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New House speaker's views on LGBTQ issues come under fresh scrutiny

Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, has called same-sex marriage a “dark harbinger of chaos” and suggested it could lead to people wedding their pets.
U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. on Oct. 26, 2023.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., at the Capitol on Thursday. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The unexpected elevation of fourth-term Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana to speaker of the House on Wednesday swiftly prompted unforgiving criticism and fresh scrutiny on the once obscure representative’s views on LGBTQ rights.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, said Johnson would be “the most anti-equality” speaker in U.S. history.

“This is a choice that will be a stain on the record of everyone who voted for him,” Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. “Johnson is someone who doesn’t hesitate to express his disdain for the LGTBQ+ community from the rooftops and then introduces legislation that seeks to erase us from society.”

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., one of the few openly gay members of Congress, appeared to take a jab at Johnson during the speaker vote on the House floor Wednesday, yelling, “Happy wedding anniversary to my wife!” before voting for House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Even outspoken conservative Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had gripes with Johnson’s ascension to power.

“So we just elected a raging homophobe to speaker…..?” McCain wrote on X. “Way to break stereotypes and win over hearts and minds!”

A representative for Johnson did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding criticisms of his views and prior comments on LGBTQ issues.

Until Wednesday, the Louisiana Republican was relatively unknown outside of Capitol Hill, having only joined Congress in 2017. But after the historic ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as speaker and the failure of three other GOP members to clinch the House’s top job, Johnson —  who has been called an “architect” of the effort to overturn the 2020 election — is suddenly second in line to the presidency.

Amicus briefs and op-eds

In the early 2000s, Johnson worked as an attorney and spokesperson for the evangelical Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom. For decades, ADF — designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a designation the Arizona-based group disputes — spearheaded legal efforts to criminalize same-sex sexual activity, block efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, allow for businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people, and ban transgender people from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identities.

During his ADF tenure, Johnson sued the city of New Orleans in 2003 on behalf of the group over a local law that gave health care benefits to the partners of gay city workers. 

That same year, he wrote a prominent amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, arguing in favor of allowing states to criminalize same-sex consensual sex. The brief argues that sex between men should be banned because it is more likely to spread sexually transmitted diseases than sex between men and women and therefore poses “a distinct public health problem.”

Shortly after the high court’s 2003 ruling in the landmark case, where it struck down the nation’s remaining anti-sodomy laws, Johnson wrote an editorial for The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, in which he suggested decriminalizing gay sex could lead to the legalization of prostitution and illicit drug-use.

“There is clearly no ‘right to sodomy’ in the Constitution, and the right of ‘privacy of the home’ has never placed all activity within the home outside the bounds of the criminal law,” Johnson wrote at the time. “What about drugs, prostitution and counterfeiting? Make no mistake, the Lawrence decision opens the door to the undermining of many important laws and is ultimately a strategic first shot for the homosexual lobby’s ultimate prize — the redefinition of marriage.”

The following year, Johnson wrote another editorial in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Louisiana, suggesting that gay people marrying each other could prompt people to start marrying animals.

“Homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural and, the studies clearly show, are ultimately harmful and costly for everyone,” he wrote. “Society cannot give its stamp of approval to such a dangerous lifestyle. If we change marriage for this tiny, modern minority, we will have to do it for every deviant group. Polygamists, polyamorists, pedophiles, and others will be next in line to claim equal protection. They already are. There will be no legal basis to deny a bisexual the right to marry a partner of each sex, or a person to marry his pet.”

In a separate op-ed that same year, Johnson said that “homosexual marriage is the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.”

Support for same-sex marriage remains at an all-time high in the country. More than 70% of Americans support sax-sex marriage, according to a poll Gallup released in June, including 49% of Republicans. 

Entering public office

In 2015, Johnson ran unopposed for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. During his short stint as a state lawmaker, he introduced the Marriage and Conscience Act, which critics argued would allow people to discriminate against same-sex married couples. Johnson defended the bill at the time, arguing that it only prevented the state from taking action against business owners who exercised their beliefs on same-sex marriage, The Advocate reported. The bill was never brought for a vote.

SarahJane Guidry, executive director of Forum for Equality, a Louisiana LGBTQ rights group, said Johnson’s tenure in the state House was “short but impactful.” 

“He really did pave the way for the types of conversations, types of legislation and types of attacks that we’re seeing in Louisiana today, whether it’s the ban on gender-affirming health care, or the ban on trans youth playing sports,” Guidry said. “His track record, while he wasn’t here very long, definitely had a long impact.” 

The Republican Party, she added, “is really making sure that those very vocal opinions that Speaker Johnson has made in the past and is currently making are the interests of the party going forward, and I find that to be a very scary situation, for not only Louisiana, but the country to be in.”

Shortly after Rep. John Fleming, R-La., announced in 2015 that he would be leaving the House to run for a vacant Senate seat, Johnson declared his candidacy for the House and was elected.

As a member of Congress, Johnson chaired the Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus of conservative House members. Reports in 2019 found that the committee was pressuring Amazon to rescind its ban on books by an author who is considered “the father of conversion therapy.” 

On Capitol Hill, Johnson also spearheaded the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, which aimed to prohibit the instruction of sexual orientation, gender identity and “transgenderism,” among other topics, for children under the age of 10. The bill, which Johnson introduced last year, was seen as a federal version of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law.

A ‘dangerous’ House speaker for LGBTQ rights?

Gabriele Magni, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the school’s LGBTQ Politics Research Initiative, said Johnson’s ascension to leadership could be “dangerous” for LGBTQ rights. He said Johnson will be able to prioritize, fund raise for and give greater visibility to anti-LGBTQ policies in unparalleled ways as the 56th House speaker. 

“These are going to become even more mainstream positions within the Republican Party because they’re not the positions of the minority, but they are the priority of the leadership, someone who is second in line to the presidency,” Magni said. 

Johnson’s most recent Republican predecessors as speaker,  McCarthy and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, maintained anti-LGBTQ standpoints as well, though Johnson has put far more focus on the issue.

Throughout his time in Congress, Ryan opposed same-sex marriage, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, enacted in 2009 by the Obama administration, extended federal hate crimes laws to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities.

McCarthy voted against the Equality Act, federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, in 2021. As speaker, McCarthy — whose speakership became the shortest in more than 140 years — also did little to quell a chorus of increasingly bigoted rhetoric from several firebrand Republican House members.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga, appeared to celebrate Johnson’s election as speaker on Wednesday specifically for his stances on LGBTQ issues.

“Mike has a conservative voting record and has committed to helping me move important legislation forward, like my Protect Children’s Innocence Act, to end the genital mutilation of kids,” Greene wrote on X, referring to her bill to criminalize gender-affirming care for minors. “Let’s get to work!”

Several Republicans said they voted against Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., for speaker this week in part because Emmer voted for a bill last year that codified same-sex marriage protections into federal law. Emmer’s loss opened up the speakership for Johnson.

Despite being arguably to the right of his Republican predecessors on LGBTQ issues and more vocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights, Johnson’s positions are also largely inline with mainstream Republican ideals. The Republican National Committee’s most recent platform, dopted in 2016 and renewed in 2020, refers to marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman at least five times.

State and local Republican lawmakers have also shifted to the right on LGBTQ issues in recent years. So far this year, state lawmakers have introduced more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills, and at least 80 have become law, according to a tally by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

On Wednesday afternoon, after her initial social media post about the House speaker vote, Craig weighed in again, appearing to confirm that mention of her anniversary was a dig at Johnson.

“Proud to vote against him on my 15th anniversary with my wife, Cheryl,” she wrote on X. “@RepMikeJohnson, enjoy it while it lasts — it won’t be long.”