EXCLUSIVE: RentBoy Talks About Rekers Scandal
Although he was at the forefront of "reparative therapy" to "cure" homosexuals, most Americans had not heard of George Rekers before Miami’s New Times, an alternative weekly, published a photo of him at the airport with a man identified as a 20-year-old escort. Since then, a media firestorm has broken over the story. Everyone from Jay Leno to John Stewart, from the London Daily Telegraph to the Huffington Post, Paris’ Le Figaro to Rachel Maddow, has commented.
Editorial writers, especially in Florida, but nationally as well, have weighed in. The New York Times’ Frank Rich wrote a highly praised column, "A Heaven-Sent Rent Boy," about the scandal.
Rich’s column pretty well distillates the schadenfreude (pleasure in another’s sorrow - and how appropriate, many feel, here!) being experienced by Rekers’ fall. "Rekers is in a class by himself even in the era of Larry Craig and Ted Haggard. A Baptist minister and clinical psychologist with a bent for ’curing’ homosexuality," as Rich describes him, Rekers attempted to explain away the hire by saying "I can’t lift luggage" - words that have already become the catch-phrase of 2010.
In the center of all this international hubbub is a young man known as "Lucien" on Rentboy, later identified as Jo-Vanni Roman, a Miamian immigrant who goes to college there but plans to attend school in New York. Overwhelmed by the media attention, Jo-Vanni has chosen a low profile, denying press requests from the nation’s largest news organizations after one interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Similarly, Rentboy.com, the website where Rekers apparently found Jo-Vanni, has been attempting to lay low. The proprietors of the site have turned down requests for interviews from every major media outlet.
EDGE managed to get them to speak for the first time since the scandal broke wide in April. I spoke to Jeffrey Davids, the CEO, and Sean Van Sant, the site’s director, from their New York City headquarters.
EDGE: This has been some couple of weeks for you guys! How do you perceive the media, editorial writers - and, yes, those TV commenters and late-night comics - have been treating you?
Sean Van Sant: Well, it’s been exciting to follow the news. We know we’re in the center of the storm, but we didn’t do anything to get the publicity. So far the coverage as it concerns us has been really positive. RentBoy has gotten a free ride from people who might have been down on us in the past.
People could turn on us at any time. But the culture has shifted. They’re looking at Rekers as a bigot and hypocrite. This isn’t about RentBoy.
Jeffrey Davids: Next to Rekers’ heart of darkness, it’s hard to criticize us. The suffering he’s caused is so dark and ugly, RentBoy.com looks bright and open by comparison.
EDGE: How do you feel about Rekers, as a client of one of the men advertising on your site, being exposed?
Sean: It made us uneasy from the beginning. We’re not in the business of exposing clients.
Jeffrey: We don’t feel good. Even if the guy is a total creep, we never had anything to do with the exposé. We just created a safe space where he could dip his pervy toe in the water and drown himself. We had nothing to do with New Times.
EDGE: Do have anything to do with clients? Any knowledge of them at all?
Sean: We don’t deal directly with clients. Emails are forwarded to clients. We never look at any emails. We never reveal anything without a subpoena -
Jeffrey: - only from law enforcement agencies, and only when we’re sued. We don’t keep an email trail. Our system in fact obscures the client’s email address.
EDGE: So you’re a "black box," as it were, a neutral site that merely facilitates the escort putting it out there for potential clients.
Jeffrey: The black box is a good analogy. It’s your vision and your pictures. We don’t see the buyer. We don’t know buyer. In all honesty, had Rekers been more discreet, if he’d taken a different flight from Jo-Vanni, he could have been doing this for years and years. He was just sloppy if he didn’t want to be discovered.
Sean: Escorts appreciate that we don’t out people. So far, there’s been no backlash. One columnist at one of the Denver dailies wrote a review and said some mean things about the escorts. People are always going to be snarky about rentboys.
It should also be noted that RentBoy has always been accepted as the place where Rekers found Jo-Vanni without any real proof -
Jeffrey: - and we’ve never confirmed or denied that.
EDGE: Even so, Rekers presents a particularly egregious case of someone who has spent his adult life actively working against us and making life hell for questioning young people. You wouldn’t expose someone like him?
Sean:In the escort business, you do go out with some unsavory characters. Sex is one thing, but what about a dinner when you start to talk about politics? Some clients have very unlikeable politics.
Jeff and I have talked about that. What if [former Chilean dictactor Auguste] Pinochet needed some love? What should an escort do?
Jeffery: Imagine if you were Jo-Vanni and Rekers started to read scripture to you.
EDGE: Did he? You must know that’s one of the big excuses being given by Rekers and the Christian right to try to save face in all this is that Rekers was "testifying" to Jo-Vanni and that’s why he hired him (as well as carrying that luggage, of course).
Sean: We went to lunch with Jo-Vanni. He said Rekers did not "testify" to him. I think Rekers did want to help Jo-Vanni with his life. He [Jo-Vanni] told him he wanted to go to New York to work his way through college, and he [Rekers] was trying to talk him out of escorting. But I didn’t hear anything about preaching to him.
EDGE: And now this guy, a married man and a father, has been exposed as having lived a lie.
Sean: He was leading a double life and probably had it coming. But I feel bad because he’s so banal and pathetic, such a sad character. Hey, if there’s a straight man who wants to experiment with an escort, that can be a good thing!
Jo-Vanni said he was an old man, and he really couldn’t lift his luggage. He said it was like being with a slightly dotty grandfather.
Jeffrey: At one point, he left his luggage in a cab. He was half-escort, half-nurse. Like taking care of a slightly senile, infirm gentleman who wanted to have a nice little trip to Europe and have nude massages every day.
EDGE: It’s kind of amazing in this day and age to see someone like Jo-Vannie not cashing in on his notoriety.
Sean: He came to New York to discuss his options about publicity. He’s had amazing offers - much bigger than Anderson Cooper, from all over. He turned them all down. He doesn’t want that kind of publicity.
Jeffrey: He was also sympathetic for Rekers. They still talk.
EDGE: Does he know who tipped off New Times?
Sean: It was someone who had access to Jo-Vanni’s RentBoy emails and found he was going with Rekers. Any escort going on vacation, it’s probably a good idea to have someone else read the emails and know what’s going on.
NOTE: I should add here that it’s more likely that someone in Jo-Vanni’s home base of Florida would have been familiar with Rekers, since he was instrumental in crafting a law that bars gay couples from adopting children in that state. Rekers’ involvement, with the state paying him a stipend of $120,000 for his "expert" testimony, has become a major issue in the governor’s race, since the state attorney general was the one who invited Rekers and authorized payment. He is now hoping to be governor and has since said that was a mistake - while fighting to uphold the ban against several local court rulings striking it down.
EDGE: One outcome of this whole firestorm has been yet another case of an escort making news. After Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Jesse James and all the rest, it seems escorts - male and female - just can’t stay out of the news these days.
Sean: Yes, and many are saying that sex work should be legalized and regulated. Escorting now stands as a sort-of special loophole. It’s sort of like medical marijuana. It’s legal but it’s not legal. It’s on the border.
EDGE: Before this, RentBoy was known among gay buyers and sellers, as it were. For the present, it’s become a household name. What’s that meant for the site?
Jeffrey: If you look at RentBoy today, you’ll see we’re getting people from Billings, Mont.; Albany (N.Y.); Woodbridge (N.J.); Portsmouth, Vir. People have been inspired to look at us from places where we never had business.
Sean: It’s drawn people from small towns. We never really had that before.
Jeffrey: If you don’t know anything about gay men, who’s going to teach you? And here’s Jay Leno, talking about us. I’m shocked at the ruralization of this service.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if Rekers - whose raison d’être has been to destroy his own secret life and the life of gay men everywhere - would end up making people feel OK about their sexuality? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony?
This article can’t end without citing the delightfully tongue-in-cheek "official response" of RentBoy to the Rekers scandal, which was read in toto on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program, among other places. It follows:
This week an anti-gay activist and family values crusader named George Rekers was caught by the Miami New Times returning from a vacation with a rentboy, and the story has turned into an international media circus, with coverage on CNN, Colbert Report, BBC, The Daily Show, The Tonight Show and the blogosphere. We were completely surprised by this turn of events and we are following it closely. At RentBoy.com, it is our policy to protect the privacy of any escort advertising his services on our site--the same goes for clients. Information exchanged between consenting adults meeting on our site remains private. Mr.Rekers has built a highly public, lucrative career out of shaming gay men and women. If it is true that he took a rentboy "on vacation," then he has brought this negative attention on himself. We reserve judgment, we don’t know all the facts.??Just to be clear, Rentboy.com is not an escort agency, we are an ad listing service for male escorts, where men place their own ads and work for themselves, so that clients can contact them directly. Our mission is to create a non-judgmental space where anyone curious about exploring male-male companionship can hire a man by the hour. We remain open-minded and devoted to privacy for the people who use our site, but we can’t take the risk out of leading a double life, or having a closeted or hypocritical career... If you’re a famous heterosexual homophobe and you appear in public with a rentboy with your pants down, you’re just asking for trouble.??If you would like to Take a Pornstar or Male Escort on Vacation, Rentboy.com is where you’ll find him. Excess baggage can indeed be heavy and there is nothing like a hot man to help you unload it.?
Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).