The national gay rights movement was born in a hail of rocks, bricks and broken glass.
In Portland, it began with a personal ad.
"Gay, longhair, young, lonely, seeks meaningful relationship with same," read the submission to the Willamette Bridge, an underground newspaper published out of a basement office on West Burnside.
It was February 1970, less than a year after the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York repositioned the fight for LGBTQ equality alongside the feminist, civil rights and antiwar movements. But the Bridge's editorial board refused to publish the anonymous letter—not so much for the content, but because of a policy against running classifieds of any kind.
But staff writer John Wilkinson didn't see the letter as a ploy for sex. He saw a cry of desperation.
So Wilkinson, himself openly gay, decided to respond.
In an article titled "Dear Gay, Young and Lonely," Wilkinson decried the life of secrecy so many gay men and women were forced to lead, and called for the formation of a local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, the organization that formed in the wake of Stonewall months earlier.
Six years later, Portland's queer community took to the streets for the first time, marching through downtown toward Waterfront Park, trailed by members of the Christian right, urging them to repent.
With much of the discussion and celebration of this year's Pride centering on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, WW spoke to several of Portland's own gay rights pioneers about their own, much more quieter—but no less important—revolution.
What follows is a significantly abridged history of the early days of the local gay rights movement, from Wilkinson's call to action up through the state's first Pride celebration. For more details about Oregon's LGBTQ history, visit the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest website at glapn.org.
Ask Portland's early gay activists about Stonewall, and many will say it seemed important only in retrospect—at the time, it was something that happened on the other side of the country, whose ramifications were unclear. Instead, the impetus for the Portland queer community's own political awakening happened in the pages of an alternative newspaper.
John Wilkinson, Willamette Bridge staff writer: There was a sense of separation from the rest of society. Gay men by and large kept very much to themselves in terms of their sexual orientation. Social life was pursued in the bars, or on the streets. So when that letter arrived at the Willamette Bridge, I looked at it and thought, "This really personifies what so many gay people and lesbian people experience."
Holly Hart, Willamette Bridge staff writer: Somebody decided they were going to reject it. And then John, at an editorial meeting I was present at, said, "Wait a minute, let's look at this. Look what this is really addressing."
Wilkinson: This wasn't a sex ad—or maybe it was; certainly, there's no reason that couldn't have been part of it—but the headline that young man had chosen, "gay and lonely," really struck me as being a cry. And that's why I wrote that article in response.
Hart: So I'm at this editorial meeting. [John] says he's starting a Gay Liberation chapter. I was not out yet. I did not have any experience socially as a lesbian except for a couple of, like, fumbling encounters with a woman friend. And so the way I came out was to say at that editorial meeting, "John, I will be glad to join you in starting this Gay Liberation chapter!"
Steve Fulmer, activist: I went to some of those first meetings right after I arrived [from Chicago], and that was my very first encounter with the very concept of gay liberation. I hadn't really thought even of Stonewall in those terms. That didn't happen until I came to Portland and attended a Gay Liberation Front meeting.
Hart: I think what John and I did was a catalyst kind of thing. We definitely did the kickoff. We were the first ones going around talking on Portland morning TV shows, talking to the editorial board of The Oregon Journal, talking to church groups.
Wilkinson: I wouldn't describe myself as an activist. It's kind of funny, in retrospect, to be mentioned and honored in so many ways when so many other people did the real work. It's a little embarrassing for me.
Several other groups formed in the wake of Portland Gay Liberation, including Second Foundation. In addition to publishing the gay newspaper The Fountain and opening the city's first queer community center, the organization's indoor LGBTQ dances were the precursor to outdoor Pride events.
Fulmer: They were super on the cheap. Most of them were in the Pythian or the Odd Fellows—fraternal order kind of places that would just about let anybody book that would pay the fee. They'd get a temporary permit for beer, and that was it. Being engaged in something that was billed as celebratory was significant. It was part of participating in something that was going on in other cities—a national consciousness. I was aware of all that. But it felt a lot like a big disco, which was really cool because we didn't have anything much like that—nothing that large.
After a few years of legal successes and near-misses—including the narrow failure of Oregon's first gay rights bill—the first outdoor Pride event is held in the downtown Park Blocks near Portland State University, an LGBTQ arts fair and rally sponsored by lobbying group the Portland Town Council, with about 200 people attending.
Susie Shepherd, Portland Town Council board member: Boy, it seemed like a million people to me. Obviously, it wasn't, but seeing more than five gay people together was a million back then.
George Nicola, activist and GLAPN volunteer: It was kind of amazing seeing all these people outside, because typically we're indoors.
Shepherd: The woman I was seeing at the time was extremely closeted. She said, "I can't have you coming out publicly. It would ruin me professionally." I walked the edge of the closet door, as it were, for a really long time, like months and months and months. So when Portland had its first Pride celebration, I wanted to participate. I'd written a couple of little gay rights ditties, so I played them on my accordion and sang my little songs. And it was so empowering just being with a bunch of gay people and doing that. But the irony—and so symbolic of the time—was, as I was doing that, my partner was riding around the block in her car, so that the minute I was done, I jumped into the car and she drove me off back into the closet.
Finally, Portland's has its first gay civil rights march, going from the Park Blocks to Waterfront Park. It's organized by six activists, among them Kathleen Saadat, who goes on to hold several positions of government in Oregon and become a leader in Portland's African American community. Once again, about 200 people participate, but this time, those outside the gay community take notice.
Kathleen Saadat: There were lots of people who were really frightened. Part of it was a fear of what would happen if we got visible. What we call the "Turn or Burn" guys came up. These are evangelical Christians with a 6-foot-tall sign that says, "Turn or Burn." And they kept following us and baiting us, and we kept walking, determined.
Fulmer: It was just so reminiscent of the anti-war [marches] then, because there were chants: "Two, four, six, eight. Gay is just as good as straight!" "Three, five, seven, nine. Lesbian is mighty fine!" Very, very in your face. I wouldn't use the word "angry" but it was definitely a protest in that sense. And all the speeches were kind of shouted.
Hart: I was not out in the street marching. What I was interested in doing was walking alongside on the sidewalk among spectators, ordinary Portland people. When you're in the middle of a march, you don't necessarily realize what you look like to other people and how they're really reacting. I don't exactly remember who I talked to afterward among the activists, but I gave people my impressions. The goal is to make people feel like gay men and women are all around you and just like you. And people can't get a sense of you as being individuals when you're a phalanx marching down the street.
In 1977, then-Mayor Neil Goldschmidt formally issued a proclamation for Gay Pride Week. Today, Pride draws thousands to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. But those who were there at the beginning have mixed feelings about how it's evolved.
Shepherd: It's too bad if people are making money off us that way, but we have to keep being out there. Because there is always somebody attending their first Pride. There's always somebody who finally said no to suicide and yes to coming out. There's always somebody who has driven up from Salem, Klamath Falls, Baker, Prineville, where they can come to Portland and, for one day, feel part of something bigger than themselves, just like I did at that small gay pride thing back in '75.
Saadat: It's turned into a party rather than a march. I went down to the waterfront, right after the Pride parade, and I sat there and I started to cry. I thought, "You know, you are part of this, this is very, very wonderful." At the same time, it's very, very sad. Where is the part that talks about the politics? You had everybody there, you had people singing, eating, dancing, selling things, everything from balloons to real estate. I think all that's wonderful. But if they don't know why this started in the first place, I am not sure the celebration is gonna carry us through.
MORE: Kathleen Saadat, Holly Hart, Susie Shepherd and others will discuss LGBTQ activism at Kennedy School's History Pub, 5736 NE 33rd Ave., on Monday, June 24. 7 pm. Free. All ages.
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