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Lambda Archives honoree Gloria Johnson wants to see young women and lesbians get involved

SAN DIEGO -- They make a difference in our lives. Some are well-known activists in San Diego's LGBT community and others are working tirelessly outside the spotlight.

Thirteen key players in the LGBT community will be honored Friday Feb. 11 at the 2011 Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers gala. The event takes place at the Center and is sponsored by Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD).

In the days leading up to the gala, SDGLN will profile each of these individuals and provide our readers with an inside peek at what this award means to each honoree.

2011 Heroes, Pioneers, and Trailblazers Honoree: Gloria Johnson

Gloria Johnson is a nationally recognized activist on behalf of the LGBT community, feminist issues and Democratic politics.

Johnson first moved to San Diego in the early 1960s to attend college at then-undergraduate California Western University. She returned to San Diego after three years of studying social work and psychology in the Los Angeles area.

She worked for San Diego County for 30 years; during the latter half of her tenure, Johnson served as one of the first social workers in San Diego to work with people with AIDS in the AIDS Case Management Program.

"It was 1983 and many of my friends had the disease," Johnson recalled. "I wanted to help them and others like them and services that I helped to provide enabled them to better cope with their illness.

"Fortunately my boss was very supportive. We were all dedicated to providing services, and worked well together."

For Johnson, helping others was not just a "nine to five" responsibility, it was also part of being involved with her community, both locally and nationally, as a feminist and a lesbian.

Politics: "Get Involved!"

Much of Johnson’s activism has been in Democratic Politics, starting in 1972 with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s groundbreaking campaign as the first major-party African American candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Had Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2008, Johnson was prepared to work as Clinton's delegate at the National Convention. Although somewhat let down that she did not get to go, the 2008 election was important for other reasons.

"Having worked on Chisholm’s campaign it was a bit surreal to see Mr. Obama elected President of the United States," Johnson said. "I was disappointed that an African American had not been elected before '08. I hope Americans will soon elect a woman President.

"But NOT [just] because she is a WOMAN. I want the first woman president to be a feminist who stands for such issues as health care, civil and human rights, and the needs of low-income people.

"We have had some really bad women candidates running recently," Johnson added.

Johnson's hopes stem from a very interesting fact, one she wants to share with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News readers: The first woman to run for President of the U.S. was Victoria Woodhull in 1872 , long before women had the right to vote.

In 1976, Johnson became the first openly gay/lesbian person elected to the San Diego Democratic Central Committee, and was elected to that body again in the 1990s. She also joined the newly formed San Diego Democratic Club (SDDC) in 1977 and became President of the club in 1980. Johnson served on the SDDC board once more in the 1990s and is still a very active member of the organization.

Additionally, she has served as a delegate to the 1996 and 2000 Democratic National Conventions, and among many others, has been on the campaign staffs of Christine Kehoe, Donna Frye and Mike Aguirre.

"I have always supported Democrats because they best support what I think is important," Johnson said. "I once voted for a Republican, but Eleanor Roosevelt came and haunted me for three days and three nights."

Johnson is also a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the San Diego Unitarian Universalist Church. For her, activism and politics go hand and hand.

"I believe we cannot achieve justice without owning our political agenda,” Johnson said.

Lesbians and the Feminist Movement

Johnson has also been active in the LGBT community since the 1970s.

She was co-chair of a committee created to defeat the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6): the 1978 state ballot proposition that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Most recently, she was co-chair of the California Democratic Party's LGBT Caucus.

Above all else, however, Johnson is a longtime leader on feminist issues.

She has been a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) for over 30 years. With NOW, Johnson campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and along with other activists, spent two days in a Washington, D.C. jail after protesting ERA’s defeat.

"I was in jail for civil disobedience with a group of feminist women from several states. We sang and told each other stories to pass the time," Johnson recalled. "They fed us canned food, and to this day I hate canned food."

Though the feminist spirit still burns within her, Johnson is concerned about women today and the political agendas being proposed in Washington D.C.

"There is an absence of young lesbians and women activists in the movement," she said. "I want to yell at them and say, ‘get out there, get involved in our community. Do not take your rights for granted. We could still lose everything that we have gained.’

“There are [still] those today whose goal it is to prevent reproductive choice. They want to make it impossible to get an abortion. We need each and every one of you young women to stand with us.

"I feel that women and LGBT people are fighting the same foes. Our strength is in standing together," Johnson added. "Inequality is our biggest injustice. We must have full and equal rights in our entire society. There are many issues that both straight women and lesbians face, especially in employment and health care. In NOW, we work together on these issues, and I encourage everyone to join us. We need you!”

Another issue that Johnson wished to address is the term "lesbian."

Although she herself did not face any big difficulties in dealing with her own sexuality when she came out in her 30s, Johnson acknowledges that her generation fought hard for visibility.

"Being a lesbian just felt really good to me," she said. "Coming out was nothing exciting, it just happened. I never dreamt about weddings and I never had the desire to be a homemaker or have children. I was OK with just being me. But it was not the same for all my lesbian sisters.

"Today, I am hearing that some young women in our community no longer want to be called 'lesbians' but prefer being called 'gay.' To me, this is like saying 'man' includes 'woman.' No, it does not.

"My generation fought hard for visibility. I love our gay brothers, but we are not them. DON'T LET US LOSE OUR VISIBILITY," she said.

Johnson credits her strong desire to participate in the fight for social justice, and fix what is wrong with our society, to mentors such as Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon (the founders of the Lesbian Rights movement), former NOW president Aileen Hernandez , who fought for the inclusion of Lesbian Rights as one of NOW's priority issues, and many others.

For Johnson, it is just a matter of doing it because it needs to be done.

She was listed among The Advocate’s top 400 US gay leaders in 1984, and now Lambda Archives will honor her for her tireless fight for social justices over the past four decades in feminist, LGBT and political communities.

"The Archives, as does the Women's History Museum, provides the history and the knowledge of the people who made history for our entire community," said Johnson. "Being honored is a thrill and a joy. I have loved being part of the growth and recognition of our movement."

About Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD)

LASD’s mission is to "collect, preserve and teach" the history of LGBT people in the San Diego and Northern Baja California region. Although most of the collections date to post-1970, there are original materials dating back to the 1930s.

LASD believes that history is best served by the records and cultural artifacts of those people who are directly involved in its events, so its staff has dedicated itself to preserving and interpreting this important historical record since its establishment in 1987. LASD is an all-volunteer, nonprofit corporation governed by a volunteer board of directors and has one of the largest collections of LGBT history in the country.

LASD honoree selection process

The fundraising gala -- which first debuted in 2007 -- recognizes individuals, both locally and nationally, who have made a difference in the lives of LGBT persons through their dedication, commitment, financial resources and/or political participation.

The LASD board chooses honorees based on a criterion that focuses on diversity, by including individuals from diverse segments of the community, and from a broad spectrum of individual characteristics such as ethnicity, race, LGBT identification, etc.

As is customary for the board, nominees who have received other major honors this year, or who could not attend the event, were held out for future consideration. Although no public call for nominations currently exists, the board considers any nomination from the community to be equal to those made by its members.

This year's list of nominees was narrowed down from 20 individuals to the 12 adults and one youth that were selected for recognition. Those that were not selected this year are automatically added to the list of people to be considered next year.

Previous honorees include business professionals, activists and people like state Sen. Christine Kehoe, Cleve Jones, Tom Reise, Fritz Klein and SDGLN contributor Ben Cartwright.

About this year's Gala

More people than ever before have already RSVP'd for the event, and the event's organizers say some "exciting" announcements are planned.

In addition, selections from Lambda's extensive exhibit at City Hall last summer, "A Celebration of LGBT History," will be on display in The Center's library the night of the event.

Food for the event will be provided by The Caliph, Bourbon Street Bar and Grille, The Big Kitchen and San Diego Desserts. The Hole is sponsoring the bar, with 100% of sales going to Lambda Archives.

Silver Level event sponsors are Anthony's Fish Grotto and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for San Diego at the San Diego Foundation.

For information about purchasing tickets to the 2010 Gala, visit SDGLN's Events Calendar, or visit the Lambda Archives website.