When creating a safe space for yourself, others benefit. Kendra Johnson, the executive director of Equality NC, experienced this firsthand when she started the first lesbian/bisexual support group at Spelman College in the 90s. “After it got started, another person took charge of the group and got it chartered,” she said. “Several years later, we were in the same sort of organizing circles. And she told me that starting that group saved her life, and she was eternally grateful. That was the first time that I thought, sometimes you can do something that’s just to create a safe space for you, and it has these ripple effects.”
Johnson grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her Catholic upbringing instilled a need to do good. This feeling led to a focus on nonprofit and social justice work, though she took a 14-year hiatus from nonprofits to work as a writer, editor, and translator in Brazil. Upon her return to the United States, she got her master’s in public administration from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and began working with organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Women’s Project, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an organization that promotes LGBTQ+ liberation in the south.
Women AdvaNCe sat down with Johnson to discuss her origin as an activist, the role of queer women in the fight for equality, and the women who inspire her journey.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
How did you choose to settle in North Carolina?
I had been working in LGBTQ equality at the Human Rights Campaign during the rise of Trumpism before he got elected, and had started to see the concerns that I was dealing with shift from the community to seeing that we had a fight on our hands for LGBTQ equality beyond marriage equality. And I wanted to be in a place that had incredible infrastructure that was intersectional, so I could work with immigrant rights groups, with women’s and reproductive justice, with a strong NAACP, as well as LGBTQ organizing, and labor.
I saw all of that, because I had had a relationship with North Carolina through Southerners On New Ground, and felt like I needed a bigger playing field and more infrastructure to fight for our rights. When I was invited into [the] hiring process, it was appealing to me, particularly because EqualityNC was already thinking about adding a racial justice lens to LGBTQ equality work. This is a beautiful thing, and it should be the future of our organizing.
What was the moment that you knew you would be an activist?
I started to have a bit of an awakening at my high school and started to question a few things with a Catholic church. I went to a Black Catholic church and the black Catholic schools had been deactivated at integration. It started me to thinking that the church had participated in segregation. I really struggled around that, because there’s this history of seeing priests on the front lines of some of the efforts to integrate places, but at the same time, you have this whole infrastructure set up to support segregation.
This was my sophomore year of high school. A lot of times, I think we start to see our friendships when we get into high school because we start to talk about politics a little bit more. Not that I was unaware of anything racially. I had heard ugly things. But when I got into my freshman year, I started to see a big shift in how people were expressing personal views politically.
I felt the need to reconcile some of the things around my faith and my different identities. So I planned a Black History Month program at school. At my high school, I had about 16 Black students out of the 600-student body. So there wasn’t theoretically an audience for it. I invited Daisy Bates, who had worked with the Little Rock Nine, and some other prominent Black figures to come and talk about the history. Looking back, this was the first time that I saw myself in an organizing role to create space, but I don’t know that I knew that I would be an activist other than just doing it to create space for myself.
What role have queer women taken in the fight to improve equity and equality for all women?
The reality is that queer women have been at the forefront of every major advance that all women have seen, whether it is suffrage, even though that was exclusionary to Black women, or civil rights or pay equity. All of these things are interconnected. We cannot separate them. All of the movements that we have had that have been successful happened because all of the voices were at the table. Supporting the queer community is supporting all organizing against social injustices in many ways.
Even if we look at, for example, the push for abortion rights. Queer women have been solidly in that fight. There are queer women that are still leading the Women’s March efforts to organize people, and the Black Lives Matter [efforts]. Two out of the three women organizing are queer women. If we did not have queer women, we wouldn’t have had the elevation of these key social issues that we’re facing today.
What ways can women work to claw back the rights that had been taken from us?
Number one: Working together across lines of identity is critical. That is the only thing that’s ever saved us. And it’s really crucial now. Looking at all of these issues as interconnected is critical. Remember to vote. Women have always been the majority worldwide and in the United States. If we were organized as a voting bloc, and looked at our issues, again, as interconnected, this would be an unstoppable body.
The other thing is that we need broader political education and economic education about how we mobilize our resources and how we find our lane within organizing. What I mean by that is not everyone is a firebrand that’s going to stand out front and give a rip-roaring speech that motivates people. We also need people stuffing envelopes or doing social media. Not everyone is great at raising money or hosting events, but there are some folks who are.
The movement needs everyone. When we get the political and economic education of how to build, we find our role in our own movement. We’re powerful. Everyone has a gift to give to the movement for bodily autonomy, for reproductive rights, for economic justice, for immigration rights, etc. If we can organize across those lines and everyone finds their lane, that is another way that women would be unstoppable.
Which woman leaders, historical or current, inspire you?
Oh, there’s a lot. So my top that I always go to, and a personal friend of mine, is Miss Major Griffin Gracie, who is one of the surviving elders of the Stonewall revolution. She never stops caring for her community. No matter what has happened to her interpersonally, she always approaches movement and people with an incredible amount of generosity. She is always someone that I look up to.
I have been inspired particularly by Pauli Murray [a queer civil and women’s rights activist]. I’m interested in people who work across movements and give their gifts to many spaces. She had the idea that led to Brown vs. the Board of Education, was a major leader in the Episcopal church, was part of NOW, and was also a queer person who talked about their identity in ways that I think there was no language. When I get older and I look back over the things that I’ve done and the work that I’ve tried to do, I would hope to be able to touch just like a margin of what she has done.
LA (as in tra-la-la) Bourgeois identifies as a beauty-parlor-loving lesbian housewyfe, anti-racist, LGBTQ+ elder, white cis-woman whose pronouns are she/her/ma’am. You can find more of her writing at housewyfe.com.