Winston Johnson, key LGBTQ advocate, dies at 79

Winston Johnson, center, talks to his friend Coretta Scott King during an unidentified formal event. Johnson helped recruit King into the fight for LGBTQ equality.
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Winston Johnson, center, talks to his friend Coretta Scott King during an unidentified formal event. Johnson helped recruit King into the fight for LGBTQ equality.

With social cachet and a talent for putting others at ease, Winston Eldridge Johnson ushered the powerful and influential into the LGBTQ movement, forging a key alliance with the civil rights movement through his friendship with Coretta Scott King.

“He was a quiet activist, but a fierce one. His impact was monumental,” said Vic Basile, the first executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and an LGBTQ activist based in Washington, D.C.

“It was quite a feat bringing together the Black civil rights movement and the LGBT civil rights movement.”

Johnson, 79, died in Atlanta on May 11 after a long battle with cancer. Friends and family plan to hold a memorial service this summer.

Born the youngest of eight children in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1941, Johnson told friends he knew by age 12 he was gay but told no one for years. He met Leon Allen, who would become his partner for 42 years in Atlanta until Allen’s death in 2006, nine years before Georgia recognized same-sex marriage.

Johnson and Allen kept their relationship a secret for decades in the Deep South because of the prejudice against LGBTQ people. And homosexuality was a firing offense at Eastern Airlines, where Johnson worked in customer service catering to VIPs. The couple could not get insurance, loans, or flying benefits available to heterosexuals.

“I grew up in an era where it was deadly (for a gay person) to hold a job,” Johnson said in a 2018 interview with WABE Radio in Atlanta.

While at work April 5, 1968, he met King on her flight home to Atlanta from Memphis, accompanying her husband’s body the day after his assassination. Their paths continued to cross and their friendship grew.

“We became closer and closer,” Johnson told WABE. He began volunteering at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, and Atlanta chapters of the NAACP and UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund.

Meanwhile, then-President Jimmy Carter, who had also befriended Johnson through Eastern flights, invited him to a 1978 White House State Dinner. “It was the pinnacle of my social life, but I went alone. I was afraid to ask if I could bring Leon,” he told WABE.

After Carter left office, he and Johnson had a series of conversations, Johnson’s friends said. In 2012, Carter spoke out in favor of recognizing gay marriage.

“Winston is the one who educated President Carter on what it was like to be gay,” said Basile.

Johnson’s activism grew. Devastated by the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, he sought King’s help. He revealed to her his longtime relationship with Allen and requested she speak at an HRC dinner in New York City.

“She said, ‘Tell me where and when and I’ll be there. I know Martin would be with you on this, and he may have beaten me to it,’” Johnson told WABE. That speech in 1986 was King’s first public support of LGBTQ rights, a cause she championed until her death in 2006.

“I still hear people saying I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people, and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” King said at a Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund luncheon in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Johnson also reached out to politicians he met at work. His letter to U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi in 1994 presents his case with directness and emotion. He included a photo of himself and Allen, along with rights forbidden to LGBTQ couples.

“What we are seeking is the most basic of human rights,” he wrote. “We are seeking the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Johnson and Allen organized the first annual HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner in 1988, and the organization established an annual award in their names to honor service in the LGBTQ community. When civil rights activist and former Georgia legislator Julian Bond spoke at the HRC Los Angeles in 2009, he closed with Johnson’s story.

“My friend Winston says, ‘As a young gay man growing up, I just wanted to know that I was okay just like I was,’” Bond said. “We’re all okay. And some day, marriage for all of us will be okay, too.”

Johnson’s life “shows the work of an indefatigable activist,” said Randy Gue, an urban historian and Curator of Political, Cultural, and Social Movements Collections at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. “His gift was making the personal political.”

Sted Mays, a close friend of Johnson, believes there is not a more poignant chapter in LGBTQ history.

“All the textbooks talking about queer history and the civil rights movement should include the story of Winston Johnson and Coretta Scott King,” said Mays.

“What a beautiful story in this world of polarization, in this world of people who don’t listen to each other.”

Survivors include his brother Hjalma Johnson, and his nephew Leonard Johnson, both of Dade City, Florida. Memorials may be sent to Compassion & Choices, P.O. Box 485, Etna, NH, 03750.

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