2021-05-11

WINSTON JOHNSON, was an Atlanta LGBTQ+ and human rights activist, who died on this date (b: 7/4/1945). Johnson grew up in south Georgia and north Florida. He realized he was gay when he was 11 or 12. “I was suicidal for a short time after I turned 20,” he wrote to friends in 1995, “because I had not been prepared by life to accept who I was.”

Luckily, two years later, he met Leon Allen, his life partner. It was, Johnson recalled, “the beginning of a really nice life.” They spent the next 46 years together until Allen’s death. “The most important role in my life,” Johnson wrote recently, “was caring for Leon the last 10 years of his life. I felt more alive at that time because I knew how important my efforts were for him. He died in 2006 and marriage equality came to Georgia in 2015.” Johnson’s relationship formed the foundation of his activism. He had the gift of making the personal political.

The couple moved to Atlanta in 1967 and, the next year, Johnson began a long career working for Eastern Airlines. It was in his role at Eastern he met Coretta Scott King at the airport, the day after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A long and warm friendship developed between them. Soon Johnson was volunteering at the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Negro College Fund. Those opportunities represented the extent of Johnson’s activism in the 1970s. It was a time of widespread homophobia in the country and especially in the South. Allen and Johnson remained in the closet because LGBTQ+ folks could lose their jobs, housing, and insurance for being out.

Because of these barriers, Johnson’s LGBTQ+ rights advocacy didn’t begin until the next decade. It started in 1985 when Johnson and Allen attended the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Fund Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. The HRC was the first federally authorized Political Action Committee “dedicated to the cause of lesbian and gay rights.” The dinner was an eye-opening experience for them. “We didn’t know gay people did anything like that,” Johnson remembered. They believed in the HRC’s work so strongly Johnson asked Mrs. King to join them the next year and, on September 27, 1986, she delivered the keynote address at the dinner, saying, “I am here to express my solidarity with the gay and lesbian movement.” “I truly believe,” Johnson wrote to a friend in 1995, Mrs. King’s “position gave others in the Civil Rights leadership the political cover they needed to ‘come out’ in support of our movement.”

Inspired by their experiences in New York City, Johnson and Allen joined twelve other local activists to create a steering committee to organize an HRC Fund event in Atlanta. On May 21, 1988, the first Human Rights Campaign Fund Southeastern Gala occurred downtown at the Marriott Marquis. The committee hoped to attract 200 attendees but that night 660 folks showed up. 

Winston Johnson passed peacefully on May 11, 2021. His papers are now in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.