Happy Pride Month! With the Seattle Pride Parade right around the corner, we’re bringing Gary L. Atkins’s award-winning Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging back into the spotlight.
In 1893, the Washington State legislature quietly began passing a set of laws that essentially made homosexuality, and eventually even the discussion of homosexuality, a crime. A century later Mike Lowry became the first governor of the state to address the annual lesbian and gay pride rally in Seattle. Gay Seattle traces the evolution of Seattle’s gay community during those one hundred turbulent years, telling through a century of stories how gays and lesbians have sought to achieve a sense of belonging in Seattle.
These stories of exile and belonging draw on numerous original interviews as well as case studies of individuals and organizations that played important roles in the history of Seattle’s gay and lesbian community. Collectively, they are a powerful testament to the endurance and fortitude of this minority community, revealing the ways a previously hidden sexual minority “comes out” as a people and establishes a public presence in the face of challenges from within and without.
Gary L. Atkins is professor of women and gender studies at Seattle University. His most recent book is Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok and Cyber-Singapore.
Today, we talk with Professor Atkins about the process of writing Gay Seattle and its contribution to the community.
What inspired you to get into your field?
GA: Ever since I was in third grade, I’ve been compelled by writing as well as by understanding the history of how different places, people and imaginations came to be. That gradually translated into an interest in journalism, especially in nonfiction creative writing.
Why did you want to write this book?
GA: I moved to Seattle in 1978 and, of course, I immediately wanted to know more about both the geography and the history of the Northwest. Over the years I kept reading—but the customary history books all left out any stories of lesbians and gay men. I didn’t find anything that reflected who I was . . . or who the generations of lesbians and gay men who had come before me were.
Describe the process of writing this book.
GA: Because I am very interested in geography and architecture and how both influence people’s imaginations, I actually began by just walking around. Even though I had already lived in Seattle for fifteen years by the time I began the book, I wanted to deliberately see what were both the existing spaces in which gay men and lesbians had settled and created their public gathering spots, as well as spaces I had heard about. Then came the usual journalistic research approaches: sweeping city and university libraries for any information; digging through microfilm of criminal cases to turn up who had been arrested for crimes like sodomy; visiting county, state and federal archives for reports on things like treatments at mental hospitals. Intermixed with that were interviews with any of the “old-timers” I could find. I conducted many of these, but I also involved students in my Seattle U classes. After all the reporting came draft after draft after draft of the book. The whole process took about ten years from its start in 1993 until publication in 2003. Although, of course, I was still teaching fulltime.
What do you think is this book’s most important contribution?
GA: It reports and describes a saga that had been overlooked in other stories of the Northwest at the time of publication: the efforts of those who had been criminalized and treated as sick for their sexual desires and their loves to instead create their own community and to establish themselves publicly.
What is the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?
GA: Although the general histories of Seattle documented the old police payoff system that existed for decades until the 1970s, no one had really tracked how that affected the development of the lesbian and gay bars—and so the development of the gay community—in the city. As I worked through archives, grand jury reports, and newspaper stories, it gradually became apparent that the payoff system had fostered the community, but ironically, I also found out that it was a particular gay bar owner who had eventually helped bring the whole system down. By then, for all practical purposes, he had disappeared from the city. So one of the most fantastic experiences I had was simply seeing an old phone number on a document, and it was actually still his number. I was able to track him down on Camano Island and then conduct interviews with him.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?
GA: One of the most surprising things was that students at my own university, Seattle U, helped launch the LGBTQ civil rights effort in Seattle back in the 1960s, although in a rather negative way. From the oral history interviews that one of my students conducted, we discovered that SU students had harassed gay men who were living next to the university and who sometimes dressed in drag. The students threw rocks at their home, which prompted the men to race after them in drag, causing the police to intervene and the drag queens to tell their stories to a radio station. Out of that came organizing efforts for the old Dorian Society, which was the first really long-lasting gay rights group in Seattle. The gay men met with the SU president at the time and were apparently told they should move. Resolutely, they responded that he should instead tell his students to stop throwing rocks. I guess you could consider that one of many little “stonewalls” that started happening in Seattle well before the big one back in New York.
This year’s Pride Parade will take place on Sunday, June 24th in downtown Seattle. Learn more here.