Gay History to Be Thankful For as We Approach 2020

by Robin Will, President of Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest

While We’re Thinking About Thanksgiving Local LGBTQ+ Groups Are Already Focused on Next Spring

Robin Will, President of GLAPN

ProudTimes welcomes Robin Will and the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest to this publication. In his first piece for us, he discusses the importance of both 2019 & 2020 as hallmark years for our community.

A word or two about terminology: in the beginning, the word “gay” seemed to be enough. In 1970, two of the principals of Stonewall, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, marched in the first parade under the banner of their newly-formed transvestite organization. In Portland, Gay Pride didn’t become Lesbian & Gay Pride until 1982. Other factions of our community found their voices and claimed their space at other times. Our awareness and our language are still changing.

In 2020, we’re looking at two more semi-centennials: the first Pride celebration nationally, and the first gay community organizing in Portland. Our community can expect a lot of emphasis on history as part of Portland Pride this year.

First, Let’s Consider Stonewall

June 28, 1969 marked the beginning of three days of rioting at the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, after a routine police bust went seriously off the tracks. The Stonewall Riots weren’t the first demonstrations by gay folks, nor the first time queer people ever fought back against bullying by police. However, they seem to be the first events that, as they happened, were understood as a struggle for civil rights and, in the terms of the moment, for liberation.

People were certain that the Stonewall riots were more than just another spat with the cops – so much so that by November of 1969, a community group in Greenwich Village had already obtained a parade permit for the first anniversary of the riots. The event would be called The Christopher Street Liberation Day

The Very First Pride Parade

There’s also a second 50th anniversary to be thankful for – it was the first Pride parade. Marchers lined up for 14 blocks, and Stonewall principals Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson walked with their brand-new organization, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which may have been our country’s first militant transgender organization – or at least, by definition, the first to march in a Gay Pride parade. 

Consider checking out a preview of a documentary which came out a few years ago about the life of pioneer transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, via Netflix.

So in 2019 we celebrated the riots; in 2020, we’ll be marking the 50th anniversary of that first Pride Parade. That accounts for two anniversaries – and there’s one more, in-between, that’s local to Portland. After Stonewall, calls for gay liberation went out on radio, TV, in publications we would have referred to as “establishment” back in the day, as well as in press that we called “underground” catering to the gay community which was decidedly a fringe group at the time. Nationwide, queer people heard those calls, and responded. 

Below: An example of the “underground” and largely clandestine publications available to queer and what we might call counter-culture or subversive readers in the late 1960s & 1970s.The Willamette Bridge was one such paper, it ran for only a few years from June of 1968 to June of 1971. John Wilkinson, who lamented gay life in Portland at the time in this article, is also a hero of the gay community in the Pacific Northwest.“Gay, young, & lonely” was too often the norm in describing the lives of queer people at the time.

In Oregon, the Eugene Gay People’s Alliance (EPGA) first met in January 1970. In Portland, an article in the Willamette Bridge pointed out in February that Portland didn’t have anything like the Gay Liberation Front that was meeting in other cities. The uptake was quick: Portland’s Gay Liberation Front met for the first time on March 24, 1970.

Queering Oregon: The Gay Liberation Front Comes to Portland

So there’s the third semi-centennial – the start-from-scratch beginnings of Portland’s own LGBTQ+ community. 

As we move through 2020, Portland’s Pride Northwest will be doing their best to celebrate these beginnings, and they will be getting some help from GLAPN, the region’s only LGBTQ+ historical society. Since GLAPN has been proudly collecting, preserving, and sharing our community’s history.

The Gay Liberation Front got discussion rolling, and almost immediately yielded to The Second Foundation (a nod to Isaac Asimov) to develop a gay presence in Portland. It was The Second Foundation that created the first Pride celebration in Portland, an indoor gathering held in 1971. In 1975 the party moved outdoors, to the Park Blocks near Portland State University; and in 1976, the event took place at Waterfront Park. Portland had our first Pride parade in 1977.

In Their 70s Now

The queer youngsters who were in their late teens and early twenties in 1970 – the ones who had the fire and gumption to picket, parade, and organize and work for gay liberation – are in their seventies now. For sure, they were following in the footsteps of elders – work in the queer community had gone on in one form or another since the 1920s in the United States. But this particular generation has the dubious symmetry of being born into pre-Pride isolation and persecution, seeing the first public glimmer of hope just as they came of age, and witnessing the LGBTQ+ rainbow developing in living color through their adult lives. 

Ask somebody over 70, and they’ll explain: Stonewall came to the nation, and the Gay Liberation Front came to Portland, when there were no legal protections for LGBTQ+ people, and no interest in developing any. Persecuting gays was legal, and it was a social norm: homosexuals were considered criminal by law, mentally ill by health professionals, and pariahs by most of the religious community.

George Oberg, a Local Hero of the Early Gay Rights Movement in Portland…

Criminals, Reprobates, Mentally Ill

Yes, being gay was criminal. In Oregon, homosexuality was effectively outlawed until 1972 by a law that prohibited sodomy. Over the years the legislature and the courts had redefined the “crime” in almost comically broad terms, but the penalty wasn’t funny: a felony conviction, with 5-15 years in the penitentiary. After 1923, sodomy convictions also resulted in referral to the Oregon Board of Eugenics for sterilization. A sodomy charge – with a public trial, covered in detail in the newspapers – could ruin a life and derail a career. But there were other tactics at the discretion of the cop on the beat: citations for lewd conduct, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, and/or illegal assembly were perfectly routine and legal ways to harass gays, get them off the street, get their names in the paper, and maybe lock them up for a little while.

In 1972 – two years after the first Gay Liberation Front meeting in Portland – Oregon was the fourth state to legalize sex between consenting adults, outside of prostitution. That means today’s 70-year-olds were 23 before the onus of criminality was removed from their sexuality in Oregon. Other states were slower.

Homosexuality was listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1973. Families or courts could – and did – commit individuals to mental hospitals for treatment. Today’s septuagenarians were 24 years old when they came off of the “sick list.” The mental health professions weren’t instantly transformed – hidebound professionals believe what they learned in their senior seminars, and many conservative religious groups haven’t changed their minds to this day – but the change was valuable to young professionals, for morale in general, and, occasionally, in courts of law. It’s worth noting that every LGBTQ+ community startup in Portland, ever, has immediately developed its own list of doctors and counselors. We sadly haven’t ever been able to trust the community at large with our physical and mental health.

Well, Portland’s Gay Liberation Front didn’t last long. Reading between the lines, those early gatherings were apparently a matter of hippies and slogans.  Almost immediately, a more mature organization picked up the stronger folks from the GLF and got on with business of creating community. They called themselves The Second Foundation, with a nod to Isaac Asimov, and their name is on most of the earliest heavy lifting that made space for queer people in Portland. 

The Risks They Took

Many of the LGBTQ+ people who did that early work are still living, and this year, GLAPN and Pride-NW will be telling their stories. There was the transplant from Ohio, who wanted to know where the gay bars were, and didn’t know who he could safely ask. There was the kid who couch-surfed away from home until his 18th birthday, because he overheard his parents discussing getting him lobotomized to cure his homosexuality. There was the young teacher who was considering suicide as an alternative to coming out to her parents; and the reporter who was using several pen names in the underground press, to give the impression that more than one person in Portland was interested in women’s issues.

They are people who didn’t know if they would get arrested or not at these first meetings, and they weren’t sure what coming out in public would do to their reputations and employability, forever. They’re in their seventies now. Pride Northwest, GLAPN, and this publication intend to wish them Happy 50th Anniversary in the months to come.

Robin Will (pronouns he/him/his) was born in Hillsboro and grew up in Portland, graduating from Benson Polytechnic High School in 1966, and from Portland State University in 2007.  After briefly considering the ministry and exploring social work as a paraprofessional, he spent most of his career in the publishing industry, in a variety of roles that included writing, editing, design, and production management, He has been president of GLAPN (Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest) since 2014.