Posted November 13, 2019
An Autobiography of An Activist: Julia Applegate
From October 2019-October 2020, we will be featuring a special guest blogger once a month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. This month we are excited to share a post from Julia Applegate, Director of the Equitas Health Institute and a long time activist. You can learn more about the series here.
I don’t think I had much choice but to be an activist. I was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, in August of 1970 to a father who was an ex-Marine and a mother who was an anti-Vietnam protester. The fact that they found each other and created me defies present day reason around love and politics, but in their time, it seems it was easier to look past political differences and still find compatibility. Or, maybe it was just young love, for as I heard years later, my mother said she knew their relationship was doomed on the day of the Kent State shootings. Upon hearing the news, my Dad was ready to rush in with the Ohio National Guard and my Mom was ready to join the student demonstrators. Six years later my parents divorced.
As a child all I wanted to do was be outside, running and climbing and getting dirty. My Mom wanted me in braids, dresses and saddle oxfords. In the battle of gender norms, my Dad was my ally. He encouraged me to help him paint the house and do work around the yard. He took me on long walks and taught me how to fix my bike. My grandmother affirmed my gender too, advocating for me to have short hair until my mother finally gave in. I was tomboy through and through.
In the space between political and social turmoil and my own identity formation, my relationship to activism was born. From my mother, I learned to be an advocate for peace and social justice, from my father I garnered the strength to be true to my internal sense of self. These seeds bloomed as I entered adolescence, and I found myself increasingly outspoken in terms of reproductive justice issues. I participated in pro-choice rallies and volunteered for democratic political campaigns all through high school. When I went to college at Ohio University I fell in love with a girl and realized I was different in terms of my sexual orientation. As I struggled to come out, the first Gulf War started and I joined the peace protests on campus. I also realized that as a member of the gay community I was at risk for HIV and that my community was dying from the raging AIDS epidemic. As someone living in the margins, it was a terrifying time to come into adulthood.
Activism anchored me through these times. I realized that if I were to be a whole person there were battles I would have to fight. Women were not treated equally, war was being waged, queer people were dying and the political environment did not favor justice for all. As a gender queer lesbian woman I could not stand on the sidelines and wait for things to get better. If I wanted to be safe, to be true to myself and to protect the people I loved and the ideals I believed in, I needed to speak up. As I went through college I participated in pro-choice rallies, anti-war demonstrations, HIV awareness campaigns, anti-violence work, environmental protection efforts, etc. I graduated with a degree in Political Science and hoped to join the foreign service.
Fate intervened and I moved to Columbus before going to D.C. I was still struggling with my sexual orientation and needed a place to go where I could find a community and feel affirmed in my identity. I found that in Columbus and finally got the support I needed to come out. I worked in an abortion clinic and started graduate school at The Ohio State University. Here I learned more about feminism and the intersecting ways oppression was keeping me from living my full life. Again, activism kept me afloat. This time I organized local drag king performances with the goal of disrupting norms about gender, race and sexuality. With the members of H.I.S. Kings we created anti-racist, anti-misogynist, social commentary performances, all with the goal of undermining powerful forms of entrenched oppression. This chapter of my life lasted all the way through my 20’s and early 30’s. Along the way I became reconnected to the fight against stigma and discrimination associated with HIV. I started working at the Ohio AIDS Coalition and organized legislative visits to the state and federal lawmakers to ensure that people living with HIV would have access to affordable medical care.
As I approached my mid 30’s my partner and I hoped to have children of our own and we traveled all over the country to gain access to culturally appropriate fertility care. Unable to have a legal marriage we cobbled together guardianship documents we hoped would be sufficient should anyone question my parental rights of our children. Finally, the laws around same-sex marriage changed in 2015 and we were legally wed in 2017. Presently we are raising our two children together and continuing to press against legal threats to our family dynamics and relationship status.
All of this is to say, for me to be me, being an activist was not optional. When one’s very existence is illegal, there is little choice but to act up, fight back and demand freedom and justice. I can’t imagine being outside the fight for the elimination of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all of the other -isms that oppress marginalized, disenfranchised communities. The act of sitting out on these struggles is a luxury not afforded to folks like me. Being activist oriented isn’t easy, but I don’t know any other way to be. I’m not sorry though. I’m proud to have followed the legacy of the suffragists, abolitionists, union organizers and HIV activists. We may not have the most power, but we work to make the world more inclusive, equitable and just. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Julia M. Applegate directs the Equitas Health Institute at Equitas Health where she leads LGBTQ+ health education, research and community engagement efforts to improve the health and wellness of LGBTQ+ communities across Ohio and beyond. Julia holds a Master of Arts in Women’s, Sexuality and Gender Studies from The Ohio State University and has 20 years of teaching experience in this field at the University level. She is currently working on obtaining a Master of Public Health degree from The Ohio State University.