In 1988 Michael Johnston became ex-gay.
Almost immediately he became visable in the conservative anti-gay Christian movement. The following year he started his own ex-gay vehicle, Kerusso Ministries through which he put himself as an example in churches, schools, and on religious programming on radio and television. Eventually, by 1999, his profile had reached the place where Jerry Falwell used him as an example to Soulforce that gay people could become heterosexuals.
Johnston was the darling of anti-gay religious powerhouses. He was awarded by the Southern Baptists and helped write the Assemblies of God’s position paper on homosexuality (for those unaware of the AoG’s positions, let’s just say that they are not charitable).
But Johnston’s purposes were not limited to religious appeals to convert gays to his brand of Christianity. He also participated in the political anti-gay campaigns attempting to use sexual orientation as a criterion to deny fellow citizens equal treatment under the law.
Johnston was the face to a campaign called Truth in Love* in which he and his mother appeared on television telling the country that he had “walked away from homosexuality” but not before he contracted HIV. Johnston was also featured in the American Family Association’s 2000 video It’s Not Gay** and served on the steering committee for the National Campaign to Protect Marriage.
Johnston was not inconsequential in his ex-gay and anti-gay advocacy. He founded Americans for Truth (currently Peter LaBarbera’s AFTAH) and the National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day – coinciding with National Coming Out Day.
Johnston was at the top of his game when reality kicked in.
In June 2003 a reader reported to XGW that Kerusso Ministries seemed to have disappeared and that references to him on AFA and Family Policy Network seemed to have disappeared. Then in August of that year an attorney contacted Wayne Besen and told him an amazing story.
Johnston had been going by the name Sean and had been cruising men online. More surprising, he had been organizing unsafe sex parties and lying about his HIV status.
Besen interviewed the witness and verified the story before releasing the news to the media which, so closely following John Paulk’s gay bar sighting, caught attention. Religious conservatives who had once championed his testimony now scrambled to explain that though they knew Johnston was struggling, they were unaware of his deliberate exposure of HIV to unsuspecting others. The ex-gay leadership downplayed Johnston’s involvement and distanced themselves as best possible and those who couldn’t simply went on the attack against “homosexual activists”. But this scandal took its toll on the credibility of certain anti-gay efforts.
Johnston immediately disappeared into Pure Life Ministries, a rural Kentucky residence program and that was the last we heard of the ex-gay ministry’s most lauded success story.
As Wayne Besen noted on his website, Johnston has now returned to public life as part of Pure Life, his refuge at the time of his scandal. He now serves as the Director of Donor Relations for the ministry. Pure Life describes the refurbishment of his once bright star this way
Since coming to Pure Life Ministries, God has accomplished a wonderful transformation in Mike. Through a series of spiritual breakings and heart-wrenching repentance, God has systematically stripped off the many masks he has worn over the years and brought down the heavily fortified walls that protected his heart from others for so long. For the first time in his life, Mike has gained a genuine understanding of what it really means to be a follower of Jesus and God has given him a fresh vision of helping others find real freedom; this time not for the purpose of self-promotion but to glorify Christ.
We will be watching with interest to see to what extent Johnston can recover from his scandal. The political operatives that drive the public face of the ex-gay movement may be hesitant to take a risk with a proven liability. Or, alternately, it may be that the depths of despicable behavior to which he sunk during his “fall” will only further titillate his audience and demonstrate greater evidence of his redemption.
* “Truth in Love” (often in capitals) has become a code term for extremist religious anti-gay activism, often accompanied with unapologetic theocracy advocacy.
** This video remains available from AFA without any explanation or clarification that their star witness was later shown to be a fraud.