Pageant teen Reese Johnson is providing resources for LGBTQ+ people in Southeast Michigan

Reese Johnson with her mom and dad, Emily and TK
Reese Johnson with her mom and dad, Emily and Patrick Photo: Emily Johnson

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According to her mom, 17-year-old Reese Johnson is a doer and dreamer, and she’s got a long list of accomplishments to show for it at her young age.

At 15, Reese founded an LGBTQ+ support group for youth and teens in her conservative hometown of Monroe, Michigan, pop. just over 20,000. She holds regular fundraisers for local homeless shelters that house a large number of LGBTQ+ youth, and has petitioned the city council to fly a Pride flag at City Hall for three years running (without success).

Reese has become certified in ally training around LGBTQ+ issues for government agencies in the state, she’s part of a community-wide diversity team, and she’s helped add inclusive language to city ordinances enacted by the city council.

And this year, Reese turned her small town Pride celebration into an LGBTQ+-affirming destination, attracting over 500 attendees to a festival featuring hours of live entertainment, activities, education and food trucks, and a respectful reception from conservative community leaders.

She’s also a pageant queen.

“When she wanted to do the pageants, I said, ‘I’m really uncomfortable with this because I don’t know if people are going to accept you,'” Reese’s mom Emily says.

Hometown Hero Reese Johnson
Emily Johnson Hometown Hero Reese Johnson

But Reese saw pageants as an opportunity to spread the word on her LGBTQ+-affirming work, which she performs under an umbrella organization she calls Prism.

“I like to think of it as shades go in, and then they come out a bright, colorful prism,” Reese explained. “As cliche as it may sound, it’s about embracing the true colors of who you are.”

She founded the group two years ago, not long after she came out as a lesbian on New Year’s Eve, 2020, just before the pandemic struck.

“Monroe is an amazing, wonderful town,” Reese says, “but unfortunately, there are some people who still aren’t super-accepting of LGBTQ+ people. And I noticed how many of my personal friends, and even family on my end, weren’t supportive of me and even all of the people that I had encountered and all of my friends, and so I started Prism as a support group here in Monroe and surrounding areas. So we’ve had a lot of people from all over Southeast Michigan come out for the meetings, which is so incredible.”

The group took off, as Reese expanded her network of allies and her ambitions to address a deficit of services in the area addressing LGBTQ+ youth.

“So now Prism is Prism LGBTQ+ Support, Education and Resources,” Reese explains. In addition to her ally training for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, she’s helped produce school PSAs in other small towns around the state, and “the Prism website provides resources for teachers and educators and administrators to help them connect with their children’s or students’ identities within the LGBTQ+ community. So there are links, resources, different vocabulary sheets that are within the ally training. So it’s grown into a very, very large organization.”

Some of Reese’s mom’s fears about her out, lesbian daughter exposing herself to criticism on the pageant stage did come to pass.

“When I won Miss Monroe, the comments on the local news were very — some of them were unfortunate. I was called sad. I was called disgusting. It was hard, because I was like, ‘I don’t understand why people have a problem with it,'” Reese recalls thinking. “But my director came to me and told me that these are the people that you’re here to educate. So I take it as a learning opportunity for me and an opportunity to educate, and it gives me even more of a basis as to why Prism needs to exist.”

For her upcoming 18th birthday, Reese asked her parents to help pay for a 501(c)(3) charity designation for Prism.

“My mom always raised me that people fear most what they don’t understand,” Reese says. “I realized that so many people didn’t have support, and I said, ‘How can I support these people?’ And then it became, ‘So many people don’t have support. How can I educate the people who aren’t supporting them?'”

“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for educating me, because I was in the dark about it,'” Reese adds. “That’s when people come to the best understandings of things.”  

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