Seattle History, Gay Activism, and the Future of LGBTQI Scholarship

atkinsIn many ways, 1977 represented a great deal of possibility for Seattle’s LGBTQ community. Granted in years prior, the Gay Community Center on Renton Hill had been bombed and Robert Sirico’s gay Metropolitan Community Church faced possible closure, yet on July 1, 1976 the state’s anti-sodomy law was repealed and the Seattle City Council had passed a fair housing act that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Through the leadership of LGBTQ leader Charlie Brydon Seattle residents witnessed their first Gay Pride Parade; advocates in the state legislature pushed further in an attempt to pass a Gay Rights Bill. The latter failed and the promise of 1977 curdled into “the bleakest year” in decades, writes Seattle University Professor and author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, Gary Atkins. Forty years later, much has changed. The Metropole sat down (virtually) with Atkins to discuss Gay Seattle, the city’s present and past, and the future of LGBTQI activism and scholarship.

To what extent does Seattle’s LGBTQ history resemble and differ with other urban cities, particularly on the West Coast? For example, as you note in your book, WWII had a great deal of influence on the city’s expansion but also the creation of a larger LGBTQ (and I realize that individuals from that time would not identify this way, but for consistency in my questions I will use this term) community, but this was not unique to Seattle. San Francisco, L.A., NYC could all make similar claims, however, the creation of a Gay Community Center in 1969 in Seattle does predate L.A.’s own which I believe did not come into existence until the early 1970s. That said, the first attempts to establish a Mattachine Society in Washington occurred in Tacoma in 1959 and not Seattle, which I think would be a surprise to some readers. So the history is complex in this regard. I guess what makes Seattle unique in its development of an LGBTQ community?

 Thanks to the effort historians have made to discover our stories, as well as what activists have done to create unifying symbols such as the rainbow flag, we’ve gotten used to the “idea” that LGBTQ folks have a national and even a global history, that “we are everywhere” as the saying goes. Having modern media and transportation systems that let us know and visit people all over the world has helped develop that consciousness too. But it’s easy to forget that sexual attraction and desire and the history of those are originally intensely local, that we are also “some place” when we as individuals develop loving relationships or “come out.” And those local places heavily influence how we express that.

Every city on the American West Coast was shaped by a slightly different set of historical factors. The Spanish missionary influence that helped shape San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, was largely missing in Seattle, although a very different style of French missionary influence was present in other nearby areas of Idaho and Montana. In Seattle’s case, the city brought together its own unique cultural configuration of local native understandings of gender and sexuality, of pragmatic Midwest immigrants who wanted neatly planned communities, of utopians who saw in the natural beauty of the area chances for varied paradises, and of adventurers escaping their families back east by joining the Alaska gold rush and laborers in mostly male camps cutting timber and building railroads. That gave the city an eclectic blending of interests and cross-purposes. Yet, everyone was, ultimately, trying to survive in what for a long time was just a gritty rain-driven frontier town–small compared to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I think you had the emergence of Seattle’s fame for being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings that, ultimately, were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions and not get too passionately involved or ideologically troubled with their neighbors.

The LGBTQ community that emerged reflected that, right down to the police department’s decision from the 19th century until the 1960s to simply let one side of the city pass laws and another side – us – who would have been heavily oppressed by them be tolerated, albeit for a monetary price, of course. So no Stonewalls raids here, just some low-level police harassment whenever payment weren’t made. Seattle had the pragmatic university professors who created the early political groups of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dorian Society and subsequent Dorian Group, operating with their keen sense of respectability, connecting with politicians and business people, running their meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order. But we also had gay women and men setting up utopian-style rural communes on the Olympic Peninsula and on neighboring islands – or joining economic co-ops in the city and promoting consciousness raising groups where everyone could feel safe to tell their stories. We drew on influences from the socialist and labor movement in Seattle – those unions that formed to represent laborers in the seafaring and timbering world. Radical Women, a socialist group, would demand that other organizations – like the respectably capitalistic middle class Dorian Group — recognize that the way homosexuals were treated as sick or as illegal was not really the core of the oppression. Rather, it was the challenge we presented to a form of capitalism that had been built upon the idea of the monogamous heterosexual family.

To be sure, there were battles within the community as it emerged with a public voice, but ultimately if anything was to be achieved, multiple voices had to be consulted, resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.

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As a professor who came to academia through journalism, do you think you view scholarship differently from more traditional academics (particularly since you see the occasional flare up between journalists and academics when covering the same issue)? If so how? If not why? Relatedly, when writing Gay Seattle how did your background in journalism help you? How did you decide on your sources for Gay Seattle?

When I told my high school counselor I wanted to major in History in college, she discouraged me by saying, “The only thing you can do with that is teach.” Since I enjoyed writing, she encouraged me to instead consider journalism – the profession of “historians in a hurry” as the phrase goes. It was a good choice because I eventually found that journalism actually let me follow both my interest in writing narratives about real people and their struggles AND my interest in the historical context within which they were operating. Story, after all, is made from a character confronting a significant problem, but within a broader context.

I think it’s unfortunate that academic writing and narrative non-fiction journalism sometimes seem to exist in two different worlds. One targets writing primarily for fellow specialists and exploring theoretical propositions often in a style virtually indecipherable to a general audience. The other aims at that larger audience but often forgets to ask those more theoretical or political questions. The division that has occurred between “queer theory” with its theoretical emphasis and “gay studies” with its original focus on uncovering specific stories about people and communities is an example of that.

As is true of most long-form narrative journalists, I try to hit that sweet spot that links those two worlds of inquiry. As Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, two of the best once wrote, the particular genre I work in “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Or at least tries to. So I always look for what we often refer to as the “ladder of abstraction” – those points within a particular character’s story where it’s possible to illustrate a broader theoretical or political context. My books are built upon characters and their problems, but woven through each are explorations of broader theories. Gay Seattle, for example, was built upon theories of geographic sense of place from Yi-Fu Tuan (especially his books Landscapes of Fear and Space and Place) and of figurative public architecture from Christian Norberg-Schulz (The Concept of Dwelling). The question that guided Gay Seattle was this: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized as sexual or gender criminals and perverts into citizens who can participate equally in the public civic discourse that marks a city — into an empowered group that is no longer outcast but that can truly be said either to have found or at least be well on their way to creating a sense of belonging within a local urban environment? How do they gain a public voice?

But, whew, I wasn’t about to put all that into the prologue!

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Seattle’s first street car turning from Occidental Avenue to Yesler Way, Theo. E. Peiser, 1884, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead I talked about an 18-year-old sailor, John Collins, who went looking for some male companionship on a cold Monday night in downtown Seattle in November 1895 and found another teenager named Benjamin Layton. The two ended up in a room in a nearby saloon catering to sailors, loggers, gold rushers – and female prostitutes. That’s when they got reported to the police by a jealous prostitute, turning Collins into one of the first men in Seattle to be prosecuted for violating a law he didn’t even know existed – the newly adopted state sodomy law intended to regulate male-male sexuality. The case had to be dropped, though, when Layton – coerced into being the state’s witness – hopped a train and disappeared. I was very fortunate to find the transcript of Collins’ hearing in court records. From there, it was easy to pivot repeatedly to aspects of the story of what was essentially a century-long saga to overturn that law and resist the police, as well as challenge various medical practices. That carried readers through the history that LGBTQ citizens had experienced to secure a voice and a sense of place in Seattle.

According to your book, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the earliest organized attempts to pass legislation that protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. How do you think about this moment in Seattle history and the city’s LGBT community? What might be some important take a ways not only in terms of history but also modern politics and Seattle municipal politics?

 Unfortunately, there’s a sad irony this year to that particular anniversary. It took from 1977 until 2006 to get the law adopted – three decades in a state often considered progressive. Success didn’t actually happen until the business community came on board, especially the power of Seattle’s new high-tech corporations. That’s certainly one lesson about how the effort to secure a public voice is a saga that evolves over many generations and that must involve both political and economic organizing.

Ed Murray was the gay state senator who helped complete that battle in the state Legislature and finally secure the non-discrimination law that bears his name. Murray also helped pull together a coalition to pass a marriage equality law in 2012 and then went on to beat an incumbent and become Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.

But as the city learned for the first time this spring, during Murray’s efforts to pass those bills, he was repeatedly being privately subjected to highly questionable charges that he had paid teenagers under the age of legal consent for sex in the 1980s before he entered the Legislature. The accusations never became public because those making them were considered not credible. But this spring, with Murray positioned to win an easy re-election and leading a very public effort to resist the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, the local conservative newspaper, the Seattle Times, decided to publicize many of the charges it had actually known about and dismissed at the time as not reliable. It did so because of a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15 — but who himself has severe credibility issues since he has dozens of criminal convictions and mis-described critical parts of Murray’s anatomy. (Yes, we’ve been treated to awkward press descriptions of the mayor’s genitals.) Murray flatly denies any molestation or ever paying for sex.

Compounding the suspicion about the nature and timing of the lawsuit is the fact that an attorney known for his past anti-gay stances heads the law firm handling the suit. So a pallor of political opportunism hangs over the accusations. Still, because of the media coverage of the supposed – and still unproven – sex scandal, Murray, the man who led the final successful battles for that non-discrimination law, was forced to withdraw from re-election.

The local LGBTQ community has been split and shaken – not wanting to buy into trumped up stereotypes of molestation that are often slung by political opponents against gay men, but also not wanting to seem to be challenging the credibility of those who claim to have been sexually abused. After all, many gay, lesbian and transgender youth do become victims of crime or exploitation. So now we wait for the civil trail.

I wrote in Gay Seattle that 1977 had been a particularly rough year for the local LGBTQ community as it began to deal with severe backlash against what had been some important legal accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, we see some similar things happening. I think it’s historical moments like this that will go on to become particularly crucial ones in shaping the next steps in the local community’s sense of itself.

[Update: The suit against Murray was dropped as Atkin’s pointed out in an email to The Metropole, “the accuser and his lawyer dropped the lawsuit, adding to the impression that the original lawsuit was — as Murray has termed it — a ‘political takedown’ using old stereotypes about gay men.” See here for more details. ]

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Surplus Store, horizontal, 1st Avenue & Battery Street, John Margolies, 1977, John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

You write about the concept of “coming home” in Gay Seattle. Can you explain this concept (which seems to some extent multivalent in the book) and how places like Seattle fit into or draw out this idea?

As a writer, I look for themes that are universal in our lives. Creating a sense of place is a struggle many of us engage in. It involves more than just “coming out” and letting the world know who you are. In Gay Seattle I use a quotation from the theologian Walter Brueggemann who said that when you’re writing about people whose common experience is that of being emotional outcasts, rather than sharing a common race or social class, then the central question is not going to be about emancipation but about “rootage” – in our case, not just about “gay or LGBTQ freedom” but about “LGBTQ location” within a story about a series of generations gaining a promise and looking for fulfillment.

That’s one reason that in Gay Seattle I tried hard to locate the historical evolution of the gay community within the history of the city itself rather than treating it as a kind of “ghetto” history. So I spent a lot of time writing about the geography and overall factors that shaped the city, and then situated the lesbian and gay stories within that broader context. One of my goals, actually, was to be sure that the book ended up in the “Seattle/Northwest history” sections of bookstores and libraries and would not be ghettoized in some “Gay/Lesbian Studies” section. To this day, when I walk into one of the few bookstores we still have left in Seattle, I’m happy when I see it sitting there, right in front of the store, in the Seattle and Northwest history section – not several aisles back in the LGBTQ section. I wanted it to be clear that we were part of the entire urban history of the city, not some niche.

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Rotating neon ampersand part of Roy McMakin’s installation `Love & Loss` (2005), photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

In political terms and scholarship, where do you see the movement and field going? You mention more work on transgender issues in the introduction to the paperback edition of Gay Seattle. Can you expand on this or discuss other directions you see both politics and academia moving?

I guess it might be said that we’re poised on intermingled waves. One wave brought us the new discoveries of historical stories and documents and is exemplified by the efforts of folks likes John Boswell, Lillian Faderman, Esther Newton, George Chauncey and all the other historical writers who are still giving us richly detailed accounts of the people who have been part of the LGBTQ saga. There’s a continuing international expansion of that research that I think is very exciting as we get more chronicles from Asia, Africa and South America.

Another wave has given us “queer studies,” building on theoreticians such as Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick. That has drawn us into deeper theoretical reflections on how knowledge about sexual and gender identities are constructed through local deployments of language and power.

Where does it go? I recently attended the world conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Bangkok. It brought political activists from all over the world. Very importantly, the association adds the “I” for “intersexual” onto LGBTQI. It was fascinating to me to see how capably people from all over the globe and from all races are fusing what I refer to as those two waves – the specific stories of struggle and community and the critical theories about gender and sexuality. The thinking and the political activism going on in China, in Africa, in New Zealand, in South America – that’s the next big story in LGBTQI scholarship and history. It’ll be written city-by-city and nation-by-nation but always with an eye toward global impacts.

 

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How did your work on Gay Seattle influence your second book, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore? What are you working on now?

The question that I looked at in Imagining Gay Paradise was essentially the same as in Gay Seattle: What communication experiences are required to transform individuals who have been marginalized because of their sexuality or gender into citizens who participate equally in the public civic discourse and who feel they have a strong sense of place?

But in Imagining Gay Paradise I wanted to look at a region rather than a city, and I wanted it to be an area that had been influenced by European colonialism. Hence, Southeast Asia became a logical choice, with three very different geographical areas being the focus: Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore. I wanted to see what communication processes were available when the American civil rights influence that helped shape the experience in Seattle was missing. So the processes of communication I looked at were quite different. There were no big public marches or civil rights actions. Instead, there was the creation of an art-based community in Bali in the 1930s and 1940s, one that was effectively then destroyed by a Nazi-inspired sex scandal. There was a very famous gay men’s sauna in Bangkok that reflected both the sexual image of Bangkok but also created a place for sexual dissent. And there was a new wave of cyberspace activism occurring in Singapore.

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Photo by Ryan Reft, 2008

I bounced around through time and space to try to understand particular characters and their contexts over a period that ran from 1910 until 2010. That included the early 20th century king of Siam, Rama VI, who got rid of his father’s harem and began to adjust family laws to enforce British concepts of romantic heterosexual monogamy in what would become Thailand – and yet who himself resisted that type of marriage even while writing plays about romance. I examined the role of the famed German artist Walter Spies in Bali in the 1930s, as well that of Khun Toc who developed the Babylon sauna in Bangkok in the later part of the 20th century. And I focused on a fourth major character, Stuart Koe, who created a cyber-organizing platform called Fridae in Singapore. In all cases, they used a type of “magical reality” to create a sense of place for the expression of gender and sexual differences – so the book became a narrative non-fiction exploration of how “magical reality” – as a communication process — can be used to create places that serve as LGBTQ homes.

As for my next story: Given the spread of new communication technologies throughout the world – as well as global LGBTQI organizing and backlashes to that organizing – I think I’ll be looking at how we, as now much more public LGBTQI citizens, continue to evolve our understandings of ourselves especially through new media. I don’t think I’ll be writing history about particular bars or even political groups, but rather about the evolving impacts of technology and of concerns about environmental changes in the places we call home.

I’m interested in the next generation’s stories so I’m going to watch – and write – as they make the next history.

Gary Atkins is a Professor at Seattle University in the Women and Gender Studies Program and the Department of Communications. Atkins is also an award-winning journalist specializing in creative non-fiction. He is the author of Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging and Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber Singapore.

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