Wade Richards helped Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell rail against gay rights—until he came out. He tells Michelle Goldberg how O’Donnell abandoned him, and how her lesbian sister helped him accept his sexuality.
A little more than 10 years ago, Wade Richards, a tormented, deeply religious 20-year-old gay man, took his Bible school tuition money and used it to fly to Los Angeles to join forces with Christine O’Donnell, a budding Christian right activist. O’Donnell, a former spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America, had founded an organization called The Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, or The SALT, in 1996; it was meant to organize young people around opposition to abortion, sex education, and homosexuality. Richards had just graduated from an ex-gay rehab program and had been interviewed about it on 20/20. Ostensibly cured, he got in touch with O’Donnell and became The SALT’s outreach coordinator and spokesman on homosexuality.
The SALT wasn’t much of an organization. It was run out of O’Donnell’s apartment, where Richards lived for his first month in California, and the two of them seemed to be its only employees. But O’Donnell was good at getting publicity. She appeared frequently on Politically Incorrect and other talk shows, and the two of them toured the country, giving press conferences and speaking at churches and colleges about sexual purity and curing homosexuality. Richards, though, was having doubts, which he confided to O’Donnell. “I told her, ‘You know, Christine, I’m still super struggling with same-sex attraction,’” he says. “‘I don’t really know if this is real, if I can really be this changed person that I’m going around the country speaking and saying that I am.’” She paid little attention, he says. Campaigning against gay rights was too central to her mission.
O’Donnell “totally turned her back on me. I never heard from her ever again.”
It still is. Battling Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination in Delaware, O’Donnell spread innuendo about her opponent’s sexuality. A firm her campaign employed released an ad that baselessly accused Castle of cheating on his wife with a man, and O’Donnell accused Castle of “un-manly tactics” and told him to “put his man-pants on.”
For O’Donnell, such gay-baiting was very much in character. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, she protested the appointment of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, a posting the religious right opposed because Hormel was gay. “The SALT was concerned about Hormel’s ties to the pedophile-rights movement,” her website said, though there was not a shred of evidence behind the slur. In 1997, in a clip recently unearthed by Talking Points Memo, she appeared on C-SPAN, where, looking fresh, lovely, and innocent, she objected to AIDS sufferers being called “victims” because the disease is the product of their own actions. In an appearance on Fox in 2000, she exclaimed over the horrors of New York’s gay pride parade: “They’re getting away with nudity! They’re getting away with lasciviousness! They’re getting away with perversion!”
O’Donnell’s demonization of gay people is especially striking given the fact that, according to Richards, she has a sister who is openly lesbian. Indeed, it was meeting her sister, he says, that helped him begin to accept his own sexuality. “What helped me really come to grips was that her sister is an open lesbian and was living in L.A. and was in a long-term relationship and was working with a youth organization,” he says. “By hanging out with her, I saw, wow, she has a pretty normal life.” Being gay, he started to realize, needn’t condemn him to a life of seedy anonymous hookups, drug abuse, and nihilism.
Still, it took Richards several more months before he was ready to become ex-ex-gay. First, he went to work for a group called Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, whose founder, Peter LaBarbara, he’d met through O’Donnell. LaBarbara is among the most virulent anti-gay activists in the nation, famous for his prurient obsession with the outré corners of the gay sexual demimonde. After going undercover at an “International Mr. Leather” convention, for example, he appeared on Concerned Women for America’s radio show to regale his interviewer with tales of “grotesque hard-core homosexual pornography,” including urine fetishes and something called “pig sex.”
Richards was unnerved when he went into Americans for Truth About Homosexuality’s “media room” and found copious hard-core porn—for research, naturally—as well as leather bondage gear for undercover work. “The sad thing was, there’s that 80-year-old grandma in Wichita, Kansas, thinking she’s donating this money to a good cause, and it’s going to who knows what kind of ‘research,’” says Richards. “As someone struggling with same-sex attraction, I thought, this is really not a place I need to be hanging out in.”
Eventually, Richards reached out to Wayne Besen, the founder of Truth Wins Out, a group that battles anti-gay religious extremism. The two had met when they debated on Alan Colmes’ radio show. Richards finally came out in an article in The Advocate in 2000. After that, he says, O’Donnell “totally turned her back on me. I never heard from her ever again. That’s been my experience with the Christian community in general. The minute I was struggling and saying, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t know really where I am with this,’ that’s when everyone really turned their back on me.”
O'Donnell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Today Richards, who works as a hairdresser in Arizona, says he is doing fine, but, says Besen, “I think he was harmed by Christine O’Donnell. Christine O’Donnell was toeing the party line at the expense of an individual. Often these groups, in pushing their dogma, they overlook that there’s a human being that’s having their lives upended.”
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.