Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern

After a historic three-week span without a leader, House Republicans voted to elect fourth-term Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as Speaker of the House on Oct. 25. Rep. Johnson’s elevation to Speaker has prompted swift criticism and renewed scrutiny of the once-obscured representative’s views on LGBTQ+ rights.

Openly gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, said House Republicans have “elected a Speaker who has dedicated his career to attacking LGBTQI+ people.”

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

But what does Johnson’s elevation to Speaker mean for LGBTQ+ rights? In order to understand that question, we must first take a deeper look into Johnson’s past, including his time before entering public office.

Lawsuits and op-eds

Before his election to Congress, Johnson worked as an attorney for the evangelical Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom. The group has long been designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its barrage of anti-LGBTQ attacks, such as supporting the sterilization of trans people, and promoting “religious liberty” legislation. Under Johnson’s leadership, he led legal efforts to criminalize same-sex sexual activity, block same-sex marriage and allow the right for businesses or individuals to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.

In 2003, Johnson wrote an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas arguing for the criminalization of consensual same-sex intercourse, deeming it a “distinct public health problem” due to the increased likelihood of spreading STIs. The Lawrence ruling made it illegal for states to have “anti-sodomy” laws that targeted same-sex couples, a decision that Johnson vehemently opposed.

In an op-ed following the ruling, Johnson wrote that “by closing these bedroom doors, [SCOTUS] have opened a Pandora’s box,” suggesting that the ruling would pave the way for the legalization of prostitution and illicit drug use.

A year later, Johnson defended an amendment to the Louisiana state constitution that made it unconstitutional for the state to recognize same-sex marriages. In another op-ed, he wrote that “homosexual relationships are inherently unnatural and, the studies clearly show, are ultimately harmful and costly for everyone.” He suggested allowing same-sex marriage would equate to allowing people to marry animals.

While in public office

While a state representative for the Louisiana House of Representatives, Johnson introduced the Marriage and Conscience Act which would have banned the state from taking action against people over their views on same-sex marriage. The bill did not gain any co-sponsors and was never brought to a vote.

Johnson was elected to Congress in 2015. Last year, he introduced the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act which would have banned the instruction of sexual orientation, gender identity, and “transgenderism” from kids under the age of 10. The bill was seen as a federal version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law which accomplishes the same but at a state level.

In a July hearing, Johnson said that parents don’t have the right to provide their children with gender-affirming healthcare, that it was akin to “abuse and physical harm.” These claims have long been disputed as false by every major American medical association that has endorsed gender-affirming care as safe and effective for the well-being of trans youth.

What comes next?

In his new role as Speaker of the House, Johnson has the ability to determine the legislative priorities of Congress, which can include weakening federal LGBTQ+ protections.

“There is every reason to be concerned,” said Vic Basile, the first executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and a longtime LGBTQ+ activist, in an email to NBN. “I am afraid that, at a minimum, the Equality Act will not see the light of day as long as he is House Speaker.”

A longtime goal of LGBTQ+ activists, the Equality Act would codify LGBTQ+ protections. The act has been continuously reintroduced in the House with each new Congress since 2015. While the bill passed the House in both 2019 and 2021 when the chamber was controlled by Democrats, it stalled in the Senate. Success is less likely this year with a Republican majority in the House.

Rather than a large-scale anti-LGBTQ federal legislation, Basile warns about the dangers of anti-LGBTQ amendments being added to “must-pass” legislation, which are bills that are considered essential for the federal government to continue operating. Given the necessity of such bills, LGBTQ+ advocates are concerned that Republicans hijack the process by threatening a government shutdown if anti-LGBTQ amendments are not added.  

More than 160 House Democrats wrote a letter urging President Biden to reject any funding agreement that includes anti-LGBTQ provisions. At least 40 provisions in the House’s fiscal 2024 appropriations bills have been identified as anti-LGBTQ, ranging from limiting access to gender-affirming care to preventing the federal government from properly responding to certain instances of sex-based discrimination. Johnson will have a great deal of sway in determining which anti-LGBTQ amendments to push for and which ones may be dropped. This could potentially set up a precarious situation where funding the government comes at the expense of chipping away the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

Basile encourages Americans to vote in upcoming elections and lobby their representatives to protect LGBTQ+ rights.

“We are all going to have to be especially vigilant,” said Basile. “We can win this fight, but it will take each of us doing our part.”