Johnson sets a milestone for African American professors
When Dr. Kevin Johnson became the first African American to be promoted to be a tenured professor at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, it was the culmination of a longstanding dream.
“The notion that I could become a professor was what I initially viewed as the pinnacle of my career. I anticipated accomplishing this right after I needed a cane,” he said. “Needless to say, now that I’m a professor a bit earlier in my career than I imagined, I’m thinking about achieving new and personally fulfilling heights.”
Being a full professor will give Johnson more time to serve as a mentor to students, something he takes seriously, especially because he can serve as a role model to black and gay students.
“There has never in my life been anything more important to me than to be a mentor,” he said. “I get an opportunity to talk to students and to be candid about my life experiences, which helps me identify with most students in a way that I think helps both them and me grow professionally and personally.”
Throughout his education and career, Johnson has become familiar with being different. In medical school, he was one of a few black students training to be a doctor. About 10 years ago, he came out as gay and divorced his wife. These differences cause him to stand out, but they also give him a platform through which he can educate others and advocate for minority groups. Johnson is especially focused on helping black men in turmoil come to terms with their sexuality by sharing his story with them.
“I’ve gotten good at basically saying that I was put on the Earth to teach others and to motivate, whether by being the first black, the first gay person, or the first northerner people have met,” he said. “I hope I can help some people to realize that we all differ from each other in what turn out to be pretty small ways, and that we should let people live the life they were born to live without so much unnecessary judgement.”
Johnson is currently focusing his advocacy efforts locally, starting with the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Office of Diversity at Vanderbilt.
In the meantime, he’s enjoying spending time with his 12-year-old daughter and his partner, Robert Smith, who helps him enjoy life outside of medicine and advocacy. By all accounts, Johnson is happy with his current station in life.
“It’s great to be in love, it’s wonderful being a dad, and it’s great to know who I am," he said. "It’s wonderful to feel what every straight partnered person around me has been feeling.”