Queer History in Seattle, Part 2: After Stonewall

  • By Chrystie Hill
  • Posted 11/28/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4266

The Stonewall Rebellion of late June 1969, in which New York City patrons of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street spontaneously rioted against routine police harassment, is often thought of as the first act of collective queer resistance, and the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement. The rebellion was not organized, and there were no particular leaders. Even those who were there don't know why. According to Rey Sylvia Lee Rivera, "everything just clicked" that night (Marcus). Within a few months, Gay Liberation Front organizations sprang up in New York, Los Angeles, around the Bay Area. Within one year, there were at least 300 similar groups across the nation, including the first politically active gay and lesbian groups in Seattle.

Out With Pride

Apart from the pioneering Dorian Society (founded in Seattle in 1967), the first Seattleites to organize politically as gays and lesbians were connected to the University of Washington. In 1969, Dorian House began to provide counseling services to gay and lesbian students and non-students on Capitol Hill, and was operated by a University of Washington counselor and staffed by UW students. In the early 1970s, UW students also organized the Gay Student Association and the more radical Gay Liberation Front. Working with Seattle Gay Alliance and the Gay Student Organization, Gay Liberation Front opened the first Gay Community Center in Seattle on September 15, 1971, in Pioneer Square (The Daily, 1971 cited in Mesec).

Other organizations to start and flourish in the 1970s include the Gay Women’s Alliance; the Feminist Karate Union; the Gay Women’s Resource Center (now the Lesbian Resource Center); Seattle Gay Alliance; Union of Sexual Minorities; Stonewall Recovery Center; Lesbian Mother’s National Defense Fund; the Metropolitan Community Church; the Seattle Counseling Center for Sexual Minorities; Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and the Seattle Municipal Elections Committee. As consciousness around Gay and Lesbian civil rights exploded, groups targeted numerous political objectives, focused on various special interests, and began to uncover for the first time the diversity of communities within the community as a whole.

Although activism may have come out of the University District area, services during the 1970s were directed toward queers living and socializing in Pioneer Square, the University District, and later Capitol Hill. Lesbians commonly lived in the University and Wallingford neighborhoods, with gay men concentrated around downtown. Naturally, an ever growing political and social service environment encouraged residential neighborhoods and social establishments to flourish as well. Social life bloomed during these years of early activism. Group, university, and privately sponsored support groups, social events, bookstores, newspapers, and social services all sprang up around all the same neighborhoods.

Establishments that catered to a gay or lesbian clientele more than tripled from the number in business during the post-World War II period. The popular bar Shelly’s Leg opened late in 1973, and was famous for its enormous sign and huge letters declaring itself to be "A Gay Bar Provided for Seattle’s Gay Community and their Guests." More active, outspoken, and visible than ever, queers were now poised to command public acknowledgement and collective acceptance, which they had long been denied.

With increased social visibility, gay men and lesbian women, some of them for the first time, recognized shared experiences, needs, and desires. Where previously there had been little or no social recognition, there were now a number of visible ways to associate outside the heterosexual norm. The shift was exciting, but terrifying. Nancy King remembers how the Lesbian Resource Center and other Seattle-based organizations, were instrumental to her "coming out":

"I was 41 when I got [to Seattle]. I still had never met a lesbian in my life … I finally got into this post doctoral program at the University of Washington, and my supervisor turned out to be the first lesbian woman that I ever really knew … First of all I started volunteering at the Seattle Counseling Center; so I knew some more lesbians that way. Then in 1983, my good friend went with me to the LRC, to the over-40s group, because I’d just been too scared to go … Selma was leading the group that night. She was talking about bravery, courage … Finally -- this was about the third date -- Selma said, "Well, all I can do is hold out my hand to you." So I grabbed her hand … and we were embracing in about two seconds. Here we are, some nineteen years later"(Mosaic 1).

Public acknowledgement of experiences like Nancy’s, if not acceptance, came in the form of legal accommodations. In 1973, the Fair Employment Practice Ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council, protected gays and lesbians from discrimination at work. In 1976, Washington’s sodomy law was repealed, and the City of Seattle added sexual orientation to housing discrimination regulations.

Though some pride parades had been organized in earlier years to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Mayor Charles Royer declared an official "Gay Pride Week" in 1977 declaring that "Seattle’s Gay citizens have made important contributions to neighborhood restoration, community life, business, government, and the arts" (BonaDea, in Mesec). The parade started at Occidental Park (in Pioneer Square), with more than 2,000 participants and 60 diverse groups marching up 1st Avenue (NWLGHM map). In 1989, the city extended benefits and leave policies to domestic partners, and in 1991 Sherry Harris, a lesbian and an African American, was elected to City Council. "In retrospect," says historian Timothy Jeske, "the gains for gay/lesbian people in Seattle [during this time] were breath-taking."

During the late 1970s, anti-gay forces organized against the growing visibility and acceptance. In 1978, Initiative 13 proposed to repeal City of Seattle ordinances that protected gays from certain forms of discrimination. The same year, Gay Pride was renamed Lesbian Gay Pride, and more than 3,000 participants marched downtown in protest of the Initiative.

That year, the Washington Coalition for Sexual Minority Rights sponsored the march, which was "dedicated to building a united front of Gays, women, minorities, and workers" (BonaDea, in Mesec). Despite the efforts of anti-gay forces, the gains of the previous decade could not be repealed. Voters defeated Initiative 13 in the election held on November 7, 1978.

Diversity In Action

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Capitol Hill emerged as Seattle’s gay neighborhood (Mesec). The counter culture and politically active groups had long influenced the neighborhood surrounding Broadway. "White flight" to the suburbs during the late 1960s and Boeing’s massive slash of more than 60,000 employees in the early 1970s contributed to "widespread deterioration … on Capitol Hill in both residential and commercial districts" (Sheridan, in Mesec). Low and moderate income people, including queers, took advantage of cheaper housing and moved into the southern and central parts of Capitol Hill (Mesec).

Where lesbians and gay men had once been separated in both socializing and political activism, Capitol Hill created the physical space where joint activism and collective organizing could occur. Though diversity reigned, as evidenced in the multitude of queer focused organizations attracting everyone from square dancers to evangelicals, queers came together on Capitol Hill, especially during Pride Week, to claim space and command visibility. As Pride Week moved permanently to Capitol Hill in the early 1980s, organizers lauded the theme "Diversity in Action" and stated "we are convinced that the only thing Gay people agree about is our pride and our inalienable right to civil rights protections" (NWLGHM map; BonaDea in Mesec).

Around the same time, local gay bar and bathhouse owners organized to form a coalition with police and fire departments to stop discrimination from city agencies. The Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA), incorporated in 1981 by a few gay business owners, published a yearly directory of queer-friendly businesses and support services, and organized the Pride Foundation, further establishing a queer-centered residential and business area on Capitol Hill for Seattle’s gay men and lesbians.

The growing diversity of queer organizations, political groups, and social establishments on Capitol Hill represented the diversity of the individuals who started or patronized them. But with a new wealth of options for associating with personally representative groups came a new responsibility to find and articulate some common ground. Groups and individuals could be so fragmented internally that they often did not feel particularly connected with, or even know of, many of the others. Increasingly, the only thing they had in common was the shared residential and business space. Race, gender, class, political ideologies, preferences in dress, social behaviors, and even entertainment sometimes produced smaller social networks within the queer community that remained isolated from the others. "Jody," an Asian American woman who started Lesbians of Color Caucus in the late 1970s, remembers the excitement, and the conflict, of the times:

"While I was excited at first about all these gay women, I thought 'Whoa! I don’t know if I can get along with them.' Over time I started meeting more and more women of color. I lived up on Capitol Hill and there was a lot of activity there. I’d meet one woman of color, and then she would introduce me to more, so then I started feeling a bit better. Also, by that time, there were some white women that I finally developed friendships with, which was good" (Mosaic 1).

The newly shared spaces and greater visibility to one another, proved critical to facing together the challenge that queer communities in Seattle faced during this and the decades following.

Acting Up Against AIDS

Challenge is perhaps too nice a word. Beginning in the early 1980s, queer communities across America found themselves in crisis due to the effects of a mysterious new ‘Gays’ Disease,’ of which little was known about treatment, prevention, or cure. Seattle was considered a "second-wave" city. Our residents had some foreknowledge of the disease, the chance to fear it, before it started to take their lives and the lives of their friends and loved ones.

In November 1982, the first case of AIDS -- Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome -- was reported in Washington state. The newly named disease was found in an anonymous man who lived part time in both San Francisco and Seattle. By the time the news was released, the man had already left Seattle, but with increasing reports from gay friends and loved ones in New York and San Francisco affected by the disease, local men were beginning to suspect that they too could be ill. According to historian Gary Atkins, local news announcements such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's "Only One Local Case of Gays’ Disease Found" tried to reassure Seattle. Perhaps we were immune.

If local men were now suspecting physical ailments, they were also struggling psychologically with new fears and shame. The same week, an anonymous Seattle Gay News columnist reflected on his own recent visit to a doctor to ask why his lymph nodes were swollen. "Would it be too mystical to suggest that AIDS is the perfect physical metaphor for ‘I don’t matter’?" he wondered, "After all, why defend a body that doesn’t matter?" (cited in Atkins).

If the love that dare not speak its name had long been divulged, HIV and AIDS created a new silence. Few who commented on the disease would publicly associate with columns, editorials, or reader’s comments in the local press. For some gay men and lesbians, the AIDS epidemic threatened the "pride" that earlier activism and accomplishments had obtained for them, revealing a community that was fragmented and fragile. For all the political victories, organizing, and gained social space of previous decades, AIDS created a new challenge: accepting and loving ourselves.

Still, new wounds and raw sensibilities could not completely undo the past. The community was still well equipped with networks and tools for organizing and strategizing. In response to the AIDS crisis, Seattle AIDS Support Group, the Chicken Soup Brigade, People of Color Against AIDS Network (POOCAN), the Northwest AIDS Foundation, Bailey-Boushay House, and ACT UP all organized the labor of both gay men and lesbians against discrimination and lack of services for people with AIDS. Reverend Gwen Hall (1951-2007), involved with POOCAN and the Unity Fellowship Church, remembers how she became involved with AIDS issues during the crisis:

"[I became involved] like many other people have. A sense that something had to be done, and doing it … And I was watching many, many, many people die. One of the things that was hard for me was seeing them die and hearing and knowing that the church was not loving or accepting them. I made a commitment, a personal commitment to do my part so that no one would ever die feeling that God didn’t love them" (Mosaic 1).

Within a decade, reports of individual cases increased to 2,788. During the crisis years (1983-1994), males comprised 98 percent of reported AIDS cases; 96 percent of these belonged to the gay/bisexual male community (Jeske). By the end of the century, the disease had claimed at least 3,500 lives in Seattle (Atkins). More than three fourths of the dead were gay men. Those who died, those who fought the disease, and survivors were all likely to live and/or socialize in the well-established queer community on Capitol Hill. In 2003, there was still no public neighborhood memorial to honor those whose lives were lost, or the friends and loved ones who cared for them.

The Century Turns

Many of the queer-centered organizations and establishments that came into being in the late 1980s or 1990s were still thriving in 2003. These included Bailey Coy Books, Alice B. Theatre, The Wildrose Tavern, Neighbors, Beyond the Closet Books, the Lesbian Resource Center, the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, Verbena, The Northwest Network, Aradia Women’s Health Services, Front Runners, and many, many more.

Remarkably, political activist groups, social service agencies, cultural events, and even social establishments are increasingly characterized by the shift from predominantly queer patronage to serving communities that are a mix of gay men, lesbians, and trans, straight and queer, plus those who remain undefined altogether. Seattle is increasingly marked by an infusion of queer culture, identity, and individual contributions -- perhaps because of their broad diversity -- into mainstream Northwest life. Whether they are lesbians, gay men, trans-gendered, transvestite, queer, bisexual, butch, femme, fairies, queens, questioning, unarticulated or undisclosed, the sexual minority in Seattle represents the broadest array of diversity of identity, culture, and interests, but shares the common theme of creating space where they are respected and can be heard -- both in their public and their private lives.

Increasingly, the lives and experiences of queers from Seattle’s past are valued as well. In 1994, the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project was founded to "research, interpret and communicate the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in the Pacific Northwest for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment." The project seeks to: collect oral histories, locate photographs, ephemera, objects, and documents; work with archives to insure preservation of these materials; and create public programs such as exhibits, publications, and presentations to "communicate the collective experience they have uncovered." The personal testimonies in this essay were all taken from their first publication of oral histories, Mosaic 1, published in 2002.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


Eric Marcus, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992); "A Historical Map of Lesbian and Gay Seattle" (Seattle: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, 1996), Map Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Mosaic 1: Life Stories, from Isolation to Community (Seattle: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, 2002); Rose Mesec, "A Gender and Space Analysis of Seattle's Lesbian and Gay Communities," (Master's Thesis, University of Washington, 1992); Gary Atkins, Gay Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Timothy D. Jeske, "Collective Action and the AIDS Epidemic: Seattle's Gay and Lesbian Community" (Master’s Thesis, University of Washington, 1993). See also Gary L. Atkins, “A Women’s Place: Feminism Finds a Home in Seattle,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 2009),  22-27.

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