Michael Johnston appeared with his mother, Frances Johnston, in a controversial 1998 television ad claiming he ‘walked away from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,’ but not before contracting AIDS.
By LAURA DOUGLAS-BROWN
Five years after starring in a national advertising campaign claiming gays can
change their sexual orientation, Michael Johnston experienced a “moral
fall” and left behind his ministries, two conservative Christian groups
that worked with Johnston confirmed this week.
“I received a call from [Johnston] asking forgiveness as a Christian
brother and asking for our prayers, indicating that he was working with his
pastor and his church to try to find some restoration in his relationship with
God,” said Buddy Smith, American Family Association administrator.
The Mississippi-based AFA partnered with Johnston to promote ex-gay programs,
including Johnston’s National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day.
The annual event is unlikely to continue following Johnston’s “moral
fall,” but Smith said the AFA won’t abandon its claims that gays
“I don’t think the message is changed at all, though of course
the messenger is certainly harmed,” Smith said. “I don’t
foresee he would ever be back in a place of public ministry, especially in
an outreach to homosexuals like the ministry he had.”
Johnston founded Kerusso Ministries, based in Newport News, Va. The ministry’s
published phone number is now disconnected and the Web site is no longer operational.
“He obviously had a moral failing, that’s true,” said Peter
LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, which had been affiliated with
Kerusso before a “professional parting of ways” prior to Johnston’s
“Many people are still behind him, and we think he did the responsible
thing by closing the ministry down,” LaBarbera added.
In 1998, a coalition of conservative religious groups — including Kerusso,
Americans for Truth and AFA — launched a high-profile national print
and television ad campaign preaching that gays can change.
Johnston appeared with his mother, Frances Johnston, in a controversial print
ad under the headline “From innocence to AIDS.” A similar television
commercial also appeared in 1998, dubbed “Mom.”
“My son Michael found out the truth — he could walk away from
homosexuality. But he found out too late — he has AIDS,” Frances
Johnston says in the television commercial.
In the ad, Michael Johnston praises his mother for telling him “the
truth that set me free.”
“A decade ago, I walked away from homosexuality through the power of
Jesus Christ,” he claims.
Johnston now apparently becomes the second star of the campaign known to have
failed in maintaining his "ex-gay" status, and the scandal surrounding
both ex-gay leaders was uncovered by the same enterprising gay activist.
John Paulk, who appeared in the 1998 ex-gay ads and on the cover of Newsweek
with his “ex-lesbian” wife Anne Paulk, was spotted in a popular
gay bar in Washington, D.C., in September 2000.
Wayne Besen, a former communications staffer with the Human Rights Campaign,
photographed Paulk in the bar, Mr. P's.
Johnston’s “fall” should be a final blow to discredit ex-gay
ministries, said Besen, author of “Anything But Straight,” a book
aimed at debunking ex-gay ministries due for release in October by Harrington
“This was their knockout punch, and now it is the punch line,” he
Besen contacted this newspaper after interviewing two men who Besen said claimed
to have had sex with Johnston in the last year after meeting him online.
“There has got to be a point where you can no longer say this is the
exception,” Besen said. “If you have exception after exception,
you have to at some point say it is the rule.”
In his speeches as an ex-gay, Johnston acknowledged having sex with men without
disclosing his HIV status.
“I continued to live as a homosexual for two years after I knew I was
HIV-positive,” Johnston said in a 1998 speech to a California church,
reported in POZ magazine. “And I am ashamed to say that in those two
years not once did I ever tell any of my partners that I was carrying this
Johnston allegedly continued that behavior during his recent “moral
fall,” according to a Virginia man who says he had an ongoing sexual
relationship with Johnston that included Johnston using drugs and having multiple
male sex partners.
“What we did was unsafe,” said the man, who spoke only on condition
of anonymity over fears that he would lose his job because of his sexual orientation
or HIV status.
“I brought it up all the time, but [Johnston] didn’t seem to think
it mattered," the man said. "He would have these parties, get a hotel
room, get online and invite tons of people — he just wouldn’t care.”
The man said he met Johnston, who he said called himself Sean, in a gay Internet
chat room. They began meeting in the late fall of 2001, and their sexual relationship
lasted about six months.
“It wasn’t all the time — he would just appear from time
to time,” the man said. “But we were friends for a year and a half.”
|Michael Johnston appeared with his mother, Frances
Johnston, in a controversial 1998 television ad claiming he ‘walked
away from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,’ but not
before contracting AIDS.
“Sean” only revealed his HIV status at the end of the men’s
friendship, claiming he had just found out, the man said. He learned Sean’s
true identity from a friend who also dated him.
The friend apparently learned that Sean’s real name was Michael Johnston
from his driver’s license. An Internet search revealed Johnston’s
work with ex-gay ministries.
“I was shocked, and I felt betrayed,” the man said. After seeing
photos from the ex-gay Web sites and television ad, “I have absolutely
no doubt Sean is Michael Johnston,” he said.
After discussing the issue with friends, the man contacted Michael Hamar,
a Virginia attorney.
Virginia law makes it a felony to knowingly expose someone to HIV, but Hamar
said his client hasn’t pursued either a civil lawsuit or a criminal complaint
“At this point, he is sort of overwhelmed by it all,” Hamar said. “But
he felt at minimum he needed to get the word out, so that if nothing else,
others who may have been exposed would go get tested.”
Hamar learned of Besen’s book on the Internet and contacted him. Besen
then traveled to Virginia where he said he interviewed Hamar’s client
and his friend who also said he had unprotected sex with Johnston.
One of the men told him Johnston had said he was entering Pure Life Ministries,
Besen said. The facility in rural Kentucky requires a minimum stay of six months
and “helps Christian men achieve lasting freedom from sexual sin,” according
to its Web site.
When Besen called Pure Life and asked for Johnston, he said the person who
answered the phone confirmed that Johnston was there by saying he could not
come to the phone, but offered to take a message.
Two Pure Life staff members contacted for this article declined to confirm
the presence of any individual “student.”
Johnston did not respond to a message left there.
While ex-gay ministries continue to claim that gays can change their sexual
orientation through prayer or therapy, Johnston is the latest in a series
of fallen “ex-gay” leaders.
When Paulk was seen in the gay bar, he initially claimed he only entered Mr.
P’s to use the restroom. But Paulk later said he was seeking the “easy
camaraderie” of his former stomping grounds because of the “great
deal” of stress in his life.
After Paulk’s gay bar visit three years ago, Exodus International, a
leading ex-gay organization where Paulk served as board chair, placed him on
probation and removed his voting rights. Six months later, Exodus restored
Paulk to the board, although not as chair.
At the time of his fall, Paulk also served as manager of the Homosexuality & Gender
Department at Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group that opposes gay
Focus founder James Dobson stood by Paulk, who stepped down from his job with
the group in April 2003 to move to the Pacific Northwest “to be closer
to extended family,” according to a press release from the group.
Paulk wasn’t the ex-gay movement’s first brush with scandal. Gary
Cooper and Michael Bussee organized the 1976 conference of ex-gays out of which
Exodus International was formed. But Cooper and Bussee later fell in love with
each other and left their wives to live together as a couple, becoming frequent
talk show guests in the 1990s.
And Wade Richards, an “ex-gay” featured in a 2000 press conference
by anti-gay groups, came out as gay again in an interview with the Advocate
several months later.
The series of scandals proves that ex-gay ministries and groups that support
them are “dishonest,” Besen said.
“They told America, ‘You can change. Why? Because Michael Johnston
did,’” he said. “But when he fails, and in spectacular fashion,
they sweep it under the rug. They owe America an apology.”
LaBarbera, however, said using Johnston’s behavior to discredit all
ex-gay programs “makes about as much sense as saying Alcoholics Anonymous
should close down because one person started drinking again.”
But Besen noted that other ex-gays, including Cooper and Bussee, later denounced
“The argument that this is someone who fell off the wagon is discredited
when you realize the people who built the wagon say it doesn’t work,” he
In 1973, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from
its official list of mental disorders.
In the three decades since, many major medical organizations have spoken out
against “reparative” or “conversion” therapy aimed
at changing an individual’s sexual orientation, including the American
Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American
But “ex-gay” programs like Exodus continue, propped up in recent
years by support from conservative religious groups including the AFA, the
Family Research Council, Coral Ridge Ministries and Concerned Women for America.
“By elevating the ex-gay movement, the Christian Right has shifted
its message to a model of preaching personal salvation for homosexuals,” researcher
Surina Kahn wrote in “Calculated Compassion,” a 1998 report on
“But behind this mask of compassion, the anti-gay and authoritarian
agenda of the right remains unchanged,” Kahn concluded in the study,
released by Political Research Associates, the National Gay & Lesbian Task
Force Policy Institute and Equal Partners in Faith.
Johnston’s Kerusso Ministries had ties to many of nation’s highest-profile
religious right groups, joining with the AFA, Family Research Council and Rev.
Jerry Falwell’s Falwell Ministries to host National Coming Out of Homosexuality
An Oct. 11, 1999, press conference sponsored by the groups in San Francisco
drew national headlines after two gay counter-protesters threw blueberry pies
at Johnston, a featured speaker.
Johnston was back in the spotlight with Falwell just two weeks later, speaking
at a press conference and a morning worship service when members of Falwell’s
Thomas Road Baptist Church held a historic meeting with Soulforce, a group
dedicated to ending spiritual violence against gays.
In 2000, LaBarbera, an outspoken gay rights opponent, merged his Americans
for Truth About Homosexuality into Johnston’s Kerusso Ministries, creating
a new outreach of Kerusso called the Americans for Truth Project.
LaBarbera worked part-time for the project at Kerusso, but said the relationship “didn’t
work out” after LaBarbera took his present job as senior policy analyst
at the Washington-based Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned
Women for America.
“Michael remains a close personal friend of mine, even though I haven’t
talked with him since he closed down the ministry,” LaBarbera said. “Obviously,
we are very saddened by it.”