Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project


Cherry Johnson 1977

People of Faith Against Thirteen

Oral History:

Cherry Johnson

Interviewed on September 11, 2003
by Emily Hazen
Photo, Cherry in 1977, by Ruth Pettis

"I was always the lesbian poster girl."

Cherry: The Church Council of Greater Seattle formed the Task Force on Lesbians and Gay Men, which was a very radical thing in 1976. I was pulled into that early on because of my previous experience in the church, and there was nobody with American Baptist background there. I had made it clear that I didn’t still consider myself an American Baptist.* I’d left the church in order to come out. But they said, “Cool. We want you here.” Plus, there were people in the [American] Baptist church who respected me and I could use that. So I did do that in the church for a number of years -- working in the church for reform -- but I only did it from the outside. I had to get out of doing it from within. I couldn’t take it -- I can’t move that slow.

We went around speaking to church adult groups and youth groups and groups of pastors -- about homosexuality and how what the Bible taught about homosexuality -- basically, how misinterpreted things were. That there were nine “clobber” passages that are used against [gay] people and they were horribly misinterpreted. In fact, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, and they need to come to grips with that, if they were Christians. If they were Orthodox Jews and wanted to quote the Book of Leviticus, I had to say, “Fine. You can do that.” And, “I pity any gay or lesbian person who at that point in time wants to be an Orthodox Jew.”

But, for Christian churches, which is mostly what I was involved with at that time, there was no excuse. I was saying, “Look at what you say you value. You value loving all people. You think God is love. You’re talking about a savior who ran around with twelve men, never married, and preached a radical lifestyle and socialism. And you’re wanting to say it’s not okay to be lesbian and gay? Look what happened in the 19th century when Christians upheld slavery on the basis of one line out of the Bible where Paul says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” And they said, “See? God wanted slavery.” I said, “None of you would stand up and do that now!” They said, “That’s true. We wouldn’t.” And I’d say, “Well, in the future you’re going to look back and say, ‘Why were we against homosexuality?’”

So we would address Old Testament [stories], like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. When the men of Sodom came to Lot and said, “Give me the angel that we may know him,” which is so often interpreted as “have sex with him.” Even though that word, translated as “know,” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament and it’s mostly about hospitality -- is what it’s referring to, the word that was translated as “know.” But even if it was about knowing him sexually, Lot says, “Oh no! Can’t do that. Let me give you my virgin daughters.” Who talks about that? You know? That’s disgusting.

So we would go into churches and speak. We’d have a minister, Marie Fortune, who started the Center on Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. I think she’s a United Church of Christ pastor. She was on the task force. She would come in as the Biblical expert, but we would all talk about that stuff, too. There were other ministers who were involved and some priests, although priests had to be pretty careful. There were gay priests, but of course they didn’t want to go out and say that. But the lesbian and gay ministers didn’t want to either, so they would go as the ministerial [experts]. I’m not saying that everybody [who] went with us was gay but, it was an awkward situation. I was always the lesbian poster girl. I mean, you’d have one out lesbian and one out gay man who were willing to talk about it.

We’d go to these church conferences. I remember this Presbyterian -- big old conference being held in the area -- and trying to challenge people, so we’d tell them that story. You know, “Come on! You really take this story of Sodom and Gomorrah this seriously? What are you going to do with this part of the story? You think that was okay? That Lot said, ‘Let me give you my two virgin daughters’? What was he thinking? What are you thinking?” And you could see lights go on in people’s eyes. I loved doing that.

It was very upsetting for other people. One really interesting experience I had doing that was that I got asked to come to speak at Seattle First Baptist Church, which is an American Baptist church. It hadn’t been that many years since I’d left [their summer] camp. A lot of the adults in the church -- their kids had come through my camping program. A lot of people there who knew me -- had a lot of respect for me -- did not know I was a lesbian. Well, they did now, given that I was coming to speak to their church about this. And the high school students in the church wanted to come to the adult Sunday school class where this was happening. That was actually during Initiative 13, when there was an anti-gay initiative on the ballot. That was ’78.

So the high school kids wanted to come. A lot of these kids had been campers. A couple of them had worked there under me. They were told they couldn’t come, that this wasn’t an appropriate program. So they got up and walked out of their Sunday school class and came anyway. It was a very powerful statement. And it was also controversial and uncomfortable, because there were people there who loved me, and didn’t know what to do with the fact that they loved me and I was a lesbian, talking about something that made them so incredibly uncomfortable. That church is now -- 25 years later -- an open and affirming congregation that welcomes gay and lesbian people. That is really heartening. It was too late for me, but I’m really glad it’s there for other people. So I took my spirituality to a different place after that.

Another thing I did, in terms of spiritual stuff, was I started spiritual support groups at the Lesbian Resource Center. And that got people hating me -- a bunch of radical lesbians in the community saying, “You can’t talk about spirituality and be a radical lesbian leftist because everything to do with religion is --” You know, “It’s the opiate of the masses. It’s anti-feminist. It’s anti-gay. It’s blah-blah-blah.” And I said, “I’m a spiritual being. We’re all spiritual beings. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion.”

So this term developed at that time, “bliss bunnies.” Those of us who were involved in spiritual support groups were bliss bunnies. That was a really derogatory statement coming from some factions of the lesbian community. It’s funny now. At the time, when I was still trying to be loved by everybody, it wasn’t that funny. Having the perspective of time is great because now I look at all these women, even some who thought these were bliss bunnies then, who have gotten into this fundamentalist New Age stuff, where they are just diehard believers in a new religion. I don’t see that it’s any different than diehard Christians, diehard Jews, diehard Muslims. Anybody who believes that they have the truth -- and thinks that they need to push their one truth on everybody else -- is scary to me.

So it was an interesting time. You had the separatists. You had the bliss bunnies. You had the reformists, who were called the “sell outs” (and that was the Dorian Group). And then we had interfaced with the feminist organizations who weren’t all that thrilled to have lesbians on board a lot of times. . . .

What I learned during that time was that there was no way I could be a good girl, and be a lesbian activist at the same time. That was a great lesson, but it was hard-won. Somebody always hated me, and I kept wanting to say, “But I’m so nice.” [laughs] You know, they didn’t like me for not being a separatist. There were people in the Dorian Group’s circle who felt that I was too radical. . . .

I had this wonderful experience, when I was working in the church, of reading this theologian who talked about how in any movement for change, several things have to happen at the same time. There have to be the ivory tower people, who analyze and write it down and argue, if only on paper, and hone the theories. Then there are the people who create noise, so that other people even know that this movement exists. Those are the people out marching and yelling and getting the television cameras and newspaper reporters out there, because they wouldn’t show up for the ivory tower people. Then there are the people who create the alternative institutions. They experiment with the future. Then there are the reformers, willing to push for change within existing institutions.

In the lesbian-feminist movement, the separatists were one of the groups of the future thinkers. They were acting out the theory, saying, “What would life without men be like?” There was a lot to learn from that. If we don’t have men to lean on, what is life created by women like? They were trying that.

I was most involved with the radical institution-changing groups. I don’t want to go to Seattle Mental Health and bat my head against the wall and say, “Won’t you please treat lesbians well?” I’d rather work in the Lesbian Resource Center and make sure that there’s decent counseling for lesbian women coming out. Make sure that there are women trained to lead groups for lesbians. Make sure that a lesbian who’s having her child taken away from her, just because she’s a lesbian, gets the right legal and emotional support. . . . There isn’t any one way for a movement to happen.

*The American Baptist denomination is different from the more well-known Southern Baptist denomination.

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