Born Edwin Clark Johnson in 1945 in San Antonio, Texas, Johnson attended Catholic parochial school and then the college prep school associated with St. Mary's University, both run by the Brothers of Mary. A writing teacher at Central Catholic, Martin McMurtrey, inspired Johnson as well as such students as novelist Whitley Strieber, college president Larry Goodwin, and Henry Cisneros. Johnson entered religious life after high school, first as a Marianist and then as a Servite, where he was in the first class of students at Catholic Theological Union. Johnson studied under the influential Scripture scholars Barnabas Ahern, C.P. and John Dominic Crossan, both of whom changed how the modern world perceived sacred writings. After a year in Chicago, Johnson worked in a Hospital Chaplaincy summer training at Metropolitan State Psychiatric Hospital in southern Los Angeles; that summer, he came out as a gay man. Johnson viewed this summer of 1969 an auspicious one because of the Stonewall riot events which sparked the modern LGBT social movements.
Johnson did not return to Catholic Theological Union, but remained in Southern California at the Servite novitiate in Riverside. As told in his first book, The Myth of the Great Secret, Johnson experienced a dramatic kind of modern "mystical enlightenment" that year.
After leaving seminary in 1970, Johnson moved to San Francisco and lived in the Bay Area throughout the 1970s. While a student at the California Institute of Asian Studies (later renamed the California Institute of Integral Studies), from which he received a graduate degree in Comparative Religion and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology, Johnson was on staff at the Mann Ranch Seminars, a Jungian-oriented summer retreat program. There he befriended religion scholar Joseph Campbell and came to regard himself "an apostle of Campbell's vision to the gay community."
First as a peer-counselor and then licensed professional, Johnson worked as a gay-oriented psychotherapist in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. As a member of the D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance ("Dykes And Faggots Organized to Defeat Institutionalized Liberalism") and spokesperson for the Gay Mental Health Task Force of San Francisco's Health Department, Johnson was instrumental in the adoption of a Gay Client's Bill of Rights, guaranteeing access to gay or gay-sensitive health care providers—a notion that, subsequently, had major effects in AIDS-related services.
In the late-1970s, he teamed with Harvard-trained sociologist Toby Marotta in producing Marotta's books, The Politics of Homosexuality and Sons of Harvard: Gay Men in the Class of '67, and in working in a federally funded ethnographic study of gay teenage prostitution.
In 1981, Johnson returned to his hometown, where he practiced as an openly gay therapist and served as co-chair of the San Antonio Gay Alliance. Toby and partner Kip Dollar (born 1959) organized Gay Pride celebrations, worked with fledgling AIDS Foundations, and helped found gay business societies in both San Antonio and Austin. From 1988 to 1994, Johnson and Dollar ran Liberty Books, the lesbian and gay community bookstore in Austin at the time. Partners since 1984, they were the first male couple registered as domestic partners in Travis County, Texas. In 2018, on the date of their 34th anniversary, they were legally married by Sarah Eckhardt, Presiding Judge of Travis County Commissioners Court. New York gay activist, Jim Fouratt was the official witness.
Johnson is author of three autobiographical accounts of spiritual development: The Myth of the Great Secret: A Search for Meaning in the Face of Emptiness about his discovering a modern understanding of religion; In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld about his experiences—and interpretation of events as a religion scholar—in the study of teenage prostitution; and The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell which added substantial anecdotal material about his mentor.
Johnson authored three novels: Plague: A Novel About Healing, Secret Matter, and Getting Life in Perspective. Plague, produced by small gay-interest publisher Alyson Publications, was one of the first novels to treat AIDS through fiction. Secret Matter, a speculative, romantic comedy about truth-telling and gay identity featuring a retelling of the Genesis myth with a gay-positive outcome, won a Lambda Literary Award in 1990 and in 1999 was a nominee to the Gay Lesbian Science-Fiction Hall of Fame, the first year of the award. He collaborated with historian, anthropologist Walter L. Williams on the novel Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo. And co-edited, with Steve Berman, publisher of Lethe Press, an anthology of gay-positive stories, Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling.
He is also author of Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness and Gay Perspective: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe, which explains how homosexuality can lead to a re-evaluation of people's role in the universe.
Johnson's central idea is that as outsiders with non-gender-polarized perspective homosexuals play an integral role in the evolution of consciousness—especially regarding the understanding of religion as myth and metaphor—and that for many homosexuals gay identity is a transformative ecological, spiritual, and even mystical vocation.
Johnson and Dollar currently reside in central Texas.
His papers are held at the Happy Foundation, San Antonio, Texas.
- Gay Perspective: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe Alyson Books, 2003, ISBN 155583762X
- Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness Lethe Press, 2000, 2010, ISBN 9781590210222
- Secret Matter. Lethe Press, 2005, ISBN 1590210174 . This is a science fiction novel, set in San Francisco.
- Getting Life in Perspective Lethe Press 1991, 2010, ISBN 9781590211267
- Plague: A Novel about Healing Alyson Books, 1987, 9781555831257, Republished as "The Fourth Quill" by Lethe Press, 2014 ISBN 9781590213070
- Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo (With Walter L. Williams, PhD) Lethe Press, 2006, ISBN 9781590210604
- The Myth of the Great Secret: A Search for Spiritual Meaning in the Face of Emptiness William Morrow and Company, 1981, ISBN 9780688007812
- The Myth of the Great Secret (2nd Edition): An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell Celestial Arts, 1991, ISBN 9780890876589
- In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld William Morrow and Company, 1983, 9780688020460
- Finding Your Own True Myth: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth of the Great Secret III Peregrine Ventures, 2018, ISBN 9781727318975
- Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling (co-edited with Steve Berman) (2006). The inaugural title in the White Crane Wisdom Series, this anthology of inspirational essays and short fiction for gay men earned Johnson a Lambda Literary Award nomination.
- McDonald, Patrick Range (Jun 7, 2012). "Queer Town L.A. Gay Pride 2012: Author Toby Johnson Answers 'What Does It Mean to Be Gay?'". LA Weekly. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
- Byrne, Joseph Patrick (2008). Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues: A-M. ABC-CLIO. p. 14. ISBN 9780313341021.
- Shaw, Marvin (2 Feb 1988). "Spirit, Psyche, Self". Advocate (491): 54–54.
- "Gay Spirituality: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness (review)". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
- Plessas, Peter J (Fall 2004). "Gay Perspective by Toby Johnson (Review)". Ashé Journal. 3 (3).
- "Lavender Legacies Guide: United States: Texas". Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 16 January 2013.