By Hudson Taylor
When my colleague Ashland Johnson was selected to be featured in Compete Magazine’s Faces of Sports issue, I was excited but not surprised. I met Ashland at Nike’s first LGBT Sports Summit in 2012 and was immediately impressed by her passion and commitment for LGBT rights and LGBT policy experience. I now have had the honor to work with Ashland in the sports advocacy world for three years—first as a coalition partner and currently within the same organization—Athlete Ally. So when Compete Magazine asked me to interview her, I jumped at the opportunity.
Hudson Taylor: Ashland, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me today for this interview. So “Who is Ashland Johnson?”
Ashland Johnson: (laughing) OK, let’s just jump right into it. I’m so used to answering this question [Washington] DC-style; that’s to say ‘I’m a social justice advocate with a passion for promoting LGBT equality.’ I’m also a woman of color from the South, proud lesbian, former athlete, and current sports enthusiast.
You’re not just a former athlete. Like me, you are a former Division I athlete. Sports have actually been a pretty big part of your life both in the past and today. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Yes, I played Division I basketball for Furman University. But that was a lifetime ago! Sports have always been a passion in my life ever since I can remember. I’ve always played a sport; that’s how we bonded as a family, and sports is just such a big part of Southern culture. I played a lot of sports—soccer, tennis, softball—but basketball was my sport. I played basketball from the age of six up until an injury sidelined me in college. I’m still very much into sports, especially basketball, but now more as a fan.
Many of us dream of going pro after college. Was that also one of your goals?
I was always passionate about basketball. For me, though, it was always about a college scholarship, especially after I got injured. But I always wanted to do something different professionally. I actually thought it would be something in the arts. But then I got the activist bug and chose a different career path.
How did you catch the “activist bug?”
I got a rude awakening when I lived and worked in Georgia facing anti-gay employment discrimination. I was fired simply because I was gay—I couldn’t believe it was legal but it was! The incident sparked my passion for civil rights activism and it’s why I went to law school—to be a part of the movement to promote and protect LGBT rights.
You’ve worked with a number of national LGBT rights organizations—Lambda Legal, the LGBT Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR)—doing everything from employment policy to reproductive rights. Why sports inclusion policy at this phase of your career?
The ultimate goal of my LGBT advocacy work is full equality for LGBT people, especially in the South. This requires changes not only in laws and policy but also in hearts and minds. Currently in LGBT rights I see sports and athletic communities at the forefront of changing hearts and minds, particularly in regions like the South where athletics are so culturally ingrained. So I see sports and the athletic community as a powerful combined force in the cultural shift that still needs to be done to affect pro- LGBT policy change across the country.
You recently moved from the NCLR to work with us at Athlete Ally. Tell me about the advocacy work you’re doing in your new role?
As Athlete Ally’s director of policy and campaigns, I work with sports leagues, athletes and others in athletic communities to protect and promote LGBT equality across the country. What’s unique about my role at Athlete Ally, and why I love the work I do is that as a policy lawyer I get to use my background as an LGBT athlete to promote LGBT equality both inside and outside of sports.
Within sports, I work with sports leagues, teams and conferences to ensure that they have the most up-to-date LGBT-inclusive policies for players and fans. Outside of sports, I work to leverage the combined voices of the sports community to promote positive LGBT laws and policies on the state and federal levels. So whether that’s advising a league on how to be more inclusive of transgender athletes or plugging in an athletic community to a local LGBT issue, it is amazing and fulfilling work.
Basically you’re combining several of your passions to broaden a relatively new method to promote social justice. So what does this work look like in practice?
One example of what this looks like in practice is the Final Four Fairness campaign I worked on for Athlete Ally. Indiana passed a horrible religious discrimination law just weeks before the Final Four that would have allowed Indiana businesses to turn people away simply because of who they loved. I was thrilled to lead our work on the “Final Four Fairness” campaign, educating and activating profes- sional and collegiate athletic communities about fundamental anti-LGBT bias in a damaging piece of statewide legislation.
The Final Four Fairness campaign was a major turning point for our work in the legislative policy field. And I believe the situation in Indiana had a major impact on one of your target states—Georgia?
Yes, all of the uproar in Indiana helped turn the tide of the religious freedom law in Georgia. I’m proud the sports community played such a large role in that.
What are some of your long term goals in this field?
A major goal of mine is to change the way the LGBT movement and the sports community view and utilize athlete activism. This concept isn’t new; sports have been part of many social justice movements. But today we are seeing a stigma around athletes who speak out on issues important to them. It’s seen as a “distraction.” And LGBT issues are at times not seen as social justice issues but rather as “political” issues. Through my work in sports inclusion, I’d like to redefine the space in this way.
Where do you see sports inclusion headed, and what does it mean to you?
There has never been a better time for LGBT people to be a part of sports, and for allies to support LGBT equality. High profile athletic support for efforts like marriage equality are just the tip of the iceberg. Together, fans, athletes, coaches and administrators can exercise their leadership to champion LGBT equality in a wide range of issues, such as workplace fairness, family protection and equal access to public accommodations.
Photo courtesy of Ashland Johnson.