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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

From The Spokesman-Review archives: Decades of clips show evolution in attitudes toward LGBT community

In the basement of the Review Tower in downtown Spokane, there’s a cabinet with a drawer labeled “homosexuals.”

It’s in the middle of The Spokesman-Review’s clip library, a meticulously curated collection of newspaper articles dating from the early 20th century until 1994, when all records went digital. Open the cabinet, and you’ll see 36 files, each with a time period and a list of related topics stamped on it.

The last file, from July 1994, suggests “sex crimes,” “sexual psychopaths” and “sodomy” for further reading.

As Spokane prepares for its 26th Pride Parade Saturday, the clippings provide a window into how much some attitudes toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have changed in a few decades. They include court battles over adoption and marriage, profiles of young lesbian women and Dear Abby letters from parents who just learned their children were gay.

It’s easy to view the history of the community as a narrative of forward progress, from closeted to marching with trepidation to advocating for the ability to get married. But local leaders said as LGBT people have gone from curiosities to features of everyday life, there’s been an increase in backlash.

“People are becoming a little more empowered to speak up negatively,” said Margaret Witt, a former Spokane resident who successfully sued the U.S. Air Force in 2007 after she was discharged under the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “The negative influences are still there. The ignorance is still there.”

That’s especially true for transgender people, who are often coming to the forefront of civil rights discussion after decades of being largely invisible, or outright excluded, from gay and lesbian spaces.

“Those wounds are still pretty close to the surface,” said Sevan Bussell, the director of advocacy and engagement at Odyssey Youth Center. “We’re not quite where I’d like to see us be.”

The earliest local dispatch in the clip files, from 1970, concerns a pair of gay and lesbian Whitworth students speaking in the student union building. The clip is headlined: “Sexual Attitudes Aired by Pair at Whitworth.” The reporter notes both are from Portland and “appeared clean-scrubbed products of middle America” before describing their appearance at length.

Much has been written about Spokane’s first Pride Parade in 1992, when marchers were confined to the sidewalk and some wore paper bags over their heads to avoid being identified and losing their jobs. But that parade wasn’t the first public gay celebration in the Inland Northwest.

In 1979, the gay community’s annual Imperial Ball, a fundraiser to support other events, had bomb threats called in. Then-police Chief Wayne Hendren said the ball had been happening for 20 years without problems.

“It’s pretty much like any other party, except probably a little more orderly,” one off-duty officer told The Spokesman-Review. The biggest problems were caused by onlookers trying to spy on attendees or get inside to pick a fight, he said.

That was the same year the U.S. government stopped using homosexuality as evidence of a “mental disease or defect” to deny immigrants entry to the U.S., according to a wire story.

“Gay” often appears in scare quotes in the late 1970s, with most writers using the term “homosexual” outside of direct quotations. Bisexuality is occasionally mentioned in the files, but bisexual people are not. Transgender people are almost entirely invisible.

That’s not because people in those groups didn’t exist in the 1970s and well before, said Michael Jepson, an OutSpokane board member, bisexual man and self-proclaimed “Gay Mayor of Spokane.” But their history has rarely gotten the same attention.

“Pride started as a riot, and the main people doing it were queer trans women, trans women of color,” Jepson said. He was referring to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women who were among the first to start a riot in June 1969 after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City.

Bussell said the first transgender group to march together at Spokane pride was in 2010, and included about five people. Two years later, Spokane held its first public Transgender Day of Remembrance, a memorial for trans people who have been murdered.

Jepson and Witt agreed transgender rights remain the biggest frontier for the community to tackle, especially with efforts to restrict transgender people from using public bathrooms corresponding to their lived genders.

In the early 1970s, stories about ordinary gay and lesbian people mix with court cases of child rape, where defendants are described as “avowed homosexuals.” News stories detail a 1980 decision from the WSU board of regents not to give funding or recognition to the student Gay Awareness Committee and a 1982 profile of the lesbian community.

In 1980, advice columnist Ann Landers answered a question from “Worried Mother in Charlotte,” whose 20-year-old son had just come out as gay. She said her son had refused counseling. Landers responded, “Your son does not wish to change, so please get off his back. And get some counseling, dear woman,” before referring her to Parents and Friends of Gays (lesbians would be added to the group’s name later, giving it the acronym PFLAG).

Two years later, Dear Abby responded to an anonymous letter from an Illinois state senator who objected to the use of the word “gay” to describe homosexuals. The writer listed a number of synonyms for gay, then wrote, “In my opinion, the truly ‘gay’ people of the world are heterosexuals who have relations with persons of the opposite sex.”

Abby’s response? She traced the word gay back to France, where “les gai” was used to refer to men who played women’s roles in all-male theatrical productions.

“When you, sir, are willing to have yourself described in print and in introductions to your family, friends, strangers, etc. as ‘Heterosexual (Name Withheld),’ then you may insist that gays be identified by the clinical 19th-century term, ‘homosexual,’ ” she wrote.

The first local story about the AIDS crisis appeared in May 1983, when Spokane doctors and health officials warned it was just a matter of time before local patients emerged. That was two years after the Centers for Disease Control first published a report about mysterious deaths among gay men from what would later be confirmed as AIDS-related illness. AIDS would later get its own section in the clip file cabinets.

Spokane’s first mention of a pride celebration was a week of events put on by the Greater Spokane Gay Leadership Coalition in June 1986. It included picnics, education booths and an education drive against a state initiative that attempted to ban gay people from local government jobs while labeling them “deviants.”

Longtime Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark makes an appearance in 1988, after an anonymous reader sent him a copy of LifeWatch, a newsletter with safe sex and AIDS health care advice put out by the Spokane County Health District for the gay community. The reader objected to tax dollars being used to disseminate illustrations of dancing condoms and presumably expected Clark to agree.

Clark instead acquired a copy of the complete newsletter, noted that it contained heartfelt stories about living with HIV and AIDS as well as safe sex advice, and concluded the newsletter “deserved applause rather than the derision by some oversensitive buffoon.”

“Spreading the word on AIDS is a vital mission of the county health department. If it takes a few dancing condoms to accomplish that mission, well, ‘Ah-one, and-ah two, and ah three…’ ” he concluded.

The city’s first pride march, in 1992, was organized by the local PFLAG chapter. Helen Bonser, one of the early leaders and the mother of a lesbian daughter, recalled the event Wednesday evening at Spokane’s second annual Interfaith Pride Service.

When Bonser went to the Chamber of Commerce to talk about organizing a march, she said the response was something like, “You can’t be in the streets anyway because you’re not parade material, but you can walk on the sidewalks.” The parade was held on Sunday, because the chamber assumed fewer people would be downtown and disrupted.

Some Spokane residents promised violence during the march.

“If you put those faggots in the streets, we’ll shoot them from the rooftops,” she recalled hearing from one man. During the march, she said another man asked what they were doing. When she told him the march was for gay pride, he said, “OK, I’ll just go home and get my gun.”

But police officers were supportive, and a sergeant overheard his remark, Bonser said.

“That man never did get his gun. He went somewhere to be incarcerated instead,” she said, drawing a laugh.

The newspaper account describes humor from marchers, even in the face of fear or protest. One man held a sign reading, “I’m not gay but my boyfriend is.” Others “hammed it up” in front of bike patrol officers. About 450 people turned out, and officers originally assigned to the parade for protection ended up controlling traffic.

Jepson and Bonser agreed the protesters during the event were mild, mostly Catholics who followed the marchers trying to hand out literature.

“We thanked them profusely because they added to our numbers,” Bonser said.

The second year drew a few protesters, but also curiosity.

“We’re just waiting to see if we see anybody we know,” one shopper told the reporter.

In February 1999, the Spokane City Council passed, by a 4-3 vote, an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation, race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, marital status and disability.

The debate focused almost entirely on sexual orientation, however.

Liz Moore, the director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, who was in the room for testimony on the ordinance, said the council was swayed in part by the contrast between the two sides.

Some landlords got up to say that they didn’t want to rent to people committing “abominations,” while same-sex couples talked primarily about how they just wanted safe places to live.

That “made a big impact on City Council members who weren’t sure there was a need for this ordinance,” she said. After the council passed it, a group of citizens collected enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would remove sexual orientation from the list of protected groups. Moore led the “No on Discrimination” campaign, which prevailed with about 52 percent of the vote in November 1999.

In 2005, the City Council voted 5-2 to extend city benefits to employees with domestic partners, regardless of sex. A referendum aimed at overturning the decision failed to get enough signatures to put the matter before voters.

The next big milestone was Referendum 74, which legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot box in 2012. Jepson said that was when the Spokane Street Preachers became a more vocal and hateful presence at pride. There are now more protesters than there were in pride’s early years, he said.

“They know they’re going down and they’re going down swinging, and the hate is the only relevance they have,” he said.

Witt moved from Spokane to Portland in 2014, but said she plans to return in the fall for the launch of her book, “Tell,” about her court battle and the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” She said in spite of more hateful rhetoric from a small minority, Spokane was always supportive during her lawsuit, and she’s been happy to see pride take off.

“It gets better every year, it gets bigger every year,” she said.

This article has been updated to correct the year Spokane’s first transgender group marched in the Pride parade.