board of directors, nine claim a home base in Maryland, Virginia, or D.C.; Quinlan, the group’s token ex-gay, is the only non-local. For years, PFOX was content to keep the ex-gay perspective on the outskirts of the organization. Falzarano formed the group in 1995 as an alternative to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). But Falzarano would turn out to be the first in a line of PFOX ex-gays who would be deployed and disposed of at the organization’s convenience. In 1998, Falzarano was forced out of the group after accusing the religious right of using ex-gays as political pawns. Succeeding Falzarano as the ex-gay face of PFOX was Richard Cohen, a Bowie-based “sexual reorientation” therapist. Cohen was similarly scrubbed from the group after he demonstrated his bizarre therapeutic techniques on national television. His “touch therapy,” in which a man pets and rocks another man in his arms in order to re-create the parental bond, came off as particularly homoerotic. “When he actually went on television, they realized it did not look good,” says Rigby. “He embarrassed them with his man-hugging and pillow-thumping.”

The visibility of ex-gays is necessary to PFOX’s survival, but the ex-gay reality is often too strange, off-message, or gay to sit well with the everstraight conservatives who make up PFOX’s inner sanctum. PFOX’s new legal strategy, however, actually encourages ex-gay public embarrassment—by attempting to coax gays and ex-ex-gays into harassing them, much as a defender in basketball strains to draw a charging foul. In Quinlan, who has a history of alleging physical and verbal attacks at the hands of gays, PFOX may have finally found a fitting ex-gay poster boy for PFOX’s political cause. He may be the only one. “They’re using ex-gay people in public venues as bait,” says Rigby. “But I don’t think they have enough ex-gay people to pursue that as a strategy. They just don’t know enough people who identify as ex-gay who would be willing to file such suits.”

Due to an error by Amanda Hess, this story incorrectly referred to a local blogger as “Mike Blasen.” The blogger’s name is Mike Blasenstein.