Bridge-building LGBTQ Atlanta activist Winston Johnson dies at 79

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Winston Johnson helped build a vital alliance between the LGBTQ and civil rights movements through his friendship with Coretta Scott King. He’s being remembered for that work and more in the wake of his death last month at 79.

The longtime gay Atlanta resident and LGBTQ activist lost a long battle with cancer. Friends and family will gather for a memorial service in July.

Johnson was a driving force in getting white gay men in Atlanta to “get off their chairs and make a political statement,” according to longtime friend Terry Bird.

“And he was an important force in helping white gay men understand that everybody’s civil rights – including African-American civil rights – were tied into civil rights for gay people,” Bird told Project Q Atlanta.

Winston Eldridge Johnson was born on July 4, 1941 in Valdosta, Ga. He grew up in Greenville, Fla., and later dropped out of the University of Florida after fighting depression and fearing the Johns Committee, which persecuted gay people across the state in the 1950s.

Johnson joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1963 and met his longtime partner Leon Allen the following year in Jacksonville, Fla. The couple moved to Atlanta in 1967 in the hopes of finding a more gay-friendly place to live.

Johnson and Allen quickly befriended other gay men and lesbians in their new city, according to Bird.

“Back then in the 1960s when you moved to Atlanta, there wasn’t much gay community except in the bars,” he said. “I think they really helped start creating the gay community here in Atlanta.”

Johnson landed a customer service job with Eastern Airlines. It’s in this work, and later with Carey Limousines, that Johnson made connections with prominent business leaders, politicians and celebrities.

He met Coretta Scott King in April 1968 on the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. They became fast friends, but Johnson didn’t tell her about his relationship with Allen until 1986 after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law.

Johnson later asked King to speak at an HRC dinner in New York City. She quickly agreed and it was King’s first public support of LGBTQ rights.

Johnson became more open about his sexual orientation in talks with other civil rights leaders over the years, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Julian Bond and Xernona Clayton, according to Bird.

Johnson also befriended then-President Jimmy Carter through his work at Eastern. Carter invited Johnson to a 1978 White House State Dinner, which he attended alone out of fear of exposing his relationship with Allen.

Johnson had a number of conversations with Carter about life as a gay man after he left office, according to Vic Basile, HRC’s first executive director. Carter spoke out in favor of gay marriage in 2012.

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

A collection of Johnson’s papers, photographs and awards are housed in the Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.

Winston Johnson (left) and Leon Allen (right) at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights & Liberation. (Photo courtesy Terry Bird)

An ‘everyday hero’ takes on a new cause

Johnson and Allen helped create the first HRC Atlanta dinner in 1988 and recruited friends to support it. 

“[Johnson] said, ‘We’re going to be table captains and you need to be too,’” Bird said.

The dinner grew into a gala that draws scores of elected officials and LGBTQ powerbrokers, and is one of the largest LGBTQ social events of the year. HRC Atlanta later created the Leon Allen & Winston Johnson Community Leadership Award, which is given annually.

Johnson joined Carey Limousine after Eastern Airlines went out of business in the early 1990s. He left the job in 1995 to become caregiver for Allen, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Allen died in 2006 after 43 years with Johnson.

Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and then bladder cancer in 2019. He took on a new form of activism in his later years – decrying that Georgia has no “right to die” laws.

“At my age, I’m not afraid of dying,” he told Compassion & Choices in 2020. “I just want to avoid the pain. I hope my story will inspire Georgians to speak out in support of medical aid in dying.”

Johnson continued his involvement in LGBTQ issues in Atlanta. In 2010, as the city worked to repair its relationship with LGBTQ residents after the Eagle raid, he urged the LGBT advisory panel of the Atlanta Police Department to take action.

“There’s been incredible homophobia in the police department for years,” Johnson told the panel as he recounted a moving story about a Peachtree Street bar that police raided in 1978 arresting Allen and 13 others. 

“It’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever been through. That’s why we need more LGBT people on the police department. When I heard about the Eagle raid I thought, “God dammit, this can’t be happening 32 years later,” he added.

Johnson died on May 11 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta.

Georgia Equality mourned Johnson’s death later that day.

“Our community lost a trailblazer earlier today with the passing of Winston Johnson,” the organization wrote in a Facebook post. “Georgia Equality joins with his friends and loved ones in celebrating his remarkable life and honoring his legacy.”

Johnson was an “everyday hero,” according to Brigid Scarbrough, an Atlanta resident and member of HRC’s national board of directors.

“He was a gay man who wanted to live his life on his own terms and love who he wanted to love in a very different era,” she said. “In the process, he became a warrior for LGBTQ equality and an inspiration to many, building essential bridges that have made differences in so many people’s lives. He will be missed.”

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