How new House Speaker Mike Johnson spent years fighting against gay rights

The staunch social conservative previously called gays “destructive.”

October 25, 2023, 7:26 PM

In the wake of an unprecedented three-week void without a House speaker, Republicans on Wednesday elected Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson. While he is recognized within some Washington circles for his deeply conservative stances, Johnson, who was most recently the House GOP conference's vice chair, remains relatively obscure beyond the Capitol.

But prior to joining Congress in 2017, he spent years building his career and profile by denouncing gay people and fighting against gay rights, which he staunchly opposes, citing his Christian faith and views on liberty.

An ABC News examination of public records, news reports and documents shows the extent to which Johnson dedicated earlier phases of his career to limiting gay rights, including same-sex marriage and health care access, and through anti-gay activism on college campuses.

In comments from over fifteen years ago, long before he became a lawmaker and while acting as an attorney and spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian advocacy group, Johnson described homosexuals as "sinful" and "destructive" and argued support for homosexuality could lead to support for pedophilia. He also authored op-eds that argued for criminalizing gay sex.

"There is clearly no 'right to sodomy' in the Constitution," Johnson wrote in a 2003 column in a Louisiana newspaper. "And the right of 'privacy of the home' has never placed all activity with the home outside the bounds of the criminal law."

In 2005, during nationwide Day of Silence protests aimed at addressing anti-gay bias in schools, Johnson and the ADF spearheaded a college campus counterprotest dubbed the "Day of Truth." Defending the counterprotest, Johnson at the time said anti-gay protesters were "sharing the truth out of love and compassion," adding that the "truth" was based on a strict interpretation of the Bible that "if someone's trapped in a homosexual lifestyle, it's dangerous."

Before his congressional career, Johnson wore multiple hats: as a conservative talk radio host, a columnist, a college professor and a constitutional law seminar instructor, as well as a brief stint as a state lawmaker.

Elected to the House in 2016, Johnson was part of the Republican surge that accompanied former President Donald Trump's rise to power.

While in Congress, Johnson served on Trump's legal defense team during his two Senate trials on impeachment charges and he voted against bipartisan legislation to codify same-sex marriage.

He was also instrumental in drafting legislation like the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, which was introduced in late 2022 but never brought to the floor and would have prevented the use of federal money to "develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually oriented program, event, or literature" for kids under 10, with proponents of the proposal saying it would keep inappropriate material from children.

Critics dubbed the bill a federal "don't say gay" measure, however, because they argued its provisions would be broadly used to restrict other kinds of LGBTQ content since "sexually oriented" was defined as including anything to do with gender identity, sexual orientation "or related subjects."

Representative Mike Johnson questions Robert Mueller, former special counsel for the Department of Justice, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2019.
Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson, in a statement to ABC News, called Johnson "the most anti-equality Speaker in U.S. history" while also noting his past support for efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Johnson's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

According to records, Johnson's time working for the ADF went as far back as 2002. The Southern Poverty law Center says Alliance Defending Freedom has "supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad" while claiming that a "homosexual agenda" will destroy Christianity and society," among other hard-liner stances on restricting LGBTQ people's behavior.

In a statement to ABC News, a senior counsel for the group, Jeremy Tedesco, defended ADF as "one of the nation’s most respected and successful U.S. Supreme Court advocates working to preserve the fundamental freedoms of speech and religion for all Americans" and pushed back on the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"Their end game is tyranny, not tolerance," Tedesco said.

At the 2005 counterprotest involving Johnson, ADF distributed T-shirts emblazoned with "The Truth Cannot be Silenced" and cards to students, expressing their refusal to support what they deemed "detrimental personal and social behavior," in reference to homosexuality, according to reports on the event.

Johnson said he hoped the event would be "peaceful and respectful" while not shying away from castigating homosexuality, stating, "You can call it sinful or destructive -- ultimately it's both."

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network at the time criticized Johnson and ADF's counterprotest for targeting gay students.

In response, Johnson told media outlets, "No one is for bullying and harassment. But that's cloaking their real message -- that homosexuality is good for society."

According to another news report, Johnson said being gay was "morally wrong and physically dangerous."

Challenging marriage rights and health care benefits

While working as a senior counsel for the ADF, Johnson fought for an amendment in Louisiana to ban gay marriage, which was approved by voters in 2004 -- part of a wave of such restrictions that passed that year nationwide -- and he filed suit against a New Orleans law that provided benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. A state appellate court ultimately upheld the benefits.

"These are people who believe in the sanctity of marriage," Johnson said in 2003, according to reports. He filed the complaint on behalf of six New Orleans residents over its law giving health care benefits to city workers' gay partners.

"The state has spoken clearly that municipalities shouldn't have the right to enter into this arena -- the redefining of the family," he said.

While arguing against granting the benefits to same-sex couples, Johnson made anti-gay comments suggesting support for homosexuality could lead to support for pedophilia. "When you tear down the taboos, the doors open up for everything. That's the danger," Johnson said. "We are not trying to tie homosexuality to pedophilia, but when you tear down one barrier, others fall. ... Let's stop here and draw the line here, because then it leads to sexual anarchy."

Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks after his election at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on Oct. 25, 2023.
Tom Brenner/AFP via Getty Images

In 2005, the Family Research Council, an influential right-wing lobbying group, honored Johnson for his work defending Louisiana's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Before the state Supreme Court, according to one news report at the time, Johnson told the justices that "the amendment has one purpose: to protect marriage from attack."

Later, while serving in the Louisiana state house, Johnson proposed a so-called religious freedom bill that supporters said would protect people from having to betray their spiritual convictions but which critics and LGBTQ advocates said would make it easier to discriminate against them. He pushed back against those attacks.

"I'm not a 'despicable bigot of the highest order,'" Johnson told the Times-Picayune newspaper in 2015, quoting how another politician condemned him. "I know that I brought this bill for the right reason."

"Defense of liberty is never easy," he said then. "It always comes at a cost." (His bill was referred to committee and never passed.)

Johnson, on Wednesday, was unanimously elected as House speaker by his fellow Republicans.

But some in his party don't hold his same views on gay people. In December 2022, nearly 40 Republican House members -- including some of those who later picked him as speaker, ending this month's chaos -- voted with Democrats to enact legislation to mandate federal recognition for same-sex marriages.

Johnson voted against the bill and called it "superfluous" because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing same-sex marriage rights nationwide.

Republican Rep. George Santos, the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress, was one of Johnson's earliest promoters for the speakership.

After Johnson was elected, Santos tweeted, "This is the man, right here."

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