As the Republicans feud with Delaware’s GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell — and she feuds right back — the anti-masturbation candidate’s past returns. Not to haunt her, exactly, but to remind us from where she’s came, and how she developed positions like this one about AIDS. Oh, and how her anti-gay group got off the ground in the late 1990s with the help of then-20-year-old Wade Richards, an ex-gay who shared his homosexuality cure on 20/20.
Richards joined The Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, O’Donnell’s solo campaign against abortion and The Gays, even though he still struggled with his own sexuality, he tells The Daily Beast.
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.
But that’s not exactly news. We know O’Donnell has been, and still is, on a mission to rid the nation of “special rights” for our kind. What is news, however, is that O’Donnell has family that is family. Her sister is openly gay.
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.
For some Republicans (see: Dick Cheney) having a gay sibling is enough to give them a moral conscience. For others (see: NY State Sen. Ruben Diaz) it doesn’t mean anything.
Except Richards’ experience with O’Donnell doesn’t end there. On his journey to denouncing his ex-gay status, with the help of Truth Wins Out’s Wayne Besen, Richards (seen here in the 90s) started working for the Americans for Truth About Homosexuality — a connection he made through Delaware’s possible future senator.
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.”
And now Richards knows: The place he needs to be hanging out in is the press, sharing the stories about his former boss.