When she was five, Amy Johnson’s mother took her to a counter-protest at the then-new Planned Parenthood clinic on Ford Parkway in St. Paul. Facing off against abortion opponents, she was handed a placard to hold, she recalls, and with three words — “Come on, honey!” — “an activist was born.”
This month, after a long national search, Johnson has been hired as the new executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest public policy and advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. I recently met with Johnson, a longtime lawyer who’s helped countless GLBT families navigate the confusing world of family law, at her office in the fittingly named Rainbow Building in Minneapolis to discuss the future of the GLBT movement in Minnesota, the sense of grief and urgency California’s Proposition 8 has evoked in the community and how technology might impact OutFront’s future.
Andy Birkey: What experiences do you bring to OutFront Minnesota?
Amy Johnson: My background has a lot to do with where I am today. For the last 20 years I have been representing GLBT families and individuals in their businesses and in their family planning. Alongside that is my very active volunteer life. I’ve done vol work at the Minnesota AIDS Project, with National Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association and, more recently, as president of the PFund Foundation. I have really enjoyed working in this movement.
On the professional side, I’ve been working family by family, helping them ensure stability and trying to plan against the discrimination that can come down the pike. And so now to be able to combine my volunteer and professional life.
I get to plan with an amazing team of talent how to make the entire state safe for families.
Birkey: How did you become an activist?
Johnson: I grew up in St. Paul, and I started my volunteer career at 5 years old. My mom stuck a placard in my hand and did a little counter-protest at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Ford Parkway. When it first went in, it was really controversial and there were all these [anti-abortion] protesters and my mom said, “Come on, honey!” and an activist was born.
I just really do feel that it’s uncanny how my professional and volunteer life, how it has prepared me for this job. I think OutFront Minnesota has really exciting possibilities, and I hope I can help OutFront realize those possibilities.
Birkey: The marriage issue is a big one, and as I’ve reported a number of times, there are members of the community who don’t want to wait to get married. Already for 2009, there is a lawsuit and a piece of legislation planned for marriage equality. Is it the right time? How do you see the timing and strategy?
Johnson: The timing issue. There’s a difference in philosophy between the lawsuit and legislation. I don’t think it’s one of timing. I think it’s the political realities and legal realities, so that’s sort of on a macro level of those two different tracks.
Looking at the [upcoming bill proposed by Sen. John Marty to equalize Minnesota’s marriage laws], OutFront Minnesota is not against him bringing that bill and having a hearing at the judiciary [committee]. The more this issue comes up, the more that people hear “gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender” and understand that we are talking about regular families and dignity and stability and respect.
We think it will take three to five years. If John Marty’s bill gets through, gets heard, gets passed and if the governor signs it? Hallelujah! I mean, that … would … be … phenomenal. Unfortunately, realistically, it’ll take a few more times than that.
Birkey: Proposition 8 passed in November, effectively removing the right for same-sex couples to marry in California. What was your reaction?
Johnson: (Heavy sigh). That is such an interesting and tragic case study. My first reaction was to cringe because I really felt, and I do feel, that the entire country was watching. And I think our detractors could say, “See? The courts were ahead of the people,” and thereby [our detractors] could stop other legislative efforts across the country. I think it will take a little more education because of Prop 8.
I think that that’s an OK thing because we really want this to happen organically. We believe that the people of Minnesota want stable families with all communities living free from discrimination, and the work that we are going to do is really just to make sure that that grows organically and to show the legislators that all the constituencies are there with us.
It also had the funky outcropping of a younger generation who might have been complacent. Well, complacent is the wrong word … unaware of the subtle, more subtle discrimination that really does exist out there.
Birkey: Definitely. Being out in the community and talking to folks I encounter people who’ve never been to the Capitol, never signed up for an advocacy organization or talked to a legislator — some haven’t even voted. This year has been the year they’ve showed up to the marriage rallies, sent out e-mails about marriage equality to friends and family. Is this a great time to take advantage of that energy?
Johnson: Absolutely. I was surprised. I’ve gotten a lot of calls … this is my first official day. More people left messages on my Facebook than called or e-mailed.
Birkey: The Internet is certainly a big part of my work, and we saw how effective social networking was in the 2008 elections. Is OutFront harnessing some of that organizing power?
Johnson: Absolutely. I think we are for sure and excited to take a page out of the president-elect’s book and communicate and bring people, engage people through different means: texting and Facebook and MySpace. I’ve already started some research on that and there are some other organizations doing that and we are going to be careful not to duplicate efforts. It’s a wonderful common goal that a lot of the GLBT organizations have, and it’s a really great background for us to be working together on.
Birkey: There are some parts of the GLBT community that are less interested in marriage rights. They don’t see it as very important to their lives. How do you respond to those community members?
Johnson: I think OutFront Minnesota’s approach is a little bit unique in that we are committed to a legislative approach, and so this isn’t something that is coming from the top down and all we are getting is marriage and an intellectual debate. This is coming from the bottom up. So all of the community organizing we do, all of the education, all of the engagements that we make are going to reduce discrimination and normalize relations between GLBT community and our allies and we are going to build allies. And so everyone is going to benefit whether you choose to get married or not.
Birkey: What are some of those issues that might be coming up in the next few years?
Johnson: I do know that there is a safe schools initiative coming up, but today’s my first day and we haven’t finalized our legislative agenda (set to be released next week).
Communications Director Jo Mariscano added: Some other issues … expanding our organizing efforts with communities of color. We are going to be doing much more work in that area and doing more work with the transgender community. I don’t think anyone can be in this community and not know about the organizing importance of the transgender community, and we saw that with the united [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] campaign.
We will also be working on broader issues that affect the GLBT community. Reproducive rights, health care and working with unions on labor issues.