Exhuming Black Gay Artist Tré Johnson, 26 Years After His Death
“Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost.”— Viola Davis
This April will mark the 26th anniversary of the death of R. Leigh Johnson, or Tré, as he was affectionately called by his family and those in Atlanta’s burgeoning Black gay community of the early ‘90s. A talented poet, singer, and activist, Tré (as I will refer to him going forward) was a creative force whose light was dimmed entirely too soon. Having moved to Atlanta a decade after his passing, I’d never heard his name mentioned in activist circles, or read any of his poetry. I didn’t know that he’d once walked the same streets as I did and made it possible for me to experience the liberation and freedom that I now enjoy as an out Black gay man.
On a cool day in January, I made the rare trip downtown to visit the LGBTQ archives at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. On a three-tiered cart to the right of a desk, in a dozen or so gray boxes, all neatly lined up in a row, was over 30 years of Atlanta Black LGBTQ+ history waiting for me. With my visit to the National Museum of African American Culture in D.C. still fresh on my mind, I unrealistically expected a similar experience. Despite this not being the case, what I found proved to be just as impactful and historically significant.
There he was, in black and white, his words leaping off the page, flaunting a smize that would make Tyra Banks envious, with a fierce-brimmed hat tilted to the side and a big hoop earring in his right ear. I was struck by his beauty and the urgency of his words. From the grave, 26 years after his death, Tré demanded my attention and refused to let go. I had to exhume his story.
Born in Atlanta on July 21, 1970, to musician Roy Lee Johnson Jr. and traffic inspector Juanita Moss, (who passed away in 2015)Tré was the youngest of three children, and the only boy to sisters Twila and Monica, the oldest. Raised in a loving home in Southwest Atlanta, Monica tells The Reckoning that she remembers her brother as a mama’s boy who lived at home and made it a priority to take care of his mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and his sisters. As a feminine, presenting gay man, Monica admits the family was often concerned about how Tré would be received by others.
“Knowing that he was different from just your regular brother—we were always worried about whether or not people would really accept him as he was,” Monica said. “That was truly important for all of us because he was kind. He was gentle. He would do anything that people asked.”
A 1988 graduate of the Northside High School of Performing Arts, Tré traveled and performed internationally with the school’s highly regarded Northside Tour Show. It was at Northside that a young Miko Evans, Founder and Executive Producer of Meak Productions first encountered the man whom he calls a pioneer of the golden era of Atlanta’s Black gay movement.
“I always tell people Tré was the one that introduced me. I didn't even know there was an LGBTQ community,” Evans says, of his friend whom he fondly recalls planning Labor Day activities with in 1993, before the existence of “In The Life Atlanta,” the longtime organizational arm of Atlanta Black Pride.
Evans tells The Reckoning that in 1991, Tré disclosed to him that he was living with HIV, a fact about his life that he would consistently address through his writing and community work despite the HIV stigma and paranoia that existed at the time.
Continue reading here.