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January 23rd, 2008 Byron Beck | Queer Window
 

Ancient History

Queer elders share their amazing stories.

     
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Donna Red Wing: She led the way in 1992.
IMAGE: byron beck

“I came to hate the word ‘lesbian,’” said Susie Shepherd, daughter of Portland PFLAG pioneers Bill and Ann Shepherd. “Before all this alphabet-soup nonsense we were all gay, no matter what you did. That’s what we were: gay.”

Ah, memories of the early GLBTQ world.

Shepherd was talking about her history in Portland’s gay-rights movement before an audience of 100 people, old and young, at “30+ Years in the Making: Stories of the Struggle for Our Rights” on Saturday, Jan. 12, at Portland’s Q Center. Shepherd was joined by about 20 other queer folk—but not just any queer folk. This group paved the way for a wave of recent legislation that has and hopefully will soon again benefit gay people in the workforce and at home. Alongside Shepherd were familiar names—Commish Sam Adams, activist Terry Bean, trans-evangelist Paula Nielsen and gay-friendly former Gov. Barbara Roberts. But there were also a slew of older gay figures I’d seldom—if ever—heard from, including Larry Copeland, Cindy Cumfer, Harold Strong, Donna Red Wing, George Nicola and Jerry Weller.

It was a night to tell stories. And what stories they shared.

Although it was nice to hear from Roberts and Bean, it was even more remarkable—and memorable—to hear the stories from the mouths of those who had kept relatively quiet. I had no idea, for example, that Copeland, who now runs downtown’s Black Rooster Cafe, was co-founder in 1974 of the Portland Town Council—one of this city’s first gay-identified groups. Or that he also ran for a seat on Portland’s City Council long before anyone had heard of a gay guy named Adams. As a lawyer in 1985, Cumfer told how she helped make possible the first adoption by a same-sex couple in this state—and country. In 1976, Strong was the first black male elected to the position of “emperor” in our city’s—or any other city’s—drag queen court. Red Wing, who now lives in Colorado, kept the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance at bay in 1992. Nicola helped introduce the state’s first sexual nondiscrimination bill in 1973. And Weller did yeoman’s work for several gay groups in the 1970s. You get the point.

For years now these good people have pretty much stayed on the sidelines of our movement, even though they were the ones who first opened doors previously closed to gays. They’re the unsung heroes—our forgotten foot soldiers—in the fight for queer rights. They’re the ones who did the hard work—long before cell phones and the Internet—that no one else wanted, or even dared, to do. Today you might sit by them at a restaurant, or on a bus, having no clue the extremely important role they played in making it easier for you to be gay today.

When a younger audience member wondered aloud why change took forever and what impatient “kids” could do to push it along, Red Wing jumped to her feet and shouted, “Just do it!” It’s a bit of an eye-opener to realize our queer forefathers have been with us all along, whether we realized it or not. Who knew?

 
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