Gloria Johnson: 2009 Person of the Year
Published Thursday, 17-Dec-2009 in issue 1147
Local activist, lesbian feminist Gloria Johnson has worked tirelessly for social justice thorughout the past four decades on GLBT rights and Democratic-party politics. She began her work in the early 1970s with the National Organization for Women (NOW) campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. She started fighting for GLBT rights in the late ’70s when she helped defeat the Briggs Initiative – which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools – as a San Diego co-chair to the “No on 6” campaign. For 30 years, she worked as a social worker for San Diego County where she worked with people living with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic. Democratic politics has also been her calling. She joined the San Diego Democratic Club when it first formed in the late ’70s and has been an active member ever since. She has also worked on the campaigns of Sen. Christine Kehoe, City Councilmember Donna Frye and Hillary Clinton for president to name a few. She is currently the political action chair of the San Diego Democratic Club Board, co-president of the San Diego County Chapter of NOW and vice president – action of the California National Organization for Women.
While Johnson’s name or face may not be easily recognizable to many, her relentless efforts fighting for the causes of the community are far reaching. She represents the everyday face of courage, determination and goodwill we hope to see reflected in all members of our community. This drive and her continued fight for GLBT equality makes Gloria Johnson our 2009 Person of the Year.
Johnson recently met with Gay & Lesbian Times Editor Randy Hope and Staff Reporter Rick Braatz and spoke about her involvement in and thoughts on Democratic politics, GLBT activism and feminist issues.
Gay & Lesbian Times: What initially brought you to become involved in politics and activism?
Gloria Johnson: When I became conscious of our society’s treatment of women, that we were not equal. I was annoyed, aggravated, angered by it.
GLT: What was your first cause, project or group you became active in and why?
GJ: In terms of gay and lesbian rights, it was with Proposition 6 [in 1978], the Briggs Initiative. I did so because if you were a teacher and gay, you could be absolutely fired. Even a straight teacher could be fired for speaking out in support of a gay teacher. It was that bad. David Ferral from the Metropolitan Community Church and I were co-chairs of the local San Diego “No on 6 campaign”.
I became active in women’s rights when I joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) in ’72. At the time, they were fighting to support lesbian rights, and I got involved for that reason. Of course, now, lesbian rights is one of NOW’s main priority issues.
GLT: Who have been your role models?
GJ: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, they are the mothers of the lesbian rights movement in the early ’70s. Their book Lesbian/Woman was the first thing I read. In the book, they spoke about the ’40s and ’50s and how lesbians were arrested in bars, put in mental hospitals and remained largely invisible. They were certainly my mentors, my number one prime mentors. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were together for like 58 years. They were the first couple to get married in San Francisco in 2004 and 2008. Another mentor has been Aileen Hernandez, who was the second president of NOW and its first African American president. She came in at a time when NOW was having a big fight over lesbian rights, and it was because of her that they changed their position.
GLT: You spent 30 years of your life in social work? Why did you initially decide to get into the field?
GJ: Well back in those days, there were very few things that a woman could do. I wanted a college education, and I wanted a graduate degree but the choices were very limited. I didn’t want to be a nurse because I didn’t like blood. And I didn’t want to be a teacher because I didn’t have much patience with children, and I was too noisy to be a librarian. So I choose to be a social worker. I was one of the first social workers to work for an AIDS program back in the 80s before we had medications. I can remember our caseload back then. We might have five deaths in a week. That certainly motivated me to work on the issue of services for people with AIDS.
Last week, when we had World AIDS Day, I was very sad because I was thinking about how many wonderful people we lost back in those days, people like Stephen Pope, Mike Loyd, Jess Jessop and Brad Truax. They were real leaders in our community. And we just lost so many of them. It was like losing our brothers. It really was.
GLT: What has kept you so motivated and driven though the years?
GJ: I want to see things change. I’m not satisfied with the status quo as feminist and LGBT issues are concerned. We’ve achieved a lot over the past 20 to 25 years, but when you see what’s happening in Congress, you realize how much more needs to be done. And I’ve just been furious with a handful of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. They are fighting over reproductive choice, whether a woman can control her own body. I’m referring to the Stupak Amendment, an amendment to the health care reform bill. [The bill would prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortion or any health plan that includes abortion.] Luckily, it has thus far been stopped in the Senate thanks to people like Barbara Boxer, our wonderful senator.
GLT: What has been your most memorable moment?
GJ: There have been many. One was meeting Ted Kennedy. It was at the 1980 presidential convention in New York City and he spoke to our lesbian and gay caucus and he spoke about the importance of true equality for lesbian and gay people.
It was certainly a thrill to see Christine Kehoe elected to the assembly for the first time. She invited me to her swearing in ceremony and to see her standing there, being sworn in was just a wonderful moment.
GLT: What has been a major set back in your activism?
GJ: Clinton losing the presidential nomination. Don’t get me wrong, I am very pleased with Obama, but one of the goals of the feminist movement for years was to have a woman president, and Hillary was so good on all of our issues. We were all out there, and we were going to put our 100 percent working for her. But I do think she’s doing a great job now as the Secretary of State. I am very pleased to have her there. She’s done, you know, so much outreach on women’s rights in some of the third world countries. Every time I read one of her speeches or see her on television, she brings out the importance of women’s rights. So it was disappointing, but I think she’s doing a great job.
GLT: What do you think about current day activism or participation in our community?
GJ: I don’t think there is enough of it. I think if only people could realize that by even doing a little can help a whole lot. Maybe just give five to The Center or five dollars to Mama’s Kitchen or some place like that. You don’t have to be a thousand dollar giver or a hundred dollar giver to make a difference. No matter how little you give or do, every bit is going to help, you know? If you give ten dollars or give three hours a week to get Toni Atkins elected to State Assembly, it’s going to help her get elected. So I think every one of us can do something on some level. You know we certainly have a group of people here in San Diego who are wealthy and can give a thousand dollars to a political campaign, but there are more of us who can’t, and we need to be there wherever we can on our own level. I have been able to give what I can give and put the time in that I can put in and I know it truly helps.
GLT: What do you think about lesbian activism in particular?
GJ: It’s very, very disappointing. We need more lesbians. We need more input from lesbians. All I can say is that I wish it were different. One of the things lesbians have always suffered from is being invisible. I think a lot of it has to do with our own selves. I’ll admit. We don’t get out there and speak up and say here I am. What is strange with even in NOW, which is a feminist organization, we have lots of very wonderful straight women but again not as many lesbians come as much as I’d like to see.
GLT: You continue to be very active in different community groups and causes. What are your plans for the coming year?
GJ: To elect a Democratic governor next year, to keep the Democratic majority in D.C. and elect Toni Atkins to the State Assembly.
Senator Christine Kehoe issued the following statement on Gloria Johnson’s selection as Gay & Lesbian Times’ Person of the Year:
Gloria Johnson is one of the most respected feminist activists in San Diego County. Her 40-year fight for justice for women and the LGBT community reflects her progressive values and determination. Gloria’s feminist politics are well-known locally and nationally for being effective and tireless in pursuit of equality for all.
A dedicated Planned Parenthood advocate, Gloria’s strong voice keeps women’s issues at the forefront of any debate. She understands that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental, and that our society can never return to the days when a woman risked her life because she lacked access to a safe abortion.
As an ‘out’ lesbian, Gloria Johnson is an inspiration for women of all generations. She came of age during a time in which gays and lesbians risked their families, their jobs, and even their lives by attempting to escape the closet. Gloria’s courageous activism in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s influenced many men and women to follow her lead and live their lives openly. Thanks to her example, many of us joined the fight for equal rights for women and LGBT awareness.
I am proud to see Gloria Johnson recognized for her steadfast leadership. No matter what the social cause or political event, you can be sure that Gloria will be there with her quick smile and quiet dignity. She is a trail blazer and a role model for all who follow in her foot steps.
District 6 City Councilmember Donna Frye issued the following statement on Gloria Johnson’s selection as Gay & Lesbian Times’ Person of the Year:
It is my pleasure to support Ms. Gloria Johnson for the Gay & Lesbian Times’ Person of the Year Award. Gloria has been a major presence in San Diego’s progressive movement for years, fighting for equal rights for all members of the community. She has worked tirelessly in pushing for LGBT rights, feminist issues and Democratic politics. She has been a vocal and hard working member of every campaign I have run for public office, which has been invaluable. I know that she will continue to work hard for social justice issues in San Diego. San Diego is lucky to have someone like Gloria working for the betterment of our community.