Joanna Lohman: Rainbow warrior and activism in 2020
John Lewis said it best, we’re making some “good trouble.” With the election behind us, we can take a well-deserved breath. But just for a moment; the hardest work is ahead. While our country begins to heal, unity is still a journey away. This is just the beginning of addressing deep rooted wounds and systemic problems that keep a proverbial knee on the neck of our rights.
One person stirring up some good trouble is Joanna Lohman, retired professional soccer player, professional speaker, activist. Lohman, recently featured in the documentary Resisterhood, sat with me to discuss activism and the fight for the wholeness of our nation. Resisterhood walks viewers through the journeys of strong women standing for change, those refusing to be cast into the margins of society. Winning an impressive number of awards, Resisterhood shows us the intricate value of using your voice to give voice to the voiceless. Lohman’s voice is one you’ll want to hear.
Resisterhood is sweeping through award after award with its message. Tell us about the value of grassroots activism.
Joanna Lohman: It’s been such a pleasure to watch how many awards it’s gotten in the film festival circuit. I believe the greatest marketing is word of mouth, when you have someone truly believe in your message. They’re going to carry it. What I really love and appreciate about this film is that I feel like it has a character that everyone can relate to. It’s not just a story about LGBTQ equality. It’s not just a story about immigration. The movie has a person for everyone, and everyone can relate to one of the stories. Whether it’s immigration, civil rights, suffragist movement, LGBT equality, I felt like it did a great job of painting a broad picture of the human rights violations that we’re trying to fight today. Since it did such a good job of telling so many stories, I think it had the support of so many different people because they could see themselves in the film. They could see themselves being affected by what this film has to say, what it is able to accomplish. You really have a group of resistors that carry that film as far as they can. Every single person in the film has a support group.
“Tearing my ACL was almost a blessing because it opened up my life to so many more opportunities.”
What is something, be it the filming of the documentary or in your general journey in activism, that has surprised you?
JL: I had a couple of wow moments. What was serendipitous about the filming of the documentary was when I tore my ACL. Being a professional athlete, your time is taken by the sport. Tearing my ACL was almost a blessing because it opened up my life to so many more opportunities. Knowing that I was filming could really expand my own personal identity and I could really get out to be more of an activist. It was my first time going to Pride and because I never was able to—our season is in the summer—I was able to attend different events and feel like my interest in politics was growing exponentially. My understanding of my own personal platform, way beyond being an athlete, was expanding also. I was able to grab hold of a really sad, heartbreaking situation for myself and turn it into something beautiful, paving the way for a future for me.
How did your time as a professional soccer player shape who you are today?
JL: I don’t know if I would be here without it. Playing professional sports gave me the opportunity to be around a very supportive LGBTQ environment. It’s very unique in a sense that it’s supported, it’s accepted, and in my own experiences people loved you for it. I realized how privileged and lucky I was to be in that position where I could go to work every single day, be 100% myself, and people would adore me for it. I know that I essentially wouldn’t have even discovered who I was because I didn’t come out until I was 21.
I was engaged to a man and it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I took that step to dive deep into my own identity. That was a huge piece of who I was going to be moving forward. I was able to expand that and really blossom. I was an LGBTQ individual in women’s soccer because it was so prevalent and so supported. I felt like I could be a very strong voice for people who didn’t have the same privileges as me. I’m so grateful for being a professional athlete because I think my character was built and I’m incredibly resilient from all the things that I went through over a 16-year career.
As we barrel past Election 2020, what does success look like in the work that you’re doing?
JL: Success looks like getting someone else as our president, someone who cares about the LGBTQ community and human rights in general. I don’t want to say all hope was lost if that didn’t happen, but we’d have to really rise up as the LGBTQ community. We’d have to protect ourselves. My partner and I were trying to get married as quickly as possible because we didn’t know about the future. I think victory looks like having Joe Biden as our President and everyone can finally exhale and feel safer in our country.
In Resistorhood you say, “I want to use the incredible platform I have to make someone else feel comfortable in their own skin.” Deemed the Rainbow Warrior, you are certainly using your voice. How have you seen growth in change and progress in your platform?
JL: In being so open and authentic with who I was in my professional career, I had people every two weeks writing to me, thanking me for being who I was. They were saying things like, “I came out to my parents because you showed me it was okay to be gay. You gave me the strength and the power to be my true self.” I had a young woman in Boston come up to me after a game, shaking, and thanking me for living my authentic truth because it enabled her to come out and to live her truth. Messages like that really continued to inspire me and made me realize how important my voice was.
What was interesting is that I didn’t necessarily go out of my way. It was just such a huge part of who I was and I would carry the rainbow flag around. I would wear it as a cape at practice. I guess I was going out of my way, but at the same time I was just being myself. People saw that authenticity; people saw who I was as a human being and they embraced that person. I was able to really expand beyond being an athlete. I took that role very seriously. I wanted people to know me. I wanted the fans to be able to access me. I’d meet a fan on a Saturday, and I’d be out on a Thursday getting coffee with them.
I use my platform to personally connect and impact individuals. I could see that happening in the US and also in my international travel. I travel internationally as a Sports Diplomat. Being in those countries, I wouldn’t even speak about being gay because in many of these countries it was illegal. But just having me as a human being walk off of the plane and step into that country with my mohawk, my physique, with the way I express my gender, it was already taking a step for them. It expanded their own view of what humanity was. I would say that being different doesn’t mean you’re dangerous.
Tell us about vulnerability in you work and how can vulnerability fuel our fire.
JL: Vulnerability is a huge piece to my work. I think if you are closed off, people will take you as unapproachable, you’ll be a polarizing figure. Being authentic and open with who I was, in terms of identity, but also my emotion, really allowed people to relate to me. I went to Nigeria last November, and these young girls and women I’m meeting are in a totally different culture, different country, different religion, different family upbringing than me. Then you get to know the person and you laugh together and you play soccer together. It really breaks down so many barriers that I think exist today, especially because of the political climate in our country. I think that until we’re able to be truly vulnerable, no one is really going to see us as whole human beings. They’re going to see us as parts and just not want to associate with us.
In the documentary, there’s a moment at the Women’s March where you go to the podium to speak, only to tear up your speech. It felt like you were putting aside ego and embracing sense of urgency. Tell us about that moment?
JL: It was the second day of the Women’s March and there was a government shutdown. They had planned about two hours of events, but it kept getting interrupted because, like, Nancy Pelosi was showing up with her posse, and you can’t say no to Nancy Pelosi. But they just kept adding more and more speakers. By the time that I was supposed to speak it was the end of the event, and honestly, it had run over by a good hour and a half. People were tired of all the speakers.
I had prepared a really powerful speech. But it’s a march, right? It’s called the Women’s March. I looked at my best friend and I just said, “I can’t give this speech”. It was going to fall on deaf ears and everyone needed to move. So that was a decision that I made when I got up there. I ripped up my speech and the crowd went wild and I thought it was the best decision I ever made. I wish I could have given my original speech, but at the same time, I’m glad I was able to read the room, to be the official hype girl and get that March started. It was exactly what was needed in that moment.
How has COVID-19 changed the dynamic of your activism?
JL: COVID-19 has made life very difficult for everyone. I am one of the most privileged and lucky individuals in this day, in the sense that I still have a job, I’ve been healthy and I haven’t had major negative impacts from it. But it definitely has had an impact on our ability to really unite and come together. I think about the film Resisterhood, we weren’t able to have a party, we weren’t able to get together, we weren’t really able to capture that momentum of the film in person, which makes a big difference because I’m a huge believer in human connection. It’s just not the same. I think we’re all doing our best and I’m so proud of the film and how well it’s done considering the circumstances, but it does make life difficult. I’m continuing to try to keep up my activism just by being myself, posting positive messages, being with my partner, living openly, supporting the LGBTQ community wherever I can.
How can we engage with the work that you’re doing?
JL: Supporting different organizations, your local LGBTQ organizations, there’s SMYAL which is a Washington DC youth LGBTQ leadership group. Try to connect with different nonprofits and organizations in your local area, or even nationally. Support Democratic candidates, give money, write letters, create absentee ballots. There’s a lot of things that we can do to push the needle towards the democratic success story.
How can our readers keep in touch?
IG @joannalohman15 and my personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m open to people emailing, hitting me up on Instagram, and watching the movie! Give that movie some love and support and reviews on Amazon so people can see it with the five stars.