House Speaker Mike Johnson worked closely with a group in the mid- to late 2000s that promoted “conversion therapy,” a discredited practice that claimed it could change the sexual orientation of gay people. and lesbians.
Before launching his political career, Johnson, a lawyer, provided legal advice to an organization called Exodus International and partnered with the group to organize an annual anti-gay event aimed at teenagers, according to a CNN KFile review of more than a dozen . of Johnson’s media appearances from that period.
Founded in 1976, Exodus International was a leader in the so-called “ex-gay” movement, which aimed to convert gay people to heterosexuals through conversion therapy programs using religious and counseling methods. Exodus International connected ministries around the world using these controversial approaches.
The group closed in 2013 and its founder issued a public apology for the “pain and harm” his organization caused. Conversion therapy has been widely condemned by most major medical institutions and has been proven to be harmful to struggling LGBTQ people.
At the time, Johnson was working as an attorney for the socially conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). He and his group collaborated with Exodus from 2006 to 2010.
For years, Johnson and Exodus worked on an event started by ADF in 2005 known as “Day of Truth,” a counterprotest to “Day of Silence,” a day in schools in which students remained silent to raise awareness. about the bullying students face. LGBTQ youth.
Truth Day sought to counter that silence by distributing information about what Johnson described as the “dangerous” gay lifestyle.
“I mean, our race, the size of our feet, the color of our eyes, these are things we are born with and we can’t change,” Johnson told a radio host in 2008 promoting the event. “What these adult advocacy groups like the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network are promoting is a type of behavior. Homosexual behavior is something you do, not something you are.”
In the press, radio and television, Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, frequently disparaged homosexuality, according to the KFile profile. He advocated for the criminalization of gay sex and even went so far as to partially blame it for the fall of the Roman Empire.
“Part of the credit for the fall of Rome is due not only to the deprivation of society and the loss of morality, but also to the rampant homosexual behavior that was tolerated by society,” Johnson told a radio host in 2008.
Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for comment from CNN about his work with Exodus.
Exodus International joined ADF’s Day of Truth event in 2006 and the groups worked together on promotional material for the event, including a separate website that pointed users to Exodus’ conversion ministries. Documents on that website cited since-repudiated academic work in support of conversion therapy. Exodus Youth, the group’s youth wing, promoted the event on their blogs.
Videos posted by Exodus and ADF on their independent Day of Truth website showed two Exodus employees talking about how teenagers did not need to “accept” or “embrace” their homosexuality. The videos featured testimonies from a “former homosexual” and a “former lesbian.”
The website’s documents were not archived online, but were archived by anti-conversion therapy groups such as Truth Wins Out in 2007 and 2008. The website featured frequently asked questions about homosexuality provided by Exodus and sold T-shirts that read: “The Truth Doesn’t can be silenced.” .”
One video featured Johnson, who was later quoted in a press release on Exodus International’s website before the event, saying: “An open and honest discussion allows the truth to come to the surface.”
Johnson heavily promoted the event in the media, through radio interviews, newspaper comments, and an editorial. In interviews, he repeatedly cited the case of a teenager who went to school after the Day of Silence wearing a T-shirt that said: “Shame on you. Our school has embraced what God has condemned” and “Homosexuality is shameful.” The teenager was suspended and ADF represented him in legal action over the incident. The case was dismissed because the teen graduated and the court determined that he no longer had standing to challenge the dress code.
“Day of Truth was really established to counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda in public schools,” Johnson told a radio host in 2008.
Those working to counter ADF and Exodus at the time said the event was dangerous for confused young people.
“This directly harmed LGBTQ youth,” Wayne Besen, CEO of Truth Wins Out and an ex-gay industry expert, told CNN. “This is someone whose core was promoting anti-gay and ex-gay views. “He wouldn’t please the anti-gay advocates, he was the anti-gay and ex-gay advocate.”
Randy Scobey, former executive vice president of Exodus, who worked on the Day of Truth in the organization’s collaboration with ADF, called the event one of his biggest regrets.
“It was about bullying those who were trying not to be bullied,” said Scobey, who now lives openly as a gay man. “That was one of the public ways the Alliance Defense Fund worked with us.”
The links between Exodus and ADF extended beyond the event.
ADF, which has since changed its name to Alliance Defending Freedom, promoted Exodus International in promotional brochures in 2004, crediting it as an organization that “played a pivotal role in helping thousands of people come out of homosexual behavior.” ”.
Scobey remembered Johnson as a quiet person, but firm in his beliefs that homosexuality was wrong. He said Johnson and ADF provided crucial legal advice to Exodus and its “member ministries”.
“We did a lot of work with them behind the scenes,” Scobey told CNN, saying the group offered them legal guidance on the counseling they gave to ex-gays. “They were very important to us in terms of helping us feel safer legally and politically.”
Exodus International stopped sponsoring the Day of Truth event in 2010, saying it became confrontational and counterproductive.