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HOW THE OREGON LGBT MOVEMENT WAS BORN

Written by George T. Nicola
Last revised July 30, 2013

Gay Young LonelyThe late 1960s and early 1970 were times of enormous change in once staid Portland, Oregon. Although the city had a somewhat liberal tradition, it had remained a socially conservative and moralistic community.

A major challenge to this started with the movement against the Vietnam War. One of the focal points of this was a small newspaper called the Willamette Bridge. “The Bridge” also supported other reform movements such as modern feminism. Its office was located on the southeast corner of W Burnside and SW 6th Avenue, a site now occupied by US Bancorp Tower.

In February of 1970, a young man attempted to place a classified ad in that newspaper. The proposed ad read: “Gay, longhair, young, lonely, seeks meaningful relationship with same. Answer with ad in the Bridge."

The newspaper refused the ad, just as it rejected any ad it felt was sexual, regardless of sexual orientation. But a 21-year-old openly gay staff member named John Wilkinson disagreed with their decision. John chose to respond to the young man with a letter in the newspaper. He suggested that what was really needed was for gay people to get to know each other in a less secretive, more open way. He proposed the formation of something like the Gay Liberation Front that had just been organized in New York City the previous summer. “It’s up to us, now, to gain the courage to live our lives as we are, without fear, but with openness and excitement.” He ended his letter “I hope to see answers from lots of people in the mail, because there should be very few of us who aren’t reflected in this ad: gay and lonely.”

John WilkinsonThe fact that any Oregonian would state in the media that they were gay was quite courageous at that time. It struck a chord with numerous people who knew they were gay, but had never met other gay people, and who were overwhelmed by society’s anti-gay attitudes.

The positive response John received prompted him to call a community meeting. The first one had very little attendance, so he called a second meeting. It was there that John met Dave Davenport, who would become his life partner.  That meeting drew about 40 gay men and lesbians.

Early in this process, Bridge staff member Holly Hart, who had been writing feminist articles, came out as a lesbian. She called upon her women’s movement organizing experience to help advance Portland’s fledgling gay movement. With that, the Portland Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was born.  It would be the first gay political organization in Oregon. 

Holly HartUp until that time, it was very difficult to find literature that was positive about homosexuality. Although the city of Portland was no longer attempting to close all gay bars, there was no easy way those wanting to come out could locate them. Gays were publicly demonized. Oregon was still one of 49 states whose laws effectively criminalized homosexual conduct.

So when the Willamette Bridge began publishing numerous positive articles about gay people, by local out gay people, it was quite a change. Most the articles were written by John, Dave, and Holly.  Holly wrote some articles under her own name, and others other female pen names.  She was concerned that other lesbians would not participate if they thought that only one woman was involved in the movement.   

In the summer of 1970, well publicized meetings with a published address were held two nights a week at the Ninth Street Exit coffeehouse located in SE Portland’s Centenary-Wilbur Methodist Church. Initially they drew huge groups of people. This atmosphere allowed gays to meet other gays to discuss their lives. Also published were phone numbers where those coming out could speak to others who already had. A speakers’ bureau was arranged so that groups could invite gay men and lesbians to talk to them about their lifestyles.

Holly went on to law school, then came back to head Governor Robert Straub’s Commission on Gay Civil Rights. She also established Old Wives’ Tales Restaurant, a family-friendly community favorite still going strong today.

John and Dave eventually moved to Seattle to help John’s aging mother. There, the couple helped start Washington State’s marriage equality movement in 1995. In fact, the marriage equality group Legal Marriage Alliance was founded in their living room. John and Dave kept up their efforts until 2012 when same sex marriage was legalized through Referendum 74. The couple wed in December of 2012, 42 years after they had met while organizing the Portland GLF.

Eventually the Portland Gay Liberation Front was replaced by other groups which were different yet effective in their own ways. But the Portland GLF was the parent of the strong Oregon lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement we have today.  Over the next four plus decades, thousands of Oregonians  of all sexual and gender identities, and in many different organizations, worked for LGBT  equality and dignity. But special recognition must be given to the Portland Gay Liberation Front and its pioneering founders for opening the closet door.

In June, 2012, John Wilkinson and Holly Hart were named among the Queer Heroes NW by GLAPN and Q Center, as part of their celebration of PRIDE 2012. Read more about John and Holly here.

 

 

 

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