Interview with Hans Johnson

Dublin Core


Interview with Hans Johnson


Women studies; Feminism; Gender; Student activism; LGBTQ people; Scholarships; Homophobia; Homophobia in higher education; Interdisciplinary approach in education


This is an interview with College of Wooster alum Hans Johnson. Hans talks about his experience at the college as well as his experience being in the Women's Studies discipline. Hans discusses the history of the Women's Studies discipline at Wooster as well as what historical moments of the time inspired his interest in the discipline. Hans also discusses what he has been up to after graduating Wooster and how what he learned in Women's Studies has inspired him outside of Wooster. Hans also goes in depth about his student activism while at Wooster.


Harris-Ridker, Matthew
Johnson, Hans






OHLA Undergraduate Fieldwork Fellow/Faculty Mentor Microgrant, College of Wooster Libraries


Presented with permission from Hans Johnson

In Copyright


This Chronicle article covers the hiring and withdrawl of Suzanne Woods, which is an event discussed in this interview.










Kalamazoo; Battle Creek; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Columbus; Minnesota; Cincinnati; Wooster; Maine; Maryland; Washington

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Harris-Ridker, Matthew


Johnson, Hans


College of Wooster Digital Studio


Hans Johnson Interview

Edited by Matthew Harris-Ridker and Hans Johnson for clarity

[00:00:00] MHR:  Alright. So I'm here with Hans Johnson. It is May 15th. Hi Hans. 

[00:00:07] HJ:  Hi Matt.  

[00:00:08] MHR:  All Right so I guess to begin just can you tell us where you're from and why did you choose to go to College of Wooster. 

[00:00:15] HJ:  I'm Hans Johnson. I am a 1992 graduate of the college. I'm originally from Kalamazoo Michigan. Technically between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, a rural area between those two southern Michigan cities. I now live in Los Angeles California and I am very glad to be back at campus in part for the retirement of a good friend of mine and a longstanding leader in the WGSS Program and in Women's Studies, its predecessor, and some ways its progenitor, Nancy Grace who retired this week from the college after 31 years. I am also a non-major in the Program. I minored in the Program just after the major had been instituted in 1989 I believe on its 10th anniversary. So I was a very engaged minor in the Program and actually served on the Women's Studies curriculum committee in the 1990 to 91 year. I decided to become a Women's Studies minor and I became very attached to the Program in part because of the level of scholarship that I felt from many of the leaders of the Women's Studies Program in that period, and also because of the magnetism of political involvement that was associated with feminism in that period. In 1989 the period when I was awakening both politically and intellectually I had come to the college with what I think almost a full years credit based on AP courses from my high school days.

[00:02:20] And I had a little bit of flexibility as a result of that and because of the college scholarship that I was lucky to receive. The college began its college scholarship Program I think shortly before my senior year, and it was a wonderful incentive that actually offered full tuition scholarship for college scholars. I took the exam. I remember doing an interview during my college visit here back in the fall of 87 and I was struck by the relaxed and welcoming environment of a campus. That was a big draw to me. And then when I learned that I had earned the college scholarship it was a very important incentive for coming here. I think to be honest I had a very fleeting sense of my own sexuality when I was a senior in high school and something about the removal of parental authority over the purse strings of my college education resonated, I think, very deeply with me. And it was a major criterion in my deciding to come to Wooster that I had my tuition paid for and that my parents' responsibilities and my parents' imprimatur over the direction of my studies, and over the continuation of my studies, was that much lessened. That all being said I was the fourth of four kids. I had followed my brothers and sisters through their own college searches and had gleaned a great deal of subtle signals about what kind of campuses I liked and also about the parental-child interactions that go along with financing of liberal arts educations. And mind you, this was in 1988 when the costs of a Wooster education were approximately a third to a half of what tuition runs today. 

[00:04:39] But in any case I came to Wooster in part because of the college scholarship Program and I became involved in Women's Studies in the course of the 1989 academic school year. Much more intensely during that my sophomore year and decided by that point accruing so many course credits that I would minor in the area.

[00:05:06] MHR:  Awesome, so you were talking about how you chose to become a student in the WGSS minor, what drew you to that area of study?

[00:05:17] HJ:  Well in the spring of 1989 the Supreme Court came down with the Webster ruling around abortion rights which essentially threw the question of reproductive health access back to state level government. It was a significant erosion of Roe v. Wade and it awakened a wave of feminist activism throughout the country that was quite palpable including here in Ohio. And the invitation, the not so subtle invitation from majority Supreme Court for state lawmakers to reengage in increasingly onerous restrictions on abortion rights, awakened not just students here but also faculty. And given my emerging sensibility about autonomy, about authority, about the dimensions of control that government could exert, and stigma that was quite palpable upon even men involved in feminism that I was already quite aware of but also certainly coming to reckon with firsthand in my interaction with fellow students with people who had seen me in my first iteration in as incoming first year and who saw a transformation starting to occur. It was very significant.

[00:06:52] I became very involved in women's rights activism which created a peer group of very welcoming women friends and also put me in touch with women faculty active in the Women's Studies Program at the time and I was also increasingly involved as a teaching assistant starting I think immediately my sophomore year. So, that combination of activities of academic involvement and being involved in the advising of incoming first years and the responsibilities and subtleties of those relationships of mentorship of peer grading, of supporting faculty, and being initiated into some of those faculty relationships that T.A.s are regularly can be invited into, along with student activism. Organizing marches to both Washington D.C. and to Columbus where a very large rally for abortion rights happened in October of 1989. That started to give me experience both in organizing and in the practical dimensions of feminist scholarship that I was increasingly gravitating towards. So those were some of the reasons. That cauldron of activism in 1989 and into 1990 really shaped my determination to be a Women's Studies minor and to be very active in the WGSS Program. Such that by that fall my junior year upon my return from Spain, where I went as a second semester sophomore, I was able to really burrow in as a member of the Women's Studies curriculum committee and start to learn from the inside some of the deliberation and strategy about the course composition and content and also to deepen my relationships with faculty members during that period.  

[00:09:02] MHR:  Yeah, that's really interesting to hear about, like, all the activism going on during that time because this year we actually had a whole bunch of activism stuff happening on campus. 

[00:09:12] HJ:  Like what?

[00:09:13] MHR:  Wooster, the town, had a Women's March this year. And so a lot of students were involved with that. And then there was, we called it the "Galpin Call-In" this year. 

[00:09:24] HJ:  Right, right. In which you participated in both? 

[00:09:27] MHR:  Yes I did.

[00:09:28] HJ:  Good for you.

[00:09:28] MHR:  I went to the Women's March and I sat in on, sat in Galpin.

[00:09:32] HJ:  Good. 

[00:10:12] MHR:  It was very cool, yeah. So, on that note, you were talking about how during that time there was a bunch if activism going on. So, what was the climate like on campus? In general was there that same sense of organizing?

[00:10:13] HJ:  It was a very, very tumultuous time on campus for a series of other factors. One of which was a pattern of racial racist attacks that occurred on campus. Another was the onset of a pattern and a wave of sexual assaults that caught the attention of students and drew attention to the threadbare policies of the college with regard to sexual harassment and sexual assault. The combination of those two dynamics and of firsthand experiences by a number of students with the impotence of the college disciplinary process and of the college communications process which many found wanting, helped catalyze protests among students aimed at administration. At the same time as we were going through some large scale political awakenings to the perils of the Bush administration at the federal level including the attempt to roll back abortion rights. Also, into that mix throw the rise of a form of LGBT politics which was increasingly feisty and in your face around the AIDS crisis which was a very intense tarp if you will over gay identity and LGBT politics at the time. Two movements in which I was tangentially involved, ACT UP and Queer Nation direct action protest groups of the late 80s and early 90s, had a presence in Ohio and also was a was an outlet for much more confrontational activism than the mere kind of lobbying activity and reform oriented politics that I was starting to develop skills in through feminism.

[00:12:07] So the combination of on campus activism around injustices and injuries that colleagues or classmates of mine and those a year or two older were experiencing in the context of an awakening of progressive activism, principally around gender and sexuality, in American politics at that point, were, set the stage for the take over of Galpin Hall in the spring of 1989 at a point when I was not yet a student leader in my own right, it was the spring of my first year. And some of the residue from that takeover which had some very concrete demands around protection of student health and safety and respect for diversity on campus did have much resonance throughout the ensuing years. And that spirit of defiance and of multidisciplinary work of coalition building among students that led to and helped, I think, bear fruit in the Galpin take over of the spring of 1989 did carry over into subsequent years of student activism. And I was very much a disciple of that form of coalition politics. I was a viewpoints editor at The Voice at the time. I was in a position to both write about, bring in voices to write about, and then do a coming out section of the voice in, I think 1990, that in which I participated myself in the fall of 1990 right National Coming Out Day. So, that was… there were many on ramps into activism but there was a particular welcoming to multipronged organizing and coalition politics. 

[00:14:23] From my standpoint that ended up expressing itself through bringing speakers to campus and starting to amass different budget lines through which I could cobble together 100 250 maybe 500 dollars from a budget line to bring a speaker, like Karen Thompson the author of a groundbreaking book about disability rights and lesbian partnership recognition and the plight of same sex partners trying to seek recognition of our spousal relationships in 1990 after her partner was injured in an automobile accident in Minnesota I believe. Karen was teaching there, we brought her to campus, she did a teaching based on I believe six or seven different budget lines, I think I cobbled together including a P.E. contribution because of her service in that area in her professorship in Minnesota. But that was the kind of concrete way in which I was bringing in some of the lessons and inspiration of coalition politics that I was feeling in political work and in organizing work around LGBT rights and women's rights into curricular work. And, I think the lessons of WGSS at the time was one of high quality scholarship that could bear fruit in social and cultural change, to quote the words of Joanne Frye who was a mentor and a significant influence on my time at Wooster, but which one did not see itself as training activists or encouraging political activism. They did not do that. They did not discourage it, but they did not see that as their mission. Their mission was scholarship, but yet the invitations to extracurricular activism were ones that I found very ripe and put them to use through things like bringing speakers to campus and trying to share some of those voices as a columnist in The Blade. Er, in The Blade, The Voice.

[00:16:37] MHR:   The Voice. Wow, Yeah. No that sounds like, that sounds like an exciting time on campus too, yeah?

[00:16:47] MHR:  Indeed it was. It was a period where it was also very raw to be either to be gay or lesbian or to be and certainly to be out. I did have an experience of that time that was very, I would say searing. In the fall of 1990, shortly after I had helped write the coming out day composite for The Voice. That was the period in which the hate crimes, the Federal Hate Crime Statistics Act, was being debated in the Senate and was also a period when there was a vicious antigay crackdown on national endowment for the arts funding, and there was also, in Ohio, a very high profile case involving the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and his exhibit “The Perfect Moment” which was shown in Cincinnati at the Contemporary Arts Center. And the director of the Center, Dennis Barrie, was brought up on charges of obscenity in Cincinnati which of course had a symbolic role as both the center of anti-pornography activism and the center of anti-abortion activism throughout the 1980s. So this case that crystallized in 1990 was also part of a backdrop to a backlash to the emergence and the presence of LGBT people in Ohio and in American culture. That trial I think lasted throughout the late fall of 1990 around that period. I was walking from my dorm, which I think was Wagner at the time, [00:18:41] down to this library where we record this interview today to make photocopies of a letter that I was sending to Ohio's then two Democratic senators, John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, in favor of passing the hate crime statistics act which would have been, and ultimately did become, the first federal legislation to recognize gay people as victims of hate attacks not coincidentally. And even that was a mighty struggle. But what happened while I was on my way walking down Beall Avenue was I was harassed by a car-load, truck-load, of local passersby who shouted epithets at me and threw some objects at me from the vehicle as I was walking down the western side of Beall Avenue coming down to the library to make photocopies of these letters to send off. And it turned out that at least one of them was a quarter which I actually found as it bounced off the sidewalk into the grass, I located it, and brought it with me and I will never forget the, the anger and the, the sense of wrong and how raw it was. In that moment to be able to write a post-it note to senators Metzenbaum and Glenn and say, “the coin with which I am making the copy of this letter to send you about the Federal Hate Crime Statistics Act was made with money thrown at me like a weapon as I went to go make that copy here in small town Ohio.” It was a very dramatic moment but it also dramatized the lack of protections that we felt. And I think the rawness of experience of homophobia and the vulnerability to some of its most vicious and even violent manifestations here in, here on campus. So that was a, in some ways, a defining moment for my early activism around LGBT rights, but I'm grateful for both the fact that Dennis Barrie was ultimately acquitted, in almost a miraculous ruling. Some of us cheered and actually had a hall party. 

[00:21:13] I remember I think I threw a hall party in my room in Wagner that fall of 1990 when the verdict came down. I put a big banner on my door. I don't know if people still do this, but I had a big roll of newsprint and I wrote “we won!” And I tacked the article from The New York Times on the middle of that big paper over my door because it really was a moment of triumph against the forces of censorship, and in its own way showed that the tools that we used to fight for liberation and for openness and for access to the same levels of protection and institutional enforcement of basic standards of dignity and respect. The tools were not explicitly those of civil rights all the time. They were often around free expression and the First Amendment. And that even those could be invoked based on the strength of community relationships and the ability to summon allies to your cause who, in the heat of a moment or when you were under scrutiny or under threat, could come to your defense and vocalize solidarity on your behalf. So, that was a very important crucible in which some of my activism was formed and which really defined my period of Wooster.  

[00:22:40] MHR:  So, with that rawness and the stuff going on in history, did you face any, like, challenges being a student in the WGSS Discipline? And also to, like, was there any stigma surrounding students in the Discipline?

[00:22:56] HJ:  No I would say not. And some of that owes to the climate of coalition politics that we were trying to practice on campus. 

[00:23:08] The attempts to remove stigma for gay men and lesbians on campus at a time. Trans students at that point were not in the equation and it was not on the radar of the LGB movement at that point. But what created, what helped eradicate stigma for men in the WGSS major or minor at the time was the diversity amongst faculty teaching the Program, the interdisciplinary aspect of the Program at that time, which was very important you had experts in their field whether it be political science like Karen Beckwith and Mark Weaver, a male teaching women's studies courses at the time without apology and with great expertise. International Scholars like Djana Plestina and Obi Nnaemeka, who went on to be a scholar of African studies and Women's Studies at Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis whom I stayed in touch with after graduation. We had economists like Barb Burnell active in the Program. We had Joanne and Carolyn Durham, Joanne Frye and Carolyn Durham, Nancy Grace from the English Department, Elizabeth Castelli, Jennifer Ward from the religious studies Department. A high level, high caliber intellectuals who were participating in the Program bringing their own, their own disciplinary expertise and the Program really was, it had a high level of academic caliber, I would say to it. Plus several of the faculty members were just really cool and were very respected by students who were serious readers and thinkers of that time. So that didn't hurt. There was a high academic pedigree I would say to the Women's Studies Program at the time, so that made it all the more alluring to be aligned with the program. Susan Figge certainly deserves credit for her scholarship both in Women's Studies and in German, top rate.

[00:25:36] So there was a kind of academic seriousness and prestige to the WGSS Program. I personally did not feel the, any stigma or opprobrium for being involved in the Program. In that, in part, the cohesion among students in the Program was so strong that it, it defrayed and almost rendered insignificant whatever forms of judgment might have been cast on it. And, as it relates to my parents at the time. By that point, by the time of my junior year even when I came out when I was back from Spain, where I had started to come out think more fully in a place that was a little easier to come out than being on it even in a campus environment which was undergoing change and was a crucible for a lot of activism and increasingly hints of welcoming, being able to come back and do that. I was very enmeshed in a peer group of scholars and it helped. And there were other men involved in the Women's Studies Program, including non-gay men, that helped I think create a sense of permission. Which is a concept that really came to inform a lot of my subsequent activism and my career that creating permission for people to bring themselves to the table and to bring their imaginations and skill sets to collaboration and campaigns was something that I really learned at Wooster and in the WGSS Program I think in particular, and I took that message to heart. 

[00:27:33] MHR:  That's awesome to hear. Yeah, because I asked that question because I know sometimes the Women's Studies Programs, or WGSS Programs, are sometimes to delegitimized, so it's awesome to hear that it was, seems like a legitimate thing to be a part of. 

[00:27:51] HJ:  So while you were a student at the college did you see any like changes within the Program at all? Like, were, did different courses start being offered? Or was it very much just focused on women's rights? 

[00:28:07] HJ:  The course offerings in the WGSS Program then, to my knowledge, were framed by the interdisciplinarity of the Program and there was a standard set of courses. The Intro to Women's Studies, the Women's Studies Seminar which was I think a 300 level course at the time. And then overlaid on some of that framework were a whole series of other offerings which were intermittent. Karen Taylor taught in the Program at the time and did a course on LGBT history and visiting faculty, and faculty who would rotate in because of course that they liked to teach was crossed listed in the Women's Studies Program at the time regularly rotated back in. So, the emphasis on interdisciplinarity was a real draw for faculty members who had a passion in their scholarship and as a result as a student you were able to draw on really high level of interdisciplinary syllabi and reading and instructional ancillary readings and lectures that, and other and increasingly video was making its way into the curriculum at that point too back in the days of VHS tapes before just as DVDs and CDs were becoming incorporated into music and multimedia. So there was that emphasis pervaded my time at Wooster. I think in the years since, as the Program crystallized and began to have its own faculty members who were in WGSS lines and it began to have an accepted form of scholarship within its own boundaries, that changed the texture of the WGSS major. 

[00:30:26] That was after my time but it was a marked transition away from the rich interdisciplinary that defined my, my time in the Program. I was fortunate to have a scholar like Karen Beckwith who ended up becoming, is now still teaching at Case Western, but a real leading light of Feminist Political Science. To have her as my first year seminar professor and then see the way in which Karen, I think sometimes uncomfortable fit within the Women's Studies rubric, but she brought her political science regimen to her teaching of feminist politics and of a female politics, a distinction that can happen to fasten onto, and find a very rich and almost defining aspect of some of her scholarship. But any case that was what set Women's Studies apart was its interdisciplinary. And I think some of that real richness, to be frank, has been lost in subsequent years. Even as the Discipline has defined itself and planted its flag more firmly, a theme that Adrienne Rich talked about and some of her essays about Women's Studies colleagues in the 1970s and the felt obligation to plant a flag very firmly in academe. But I think the security of some of the scholars that I was dealing with, and some of the students in the Program at the time, was not in any way jeopardized by the fact that it was an interdisciplinary Program that drew on some of the best of the participating Disciplines. 

[00:32:17] MHR:  Awesome. So you were talking a little bit about post your time at Wooster, so that leads me to my next question about Going True. So just for the people who are listening and don't know what Going True is, can you tell us what it is and also how do you see it relating to mission of WGSS? 

[00:32:35] HJ:  Great question, Going True is finally a recognized LGBT alumni organization at the college which established itself in 2009-2010 shortly after we began the John Plummer Memorial Scholarship in 2007-2008 which is now an endowed scholarship at the college which we give every year on or around National Coming Out Day and in conjunction with homecoming Black and Gold weekend festivities here. We do that ceremony every year on Sunday of Black and Gold weekend. But the Plummer Scholarship predated the Going True formation and in some ways, I think, helped create the permission for its establishment which really did take as its, which found a season to bloom in during the presidency of Grant Cornwell. We had a series of setbacks to basic respect for LGBT people at the college through the 1990s into the aughts into this century, which some of us had to fight very, very doggedly and perspicaciously in order to overcome. We faced a huge setback to the college in the summer of 1995 when Suzanne Woods who had be selected to become President of the College through the search leading up to the retirement of Henry Copeland, was forced out of the position of president the day before she was due to assume authority in on July 1st of 1995. 

[00:34:35] That episode that embarrassment that blow to basic non-discrimination and respect for diversity at the college and a real stigmatizing setback to our presence in the life of the college, to use a phrase that the late Deb Hilty was fond of using, was indelible and lasting and some of us tried to form an alumni association of LGBT alumns at that time. We were barred from doing so and we were discouraged, actively, from several people in the administration.  Those were not good years for LGBT students or alumni. It fell to me and to many of the people that I enlisted in the project of forming a network of LGBT alumni to create a sense of welcome on campus and to push the administration in the direction of recognizing LGBT students, faculty, staff, and alumni at the college. However, the, we were benefited by a couple of different dynamics during that long period leading up to Going True's emergence which, again, I would say was in many ways galvanized by the formation of the scholarship, the successful organizing and endowing of the scholarship through the money that we raised privately throughout 2007 into 2008 for the initial awarding of the scholarship. To people who were I would say really indispensable to the success of the scholarship and to getting the alumni association formed were the late John Plummer who was, became the namesake for the scholarship upon his suicide in the summer of 2006 following his retirement from college in 2002.

[00:37:06] John was a mentor to two plus generations of students and faculty who whom he helped walk through the hoops of managing spreadsheets and accounting for academic purposes at the college, but was a very singular openly gay presence on staff throughout about 30 years at college. When I came out during the difficult days around my doing that in the newspaper, John sent me little post-it notes on my campus paychecks saying hang in there. In its own way a great gesture of solidarity and kindness that I never forgot. And John's presence was, I would say, really significant to the ultimate ability to secure recognition of an LGBT alumni association. And another person who I would say was key was Nancy Grace. Nancy, in the English Department, had a network of former students whom she kept in touch with and I think Nancy always saw herself as being an ally for LGBT rights in the strongest sense of the word. Plus Nancy had a great deal of standing amongst faculty and had lots of positive relationships with colleagues so that she could keep me apprised of developments on campus and also help to move conversations forward that advanced LGBT rights in small and subtle ways through faculty and staff awareness if not in concrete programming, which she also did. She ended up becoming director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, formally this Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, between 2013 and 2016. So Nancy's service as an ally actually gained, I would say, an official role when she became director of, what do you call it...CD... CDI where ultimately the Plummer Scholarship lodged. So that's a long way of saying that the Plummer Scholarship was, I think, a can opener, a metaphor I often resort to describing the role that the scholarship played on campus between the idea for its formation. 

[00:40:01] When I sat with John Plummer in the Fall of 1995 here on campus after the Susanne Woods fiasco and said John what can we do to open up this environment for LGBT people. He says well someday you ought to think about a scholarship. And finally, regrettably, John didn't live to see it but those many people close to John, some of whom still serve on the board of the scholarship or the steering committee with me, have carried on his memory in its, in its continuity. And then Going True as an LGBT alumni association, which has gone through its ups and downs over the last eight years as some of it's some of the initial LGBT alumni leaders have moved on their careers or moved on geographically. It has remained a presence amongst the diversity alumni associations which was something that we argued for all along. If we have, if we have these different African-American and other alumni clusters and affinity groups we need one certainly for LGBT rights. In part for LGBT alumni, in part because of the strong cohesion that living in Wooster has helped inculcate over the last 40 years. And in getting the scholarship started, I did a lot of the organizing reaching back to find alumni into the 40s and 50s and into the 60s who were out or who came out later and who contributed, often in many cases, nominal amounts to help get the scholarship off the ground and as a result. I think we showed one thing that's very important and an important theme, I've come to learn in organizing of any kind, whether it be for an institution or for a campaign or for a cause, is that you can bring up a base of dollars to the table especially when you're forging institutional change, [00:42:22] if you can bring dollars to the table and show that you have a cluster or a corral of donors then you can start to win recognition for the themes and the priorities that you're moving forward. One of the things that we had to do between 1995 and 2008 was reconnect people with the campus. The Susanne Woods episode was a searing and stinging rebuke for people who respected LGBT rights and met for many of us who were LGBT ourselves. It wasn't just us, but a whole network of allies was deeply offended by that move and by the signal that Wooster would discriminate in such a high, and such a highly exposed way in its expression of values. And one of the tasks that fell to us was encouraging very upset alumni who are not necessarily LGB or T, but because of the dynamics of coalition that we built through what at that point a decade of activism around a coalition of conscience and of a progressive sensibility that we had to give people a reason and a hook for reengaging with their alma mater and to certainly to donate to to the school. So the Plummer Scholarship became an acceptable way for many deeply offended people to give to the campus for the purpose of institutional change, and I think we succeeded in that. And it became a conduit for the formation of Going True. 

[00:44:22] MHR:  Wow. No, that's... trying to think of the right word but, like, very interesting history. 

[00:44:29] HJ:  Well it had a lot of impact. 

[00:44:31] MHR:  Yeah, impactful! That's the word I was looking for.

[00:44:33] HJ:  And it had, its shown staying power. And I think the Plummer Scholarship is still something of a can opener in an environment where permission is often lacking for talking about LGBT people's presence on campus in a variety of ways. The scholarship and its continuity provide an anchor for other conversations and other forms of openness for the contributions that allumni and students, and staff and faculty, make to the campus.   

[00:45:16] MHR:  I'm just curious have you heard of the Lavender Ceremony that Wooster does now? 

[00:45:29] HJ:  No. 

[00:45:33] MHR:  Yeah, so I actually went to it this year to support some friends. I think it was the 3rd annual, or 2nd annual. Well it's, the Lavender Ceremony has now apparently being used on campuses across America where they recognize the LGBTQ+ students on campus before graduation. So this whole recognition ceremony where they bring back speakers and they hand out lavender, not sashes but...

[00:45:49] HJ:  Stoles?

[00:45:49] MHR:  Stoles! To wear at graduation. Yeah it was a really cool ceremony.

[00:45:53] HJ:  That's really wonderful and when does it happen during graduation weekend?

[00:45:57] MHR:  Yeah it happened around symposium this year! You talking about how LGBTQ students from your time, and staff and people involved on campus wanting to get more recognition that popped into my head about what's happening on campus now.

[00:46:11] HJ:  That's great. Did you go to the ceremony? 

[00:46:13] MHR:  Yeah I went to the ceremony this year and it was very impactful. There was a huge turn out too which was very…

[00:46:19] HJ:  that's great.

[00:46:20] MHR:  … Awesome. 

[00:46:20] HJ:  I'm so glad it's happening.

[00:46:22] MHR:  Yeah.

[00:46:22] HJ:  And I look forward to coming back for it down the road. 

[00:46:26] MHR:  You talked a lot about the scholarship, about organizing, about social justice that you learned from WGSS, but, I guess do you have anything else you want to say about, like, what you learned in the WGSS Department that you use in your everyday life now? 

[00:46:44] HJ:  Yeah I went on to… I moved to Washington in 1992 immediately after graduating. And I went to work as an advocate in national politics, but deeply imbued by my experience of grassroots organizing here in Ohio. And of coalition building which I learned at Wooster and in working in Ohio and the Midwest during the period of my junior and senior years. Whether that was antiwar organizing, women's rights organizing, LGBT equality organizing, fair housing organizing, and experience with labor union organizing which, as a result of being in Ohio and being around progressive people, you start to develop fluency in policy areas and with cohorts that you wouldn't ordinarily necessarily gravitate to. But politics becomes its own cauldron for connecting you with other people. African-American leaders who might begin to work within the course of fighting Bush administration efforts to rein in affirmative action in 1990 and 91 as Bush was getting ready for his re-election campaign which is ultimately a landmark victory for a progressive coalition and Bill Clinton's campaign which I was not in Wooster to experience but I was in Washington D.C. for. Latino activists that my Spanish degree… my Women's Studies minor and my Spanish and English double majors ended up providing some skills in Spanish, Spanish translation which I put to use, and I was fortunate to have a number of great educators who actually helped give me concrete skills that I put to use in my coalition works. 

[00:48:56] I went to Washington worked in advocacy with People For the American Way and went on to start my own consulting firm in 2002, work that I've done for the last 15 plus years, to train activists and to help build 501(c)(3) organizations to help them start 501(c)(4) counterparts that can do lobbying and much more engaged work on policies and, up to a certain amount, of electoral campaign activity as part of their C4 mission. And then for those organizations to take the next step, to help them form political action committees. So for the last 20 years, I have been involved in organizational development strategic planning and political strategy for nonprofit advocates, for those that do lobbying, and for those that take the next step into direct political and campaign support. And what has stayed with me through all that is an appreciation for coalition politics which, if there's any through line to the course of my work over the last 20 25 years, it is referendum work helping organizations be able to fully fulfill their role as advocates in the context of ballot measures. My experience at Wooster, again, provided a searing example of the importance of involvement in ballot measure campaigns in the fall of my junior year. That very formative fall 1990, while I was in Spain the semester before, Wooster had passed a fair housing ordinance and a group of religious right activists fastened onto the sexual orientation provisions in that fair housing ordinance and were intent on repealing them. This is at a period when antigay referenda were starting to proliferate and would then later take the form of a statewide antigay ballot measures in Oregon and Colorado in the fall of 1992 just as Bill Clinton was winning that election that 

[00:51:16] I was in Washington to help work on those ballot measures, but I'd already been privy to a fight over LGBT rights here in Wooster and some of them, again, the very raw dynamics that surfaced in that fight by religious right activists here to repeal the sections of the Fair Housing Ordinance dealing with sexual orientation. And, unfortunately, following some debates, one of which we actually held in Lowry Pit between myself and a member of the faculty Jim Perley whom I would go on to work with and my time in Washington when he was president of the American Association of University Professors. Jim was a biology professor here and very active in the AAUP and very skilled in civil liberties and academic freedom arguments and was my partner on the panel defending the Fair Housing Ordinance and urging voters to uphold it. We were met with activists who were legitimately arguing Leviticus and the Old Testament as the basis for political choices in that debate. And it was eye opening for all parties involved. Whereas people probably didn't go into that debate with a very strong sense of kinship to the repeal campaign. Many people walked out of it quite passionately opposed to the repeal and seeing the stakes for essentially rolling back nondiscrimination protections here in Wooster. That was a, again, a defining experience for me in that I saw the value of referenda and the importance of being able to marshal coalitions to be able to defeat referenda when issues of social justice and basic fairness are thrown open to the peanut gallery of ordinary voters to decide important policy questions. And at the same time that if you muster a coalition to pass legislation it can be thrown open to a referendum, given the provisions of prevailing municipal or state law, so you better be in a position to have moved hearts and minds to defend any gain that you win through a legislature or through a court ruling. You have to be in a position to back it up with a "small d" Democratic base of people who will have your back at the ballot box if needed because we saw on Wooster then with the repeal of the Fair Housing Ordinance. Sadly, I learned a lesson that you have to be able to build coalitions as you go in moving policy issues forward, and that has been a major catalyst in my career for work with local coalitions and non-profit groups to build the kinds of coalition relationships that can bear fruit when you are under the gun of having to defend a gain that you've worked years to pass, sometimes through legislative or litigation strategies. You have to be in a position to win it on the ballot when necessary and that has been something that's carried me through the last 20 years of, of writing about state trends and state national politics but also helping to equip local activists with the skills, and boards, and state level leaders with the ability to interact with national organizations, and for all of that rich ecosystem of progressive organizations to have the wherewithal and the know how to build coalitions when necessary to fight back ballot measures or to win on policy issues that can be sustained with public opinion and coalition relationships coming along to back it up. 

[00:55:15] That has been a defining aspect of my work through Progressive Victory and on the boards that I've served on including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force board, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Foundation Board which I chaired, and other nonprofits and political involvement that I've had in the ensuing 25 years.

[00:55:35] MHR:  You're doing a lot of great work. 

[00:55:36] HJ:  Well Thank you. It's the fight for marriage equality, and the victory that we finally won three years ago at the Supreme Court really was set in motion by years and years of grassroots activism and state level organizing both to win at the state level, sometimes through court victories, a few times through legislation, and then to back that up to be able to defend those gains at the ballot box when needed. And we've had setbacks in that regard but we've also had a number of victories that especially in the referenda of to 2012, which was I think by all accounts the turning point. Being able to defeat four state referenda in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state aimed at rolling back marriage equality or forbidding it was a signal victory in the fight to achieve that nationwide protection and being involved in that movement, to be able to equip state coalitions to win referenda like that, is a very rewarding aspect of my career post Wooster. 

[00:57:00] MHR:  We covered a whole bunch here, which is awesome to hear all your stories and your insight. But I guess I want to finish off this interview with asking you if there any other topics you would want to bring up or that you think are important.

[00:57:15] HJ:  Well one thing I think does need to go on the record is that the WGSS Program has been a forum and has been an important platform and an important training ground in recognizing and bringing to light both the shameful, painful history of LGBT oppression at Wooster going back… even to the case of George Bradford, who was a faculty member who committed suicide in 1961 following a Federal Police raid on his home on the putative basis of pornographic material. But the fact that so many LGBT people in the past of so many liberal arts institutions, and universities, and Ohio institutions has been disappeared means that the permission to explore that history has needed both the forums and the resources that could furnish the opportunities to explore it and to bring that history to the surface. And to digest and assess its lessons for our own time, and for our own lives, and our own scholarship and the WGSS Program has been that conduit for years for I would say more than a generation. It was for me, it was a place in which I could both learn and also become more fully myself. In the course of my time as a Wooster student. But it also created the relationships with faculty, with staff, with a network of scholars around the country, and some cases around the world, that continued to nourish exploration scholarship and activism that created the permission for further celebration and recognition of LGBT lives and history in our own presence. So for me, I want, I feel a responsibility to continue that process of exploring, of developing coalition relationships across the curriculum and across identity groups in Wooster, on campus, and amongst alumni through things like the John Plummer scholarship and through participation in WGSS Programs going forward. That is a very noble and I would say crucial aspect of WGSS scholarship, and participation, that it provides permission to explore the past even the very painful aspects of the past. 

[01:00:46] Whether that be the Susanne Woods episode, whether that be George Bradford's death, whether that be the career and passing of John Plummer, and whether that be the continuing experiences of immigrant students, students of color, trans students, and LGBT students who come to Wooster seeking that friendly and welcoming learning environment in which to become more fully themselves.   

[01:01:22] MHR:  Well, that is all I have. Thank you so much for coming and talking. 

[01:01:27] HJ:  Thank you Matt. Thank you for asking the questions. It's important to ask questions and to create a forum like this where voices, textured experiences, histories can be properly protected and saved.

[01:01:42] MHR:  Yeah, thank you so much. This has been very nice.

Original Format






Harris-Ridker, Matthew and Johnson, Hans, “Interview with Hans Johnson,” WGSS at Wooster: Past, Present, and Future , accessed January 28, 2023,