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Shawn Vestal: Longtime activist looks back on half-century of progress since Stonewall riots

Christopher Lawrence poses for a photo in his living room in front of a portrait of himself  in his youth –when he worked as a dancer –  painted in 1988 by artist Neil Levine,  on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, at Lawrence’s home in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Christopher Lawrence attended his umpteenth Pride Parade last month, and he was beyond impressed.

Thousands and thousands of people participated in Pride events this year – the kind of turnout Lawrence and other organizers of Pride events in the 1990s and early 2000s could only dream of.

“I got so overwhelmed I had to come home after a couple of hours,” Lawrence said. “All these kids at the parade. There were thousands of them, just thousands, being free. You couldn’t ask for any greater reward than that.”

For Lawrence, the history of earning that freedom in Spokane is a long, personal one.

It traces back over his years as an advocate for the civil rights of LGBT people. Over his time as the head of OutSpokane. Over the years where he and other members of the local gay community were working to “introduce” themselves to Spokane on billboards all around town, billboards that called for equal rights a decade or more before the dam broke on marriage equality.

It traces back to his years in Seattle, working as a dancer and living in an era where – even in a more open, welcoming city – “everything was closeted.” Back to when police would raid and shake down the gay bars, and when Seattle worked to root out that bribery and provide legal protections for gays and lesbians.

It traces all the way back 50 years, to a bar in New York City, where gay men who had been harassed and shaken down by the cops for years stopped taking it and began rioting.

All the way back to the Stonewall Inn.

Fifty years ago, in the early-morning hours of a Saturday, New York City police showed up with a paddy wagon to raid the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Such raids were common at gay bars – which often operated in illegal or barely legal circumstances – with patrons being shaken down or hauled off to jail.

This time, though, people in the bar and outside on the streets resisted. Rioting broke out that continued for several days; police officers became trapped inside at one point and had to be rescued.

The riots are often seen as a lightning rod for the modern gay rights movement. Among other things, it led to the first Pride parades.

At the time of the riots, Lawrence was living in Seattle, working as a dancer and studying dance. He had grown up in Yakima and moved to Seattle immediately after high school graduation. He knew he was gay, but he was not “out” necessarily; he was living openly among people who were open with themselves, within their community, but the community as a whole was underground. Gay bars painted over their windows. Police raids like those at the Stonewall Inn were common in Seattle, too, and bar owners bribed police to leave them alone.

For Lawrence, moving to Seattle and becoming a dancer were wrapped up in his decision to come out, at least somewhat.

“I was out because I was a dancer,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I want to be free, this is the place where I can be free.’ ”

News of the Stonewall riots landed with a shock in the gay community in Seattle, and it led to reforms among the police department. For years, cops had taken bribes from the owners of gay bars to look the other way on drag shows and same-sex dancing that would violate so-called indecency laws.

“When they didn’t pay them off, then we would get our heads knocked,” Lawrence said. “I never got my head knocked, but people around me did.”

I could not find evidence of any such reaction to Stonewall in Spokane, though there must have been some. The newspapers carried no stories about the riots – let alone the gay community at the time in Spokane – that I could find on microfiche or in the newspaper’s clip files.

In the wake of the Stonewall riots, the Seattle police reforms resulted in the convictions of some officers, and the city very gradually moved toward changing its legal framework to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. It was also a political awakening for Lawrence, who became an activist.

“That, and the Vietnam War, woke me up to being a responsible citizen,” he said. “It was a very exciting time to be alive – and a little frightening.”

Lawrence had a career as a dancer in Seattle, Las Vegas and elsewhere, and when that came to an end, the possibility of moving to Spokane came up among some of his friends who were involved with nutritional supplements, which was his next field.

His view of Spokane in the early 1990s was that it would not be a friendly place to be gay.

“I thought, ‘I can’t live here. I will never meet another man. I’ll be stuck in the closet,’ ” he said.

Almost right away, though, he met the man he would marry – not legally, but in a way that was very real to them. He and his husband, Kevin Porter, were together for nine years, until Porter passed away as a result of complications from AIDS.

Lawrence was already an activist, having worked on the AIDS Quilt project and in Act Up. In Spokane, he became active in organizations working to raise the visibility of gays and lesbians. He was among those who changed the annual Pride event from a march to a parade – a more positive, celebratory spirit. He was an officer in the nonprofit OutSpokane for many years.

Lawrence also wrote reviews of movies, plays and other performances for The Stonewall News for many years. That newspaper operated for several years in Spokane, serving the gay and lesbian community, before closing in 2007.

“We had a real voice, and people came to depend on it,” he said. “It was the voice we didn’t have.”

At 71, Lawrence now lives in a Craftsman bungalow on the South Hill with his two Havanese dogs, Rambo and Goldie Hawn. A Pride flag hangs outside his home.

He’s seen massive social changes during the half-century since the riots at Stonewall, and he’s helped a lot of those changes come about in Spokane and elsewhere. He was proud of the turnout at the city’s Pride Parade, just as he was aware that some of the battles continue – the Drag Queen Story Hour protests at the South Hill library took place not too far from his house.

But he remains hopeful about the progress he’s seen and the progress he’s still hoping for. And the seeds of that hope were planted a half-century ago at that bar in Greenwich Village.

“Finally,” he said, “somebody stood up and bashed back.”

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