Janetta Johnson was born on November 12, 1964 in Tampa, Florida. Assigned male at birth, she was bullied and reprimanded growing up for presenting more feminine. Around age 11, Janetta confessed to her Auntie Thelma that she wished she could dress and look like her, so Auntie Thelma would sneak Janetta bags of clothing and jewelry. Throughout her teenage years, Janetta continued to publicly present as a man to stay safe at work and home.
By 18, Janetta decided to live more truly to herself. She approached Ms. Ricky Daniels, a Black non-binary individual in her neighborhood who was known to present as female and do sex work at night. Ms. Ricky Daniels introduced Janetta to a circle of other Black trans people in Tampa, all making their livings through shoplifting, fraud, robberies, or sex work. Janetta made the decision to begin sex work.
Janetta’s years doing sex work in Florida were tough. She struggled with addiction, and found herself in a cycle of incarceration and recidivism. She realized that there was no support system of people asking why she and people around her were trapped in these cycles. She also saw how vulnerable she was as a Black trans woman placed in men’s jails and prisons. At the Charlotte Correctional Institution in Florida, Janetta was assigned laundry duty to start off and eventually got promoted to organizing responsibilities, making sure all inmates got their needs met. She realized her natural affinity for organizing, and made up her mind to dedicate herself to systemic work to help other Black trans people in carceral systems.
While Janetta was still in Florida, Fred Bell, an elderly white gay man living in San Francisco, heard about her. For his dying wish, he told Gladys, a Latinx lesbian woman, that he wanted her to take Janetta to SF. Gladys went to Florida and gave Janetta Miss Major’s phone number. Miss Major (also an OUTWORDS interviewee) at the time led the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), an organization providing support for Black and brown trans people coming out of jails and prisons, as well as Black trans homelessness relief. Janetta called Miss Major. Two weeks later, Janetta moved to SF, where Miss Major helped Janetta find housing.
Janetta grew close to Miss Major and began working devotedly with the TGIJP, taking on leadership, organizing, and everyday case work roles to serve the community. During the 2008 financial crisis, Janetta, terrified of facing homelessness, sold drugs and was arrested. She asked Miss Major for forgiveness and promised that she would not return to this behavior again; Miss Major told her that she and the rest of the community believed in her, and wanted her to take up the executive directorship of TGIJP when she got out of jail.
Since taking on leading TGIJP, Janetta has tirelessly worked to center the organization’s work around the needs of her community. She has shouldered countless building changes to secure a safe yet affordable office space and housing for homeless populations. She worked to ensure TGIJP’s staffing made it a Black trans-led organization. Every day at work, she looks back with admiration on her activist predecessors, looks forward to connecting with upcoming generations of young activists, and remains invested in doing her role every day.