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‘A Particular Type of Courage’: Glen Johnson, Dead at 61, Was Openly Gay During Precarious Era For LGBTQ+ Corporate Workers

Memorial in Grand Rapids set for Sept. 24

By |2022-08-25T10:52:29-04:00August 25th, 2022|Michigan, News|

In a 1997 profile in the Affirmations newsletter, Glen Johnson pledged to contribute “time, money, and enthusiasm” to the Ferndale community center. Over three decades, Johnson gave time, money, enthusiasm and much more to Affirmations as well as an array of other LGBTQ+ and arts causes in Metro Detroit, west Michigan and Chicago.

The life of the longtime LGBTQ+ activist and benefactor will be celebrated with a memorial at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids on Sept. 24. Johnson died suddenly on Aug. 2 at age 61. According to his younger sister Lori, he had an undiagnosed heart ailment.

Glen William Johnson was born on Aug. 22, 1960 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Just before kindergarten he moved with his family to the Upper Peninsula, where he grew up, graduating from Hancock High School in 1978.

Already sensing he was gay as a teenager, he found refuge at college in Ann Arbor. Johnson earned his B.S. in education at the University of Michigan in 1982 and went on to get his Juris Doctor degree from Wayne State University Law School in 1986. He considered 1986 his year of coming out.

Johnson happened to attend Wayne Law School when a pioneering queer law student group there formed by David Piontkowsky functioned as something of an incubator for gay and lesbian civil rights. Piontkowsky, as president of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, later litigated a successful challenge to the state sodomy law. Paula Ettelbrick, two years ahead of Johnson, went on to helm the national organization Lambda Legal.

After passing the bar, Johnson joined in with a group of local lesbian and gay attorneys and was out about his sexuality while most of the lawyers involved felt they needed to remain closeted. “He was very open in terms of ‘This is me,’” Piontkowsky remembered.

Johnson continued to reside in Ann Arbor while at Wayne State and as he took positions in Metro Detroit with MichCon, DTE and the law firm Barris, Scott, Denn and Drikes.

“Glen was out in the early 1990s in a Detroit corporate law job and it was enormously important and brave for him to occupy that space,” recalled Julie Enszer, who met Johnson in her role as Director of Development and, from 1995 to 1997, as Executive Director at Affirmations Community Center. “It was a particular type of courage at the time.”

Johnson served on the center’s board, a tenure that included stints as board president and vice president.

Tom Wilczak, who knew Johnson from Wayne, sat on the same Affirmations board. For Wilczak, one of Johnson’s chief qualities was “a wicked sense of humor in the best way.” Speaking by phone, he saluted his longtime friend’s volunteerism and credited Johnson with helping to steer Affirmations in vital new directions.

Enszer concurred. “He saw the value of Affirmations and was deeply committed to that work,” she said.

Indeed, Johnson’s vision, as expressed in the 1997 newsletter profile, was to see Affirmations secure its own building and to achieve a $2 million budget. Both goals, over many years, bore fruit. The current facility opened in 2007. For 2022, the center has a budget of $1.8 million.

“To me, personally, he was an incredible ally and mentor and conspirator,” Enszer said.

Also in the 1990s, Johnson purchased a vacation cottage in the Saugatuck area, which he loved. Employment opportunities eventually drew him to west Michigan to live. In his later career, he assumed executive positions with Fifth Third Bank and Family Office Exchange. 

Shortly after moving to Grand Rapids in 2002, Johnson met Tom Merchant on a blind date. The two began a relationship, shared a home and married in Boston in June 2009. According to Merchant, they soon forged a co-mingled extended family of nieces and nephews.

Although they divorced in December 2020, Johnson and Merchant remained close friends.

While they were a couple, they sought to make an impact through substantial financial gifts. Johnson and Merchant were instrumental, together with Shelley Padnos and Carol Sarosik, in creating the LGBT Fund of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in 2013.

“Glen was always an advocate for underserved communities,” Merchant said, noting that Johnson continued his activism no matter where he lived. In recent years, Johnson supported such causes as Planned Parenthood of Michigan and, even before Johnson moved full-time to Chicago, directing time, money, and enthusiasm to the Center on Halsted.

While he embraced the pursuit of social justice, Johnson was also passionate about culture — specifically film, architecture and art. This was perhaps most reflected in his devotion to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, a 158-acre botanical and sculptural oasis.

In a 2017 feature published on the Meijer Gardens website, Johnson explained his personal philosophy. “We have no children and we’re very fortunate to have great jobs, so we were very purposeful in that giving would be our legacy.”

Glen Johnson’s Sept. 24 memorial celebration will begin at 11 a.m. The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is located at 1000 E. Beltline Avenue N.E. in Grand Rapids.


About the Author:

Tim Retzloff teaches history and LGBTQ studies at Michigan State University.
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