The young man sitting on a baggage cart at a Miami International Airport arrivals terminal seems worried. Lifting luggage is part of his job description, but his travel companion — a minister — and the bags are still at customs, randomly selected for a special security procedure.
The two guys standing nearby make the young man even more uneasy. One of them holds a hot-pink digital camera, and both are trying hard not to look his way. They keep stealing glances, which the young man tries to ignore.
George Alan Rekers
He has no idea the two guys have spent the past week studying screen captures of his emails — including the itinerary of his trip with the minister — sent by a friend he once entrusted with his passwords. In fact, the young man doesn't really know the man with whom he has spent the past two weeks.
Eventually, the minister makes it out of customs with his baggage cart. The 61-year-old with combed-over hair and a bushy mustache joins his young travel companion. As they wait for an elevator, there is a click and a flash, and the guys with the pink camera disappear.
In less than a week, that picture will circulate the globe, and George Alan Rekers and his travel companion, Jo-vanni Roman, will become household names. Had it been anybody else returning from a two-week European vacation with a gay male escort, the affair probably would have stayed in the family.
But Rekers — who is divorced with six grown children, one of them adopted — is a leading activist in the nation's anti-gay movement and a cofounder with James Dobson, America's best-known homophobe, of the Family Research Council. The Baptist minister and prolific author is also a board member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which champions a clinical "gay cure."
It doesn't take long for the story to unfold. On April 14, the day after returning home, Rekers receives a call in the middle of his workday. He sounds wary and chooses his words carefully when the caller identifies himself as a reporter for New Times.
"What, uh, what issue are you interested in?" Rekers asks.
The reporter, Brandon K. Thorp, reveals he knows the identity of Rekers's travel companion, Jo-vanni Roman. "Well," Thorp says, "I'm just curious why you were traveling with a 20-year-old male prostitute with long blond hair, a swimmer's build, and an uncircumcised penis."
Rekers stammers. "Oh — I just found out about that while I was on the trip. He was, he was, um, advertising himself as a travel companion, and I cannot lift luggage."
"Where did you find out about his services as a travel companion? Where were they being advertised?"
"I did a Google search for 'travel companion,' and he came up on that. I contacted him."
"Oh, I see," Thorp says. "It wasn't on Rentboy.com?"
Long silence. Rekers's voice becomes thin at the mention of the pornographic gay escort site. "I don't know if it was or not."
It would be New Times' first and last conversation with Rekers. As soon as he hangs up, he calls Roman. The two, Roman would later admit, agree to a bowdlerized story to hide the fact that the young man's contract with Rekers called for more than hauling the minister's luggage on their trip to England and Spain.
"We both decided to [cut] the whole idea of the masseur out of the script," Roman would tell New Times. "If we cut it out, we don't have to worry about it, and we can keep it pretty legit."
Contacted by New Times reporter Penn Bullock the next day, the 20-year-old escort is surprisingly warm. He agrees to an on-the-record interview at his house the morning of Saturday, April 17 — provided his name is stricken from any story that might result.
Roman opens the front door of his West Kendall townhome and shows the reporters into a small, tidy home, whose most ostentatious feature is an Alienware laptop glowing psychedelically beyond an open bedroom door.
The escort's tall, swarthy soon-to-be ex-boyfriend sits on the couch in front of the TV set. When he sees the reporters, he darts into a bedroom like a startled fish and doesn't reappear.
During the two-hour interview, Roman readily admits he met Rekers at Rentboy.com but insists there was no sex, sensuality, or come-ons during their vacation.
"We went to a lot of parks, restaurants. I mean, we were just talking about everything... And I was basically just leading him around, being like a tour guide," Roman says. "If [Rekers] was looking for someone sex-wise, there were so many other guys that were showing so much more" on Rentboy.com's profile pages, he says.
When Bullock asks Roman if he has recently edited his profile, his voice climbs a half-octave. "I kinda got freaked about the whole picture thing," he says, admitting he has deleted references to his "tight ass" and "8-inch cock."
The rest happens fast. "The Last Temptation of George Alan Rekers" hits miaminewtimes.com Tuesday, May 4, around noon. PZ Myer's popular science blog, Pharyngula, is the first to link, followed by Joe.My.God. and Queerty. Then the Advocate links to the story, and then Dan Savage, the Daily Beast, the Daily Koz, Salon, Slate — too many to count.
Within 24 hours, the fateful phrase "carry my luggage" would enter the popular culture as a catch-all euphemism for gay sex acts. Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Dan Savage, Joy Behar, and Bill Maher would all make the minister and his gay escort the butt of their jokes.
Although Roman is identified in the original story as "Lucien," his anonymity lasts for three hours. He is first outed by a writer for a porn website, who declares that any real journalist would have identified Rekers's rent boy. By late afternoon, hundreds of online sleuths have unearthed what seem like hundreds of Roman's pictures from his Facebook and MySpace pages.
Roman's phone won't stop ringing. Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and would-be friends form a processional to his door in Kendall. His boyfriend dumps him.
On Wednesday, May 5, the Rekers scandal appears on the front page of the London Times' website. It also runs in the New York Daily News, New York Magazine, the New York Times, and other mainstream media outlets, including papers in France, Germany, Spain, and New Zealand.
Terrified his conservative Puerto Rican family will find out he's a gay escort, Roman holes up in the Fort Lauderdale home of a friend. "I'm worried he can't take this," Bullock says. "This fucking story absolutely isn't worth it."
But Roman is doing better by 5 p.m. "I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he tells Thorp over the phone. "I've figured out a way through this."
"What is it?"
"You'll like it," Roman says. "You'll see."
Shortly after midnight the morning of May 6, Roman goes on-record with the two New Times reporters about what MSNBC's Rachel Maddow would call "a very, very specific massage" — one that Rekers demanded from Roman every day during their European trip.
During the three-hour interview, Roman explains he gave Rekers the same massage — which involves a technique the minister calls "the long stroke" — twice before traveling together. Asked why he has chosen to reveal this information, he explains, "I've learned that George really is an anti-gay activist... Also, I trust you. You didn't give out my name."
Around 1 a.m., Roman phones Rekers. The two reporters scramble to find something to write on — they did not expect the young man to call Rekers, especially at this hour. Bullock grabs a piece of paper from under a table; Thorp commandeers a computer and begins typing.
"Nobody predicted this," Rekers says over the phone speaker. "Nobody could know that this would happen... I'm sure if I knew or if you knew that something like this would happen, neither of us would have —"
"Associated with one another?" Roman interjects.
"Yeah... nothing is gonna come out good from talking to these kinds of people," Rekers says, referring to reporters. "Memories fade —"
"This is my fucking family, George!"
"Memories fade. If you're in New York — not everyone looks at the news... Over time, it fades — it impacts you more right at the time that these things happen."
"I'm gonna tell you right now, in all honesty, I never meant any offense to you when all this came down," Roman says. "And the only way, in all honesty, I can come out with anything good out of this is by mentioning what happened."
"Before you make any decisions, can you at least let me come talk to you tomorrow?"
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But they don't meet. Rekers will send New Times a questionnaire that a board-member friend from NARTH has helped him compose. In it, Rekers provides vague answers allegedly from Roman acknowledging all the luggage-carrying and Jesus-talking Rekers did on their trip. He will also threaten to retain a "defamation attorney," calling the New Times coverage "slanderous."
Within a week, his name will disappear from the websites that once boasted it proudly. The Family Research Council will claim to barely remember him and all but declare his guilt. "While we are extremely disappointed when any Christian leader engages in activities they 'preach' against, it's not surprising."
NARTH will issue no confident denials of the story, only assurances that it takes the Rekers allegations "very seriously." When New Times sends Rekers a series of interview questions via email, he says he's been asked by the University of South Carolina — the institution with which he associates himself at the end of every correspondence — to forward all questions to its spokeswoman.
"I am not a spokesperson for Dr. Rekers, but work at the University of South Carolina," the spokeswoman tells New Times. "Dr. Rekers retired from here nearly five years ago."