“Mother Has Lived, What Can I Say?”

Black History Month is often focused on prolific members of the Black community throughout history who contributed to the world in the name of betterment, and while they are incredibly important to our community, we often overlook those who are still alive and continuing to make a difference. We know that much of the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation has largely been led by Black members of the community who often don’t get enough credit for their contributions. This year, the Autostraddle team decided to focus our Black History Month coverage on the Black elders who are still here and still doing the work.

We connected with Black elders through a partnership with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBTQ+ older people and their caregivers. Autostraddle was honored to talk with five Black LGBTQ+ elders, and we’ll be publishing these interviews throughout the month of February. We welcome our readers to celebrate these members of the Black LGBTQ+ community with us, while they’re still here to be celebrated.

I don’t talk about it enough, but I feel very strongly about intergenerational queer relationships. I have queer friends and community members in their fifties and sixties and older, and I cherish those relationships so deeply. It’s invaluable to have a friend who has been through what you’ve been through and more, and can impart some wisdom and hope.

So, when the idea of interviewing an LGBTQ elder was presented to us, I was really excited and jumped at the chance. This excitement grew tenfold when I first emailed DonnaSue to schedule our interview. Just from our brief exchange, I could tell she was serious, vibrant, and whip-smart. When we both logged into the video chat, my nerves were eased as I was greeted by her face.

DonnaSue Johnson describes herself as a “big, black, beautiful, Bohemian, bougie, Buddhist butch.” She was born in 1956 in South Jersey, to policeman Donald Johnson and mother Sue, hence DonnaSue.

“I had a great childhood. I truly, truly did. I was born the same day my grandfather died, my maternal grandfather, who was a physician and a civil rights activist,” she says. “He went to Lincoln University with Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes.”

DonnaSue’s life is full of historical tidbits like this. Her father’s father was a Buffalo soldier and a reverend. Her family has a rich history, and her own life is just as interesting. She shares with me that her family was very academically focused, and that academic excellence was embraced in the home.

DonnaSue recounts one story in which her brother ran home from a day of school crying and asked “Mommy, didn’t we [Black people] do anything?” and after that moment the family bought the Black History Encyclopedia and began to learn Black history together. DonnaSue says that she is still to this day learning Black history, and we briefly talk about American civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray.

DonnaSue excelled in school, and eventually made her way to college, attending the HBCU Virginia State College, now University. She says that this was a way to get the Black experience, having grown up in a predominantly white area of New Jersey.

“I majored in special education. My mom was a special ed teacher. My grandmother was an early childhood educator. I think I mentioned my grandfather. My paternal grandfather was the physician for the black community in Burlington County,” says DonnaSue. “But he also was the first president of the NAACP for Burlington County in New Jersey. I was in a marching band. I played basketball, softball, tennis. I pledged Delta.”

After graduating, DonnaSue says she was a part of Black organizations like Jack and Jill, and also was a debutante, she jokes:

“Mom tried her best to get this butch out!”

After getting her degree in teaching, DonnaSue says that career path didn’t work out for her, so she decided to enlist in the Air Force. She went into officer training school to become an officer instead of the other routes into the Air Force at the time: ROTC, academy, or 90-day programs. Her schooling took place in San Antonio, Texas.

DonnaSue and I don’t talk a lot about this time in her life.

“It’s hard to talk about this part of my life because I am a one-hundred percent disabled vet. I suffered from military sexual trauma and PTSD, and major depressive disorder, but I didn’t even know what was going on,” she says. “I didn’t recognize it until decades later. I just kept on pushing pushing pushing.”

Throughout my talk with DonnaSue, even in the moments where we are talking about something serious or heavy, she always finds a way to bring gravitas and a lightness to the topic. She always has a joke or a saying that eases the tenser parts of our talk. I learn that after the Air Force, she went into social work for 40 years.

She says her favorite gig was “emergency psychiatric crisis intervention” in an emergency room setting. There, she would determine the level of care for each person on an individual basis. Back when she started, the levels varied from, to use her words, “I give you a card and say, ‘bye, call as you need’” to “the most restrictive which would be taking away your civil rights and forcing you into treatment on a commitment status because you’re a danger to self and others.”

“We were working to assist folks in having an opportunity to live and get better with whatever they were dealing with,” she says.

I can tell what this job meant to DonnaSue just from talking to her. At times, she’s on the verge of tears remembering working with families or individuals.

Now, DonnaSue works with SAGE, the oldest and largest advocacy organization aimed toward the care of LGBTQ elders. SAGE is based in New York, where DonnaSue lives now, but also has nationwide programs.

Having worked for SAGE for more than eight years now, DonnaSue says the pandemic definitely shifted how they administered care to the elders they serve. SAGE shifted to a hybrid level of care to make sure elders had their basic needs met as well as their social needs.

At SAGE DonnaSue leads many groups, one of which is called America’s Burning, where in 2020 they covered the three P’s: Politics, Pandemic, and Protest.

“We had a community of LGBTQ seniors, mostly Black lesbians, who were these women who are so intelligent and bright. They were on top of their games in terms of wanting to know about what was going on,” she says.

The group covered topics like the Tulsa massacre and many other massacres that happened to Black Americans, and most recently covered Pauli Murray’s work.

DonnaSue says she was out during her time in the military, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a policy. She says it was like a “witch hunt.” Stationed at Travis Air Force Base between Sacramento and San Francisco, DonnaSue recounts her first gay day parade with Sister Boom Boom and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

She says in those days, during the AIDS crisis, she was doing a lot of dating despite messaging that “lesbians don’t get AIDS,” a phrase that makes her roll her eyes.

“I’ve read ‘And The Band Played On,’ read the pages, and I’m like, ‘oh my god, I was there. I was there.’ As much drinking, drugging, fucking, and sucking that I was doing in my twenties, imagine if I was a man? I might not be here.”

In the time we had together, we didn’t get into all the juicy tidbits about DonnaSue’s dating life that I wanted to, but she tells me she’s single now after having a long-term partnership end, and regales me with the story of the 10-year polyamorous relationship she had with a married couple.

The couple had three children that called her “Aunt Donna,” and they still keep in touch to this day despite the relationship ending. She still remembers birthdays and big days for the family.

“Mother has lived, what can I say, Dani?” she laughs.

We talk much more about DonnaSue’s social worker, and she tells me about getting her Masters at Fordham University, and becoming a workaholic who didn’t have time to really process the trauma she experienced in the military.

She was a part of the first ACT team in Jersey. ACT stood for Assertive Community Treatment, and there was also PACT (Program of Assertive Community Treatment) where she saw clients who had dual diagnoses, like those that struggled with mental health and substance abuse disorders. She says it wasn’t uncommon to hear:

“Excuse me, can I please continue getting high because that helps the voices?”

“Basically, my modus operandi was ‘Do you want a cup of coffee and a piece of pie,’” she says, and you get the sense that DonnaSue deeply cared for every person she encountered during her 40 years in social work. Even though she must have seen hundreds of people, it feels like she knew them all and brought them all the highest form of care she could.

“I’ve worked with a lot of seriously and persistently mentally ill people who are also co-occuring disordered, which means they were mentally ill and chemically addicted,” she explains. “I love the job. Most recently, I was working for an adult day healthcare center for adults that had HIV and AIDS, mental illness, and chemical addiction. That was a magnificent job. You see a lot of death because folks, for whatever reason, they weren’t adherent, they weren’t compliant with their medications. Some are still with us thank goodness.”

We also talk about Buddhism, and how it has served as a place to find peace in difficulty for DonnaSue. She says that she learned that most obstacles are brilliantly disguised blessings. And that when you look at it this way, a firework goes off in your head, and that’s when you can look for solutions, options, strategies, and answers.

“I’m here to say, ‘Be you, be yourself, Celebrate whatever you want to do. It’s important.’ When I say everything happens for the best, my grandmother taught me that way before I became a Buddhist. As I got older, I said. ‘What about death? What’s good about death?’ and I figured two things out. Number one, it teaches us how precious life is. As we move forward in life and all the different decisions we have to make, always remember, life is precious. You’re going to make it.”

“The other thing is, if anyone tells you you got plenty of time, they are not a reliable source of information. It’s a bald-faced lie when someone says you have plenty of time. Look at how you were on your game today making sure we connected. This time is precious.”

At 66, DonnaSue says she is working on a project for TEDx and a 501(c)(3). She’s also working on a presentation for Yale University. She’s got irons in the fire and wants other lesbian elders to know that it isn’t too late for them, that you’re never too old to get things started for yourself.

DonnaSue also ends our talk with a little wisdom that I needed, and I hope if you need it too you can hear it.

“In our community, in the Black community, so many of us have had childhoods where we were taught by our guardians that what is said and done in the house, stays in the house. That’s what they learn and then they pass it on, it’s generational. But there’s no need to suffer anymore. There’s no need to suffer anymore. Talk therapy helps, sometimes medication is needed. Talk to somebody. It’s safe. Find somebody that works.”

We end our talk with plans to keep in touch with one another, and I’m so excited and grateful for the opportunity to get to know DonnaSue. Everything she said was something I needed to hear or made me laugh out loud on a day when I didn’t feel like laughing. It was a pleasure and an honor and I hope you love getting to know her a little more too!

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Dani Janae is a poet and writer based out of Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not writing love poems for unavailable women, she's watching horror movies, hanging with her tarantula, and eating figs. Follow Dani Janae on Twitter and on Instagram.

danijanae has written 157 articles for us.


  1. Thank you both for a very interesting read. I was fascinated all the way through, fellow Air Force veteran. To share this Black History Month stage with wonderful people is humbling. Bless you DonnaSue and thank you for sharing her with us, Dani.

  2. I love this series so much. Each one is a treasure. Pain and resilience. And humor. Mother has lived! ❤️

    The series is really bringing life..I’m not sure how to put it in words, but I’m beyond grateful

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