For an activist and philanthropist who was close friends with — among others — Coretta Scott King, Winston Johnson was a remarkably modest person who never called attention to himself. Johnson's inconspicuous yet memorable life was recently remembered at a July service that followed his passing in May at the age of 79.
Even though he charmed presidents and movie stars and grew into an influential Southern LGBTQ+ activist during the '70s, '80s, 'and '90s, Johnson considered his signature feat his relationship with partner Leon Allen, with whom he spent more than 40 years and served as Allen's caretaker after a devastating diagnosis.
Born in Valdosta, Ga., in 1941, Winston Eldridge Johnson joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1963 and a short time later met Allen while the two were living in Jacksonville, Fla. To be around more gay people and get away from the state’s Johns Committee, which was actively targeting gay and bi men, the couple moved to Atlanta in 1967.
Johnson began a customer service job at Eastern Airlines, eventually driving a car for VIPs, and when the company went out of business, he began employment at Carey Limousines. It was at those two jobs that Johnson was able to meet scores of dignitaries. In April 1968 he met King on the day after her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Johnson was assigned to take King home after her flight from Memphis landed and the two became close over the years.
Among the other famous faces he got to know were Oscar-winner Patricia Neal, Burt Reynolds, Bob Hope, Congressman John Lewis, Phyllis Diller and Liberace, says Tom Hart, a friend of Johnson’s since 1964. “Liberace and his business partner used to fly Winston and Leon to his shows in New York and Las Vegas,” Hart says. “Liberace was crazy about Winston.”
While at Eastern, an executive asked Johnson point blank if he was gay and he refused to answer, eventually transferring to another department. He could have been fired if he admitted the truth — and he knew it. Over time, though, he and Allen became more open about their relationship. When, in 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the Georgia sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick, it shook Johnson to the core. “I think the injustices he saw enraged him — the political climate and the discrimination against the gay community,” says Hart.
Johnson and Allen had attended the New York Human Rights Campaign Dinner in 1985, having no clue up until that time such an event existed. “I can’t give you a lot of money but I can make your travel a lot more comfortable,” HRC president Vic Basile recalls Johnson saying, prompting Allen to quip that Johnson was the “upgrade queen” for Eastern. The next year Johnson called Basile and told him he had someone famous for the upcoming New York dinner. In order to persuade King to participate, Johnson had to come out to her, but King told him quickly she already knew Johnson and Allen were a couple. While speaking at the dinner, which was the first time King addressed LGBTQ+ rights, she specifically referenced “her friend” Johnson by name. She was a very popular speaker, says Basile, especially as “we were trying to establish the LGBTQ movement as a legitimate civil rights movement.”
By that time, Johnson and Allen felt comfortable enough to establish the first HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner in 1988. Terry Bird, who met the two in 1976, vividly remembers when Johnson called him about the proposed event. “Winston was so enthusiastic, “Bird says. “He and Leon called me and my partner and said we had to be a table captain. When Winston told me I needed to do something I took it as gospel. He told me it was important to do so we can one day have equal rights for LGBT people.” King also attended the Atlanta dinner and sat at Johnson’s table. That first year, HRC Atlanta established the annual Leon Allen & Winston Johnson Community Leadership Award.
(from left: Johnson, King, and Allen)
In addition to King, Johnson was friendly with former President Jimmy Carter, who invited Johnson to the 1978 White House State Dinner but Johnson did not feel comfortable bringing Allen. By 2012, Carter publicly supported same-sex marriage.
Johnson also began volunteering at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change and the Atlanta office of the NAACP.
Seeing his lifelong friend become an activist surprised Hart. “Winston was a very private person, shy and not outgoing,” he says. “That is what is so amazing — having known him for so long for him to become such an activist. It was so unlike the old Winston that I knew.”
Johnson and Allen weathered the worst days of AIDS, but in the '90s, Allen was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Johnson retired from his career in 1995 to take care of him, which he did until Allen passed away in 2006 — in Johnson’s arms.
Johnson remained active in the community, despite his own diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1997. In 2019, he developed bladder cancer as well. He passed away on May 11.
His power of coming out helped change people’s hearts and minds, according to Basile. “All those people he met through his job, so many of them changed,” he says. “Winston was responsible. He was so respected and people began to see the LGBTQ movement as a legitimate civil rights issue.”
Even though they were friends for four decades, Hart did not know all aspects of Johnson’s life until he saw some recent obituaries. “He never boasted,” says Hart. “I had to read about all that he had done and I’ve known him for 40 years. I do think, though, the most incredible thing Winston did was taking care of Leon, 24/7, for the last five or six years of Leon’s life. I will always remember that.”