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Read more about the October 23, 2010 gathering at Q Center here.

OUR STORIES: FINDING OUR VOICE – THE 1970’S

Presentation given by George Nicola on
October 23, 2010 at Q Center, Portland, OR

In very early 1970, I was probably like most other young gay men of the time.  I knew since puberty my gay orientation.  But I was afraid to tell anybody because being homosexual was so taboo. 

I tried to find gay bars, but I was unsuccessful.  There were no supportive organizations.  Positive literature was almost nonexistent.

\TriangleSo you can imagine my relief when I picked up a newspaper called the Willamette Bridge and read a column by an openly gay man named John Wilkinson.  Our opportunities for interactions were limited, he wrote.  We really needed to organize a group like the Gay Liberation Front that had been launched a few months earlier in New York City. 

John didn’t stop there.  He started to call meetings to organize people.  He was soon joined by Dave Davenport, who became his partner for life, and by Holly Hart.  They used the Willamette Bridge to post numerous articles that spoke positively of gayness.  They wrote about the harm caused by homophobia. 

It took me a while to contact John.  I finally did in May, when I met him by accident at an antiwar protest.  I became a gay activist because I did not want to live my life in a world as overwhelming homophobic as it was at that time.      

There had been previous attempts at organizing Portland men and women who had identified as gay or lesbian.  They never got off the ground.  So the new Portland Gay Liberation Front was the first Portland group that in any way openly represented us. 

There are people who think that advances in human dignity and justice will somehow just happen.  But there is no sure course in human events.  Anyone who thinks that the wheels of history steer inevitably in the direction of justice should visit their local Holocaust museum.  Progress in the way we treat each other occurs only when insightful men and women realize that the future does not have to be the same as the past, and are willing to take the risks to make changes for the better. 

There were two parts of the early gay movement.  The first involved dignity.  We cannot force others to treat us with respect.  However, we can educate people and hope that those of good intension will eventually recognize our common humanity. So we did a lot of talking to groups.  But we also had to help people overcome a lifetime of internalized self-loathing imposed upon them by a pervasively homophobic society. 

We have a unique condition in that we are an invisible minority.  We have to get straight people to realize that we really do exist, that we are their family, neighbors, coworkers, and friends.  If we are being hurt, someone they love is probably being hurt.  If we need their help, someone they love probably needs their help.  That is why coming out to our loved ones is so important. 

The second part of our movement involved legal rights.  By 1972, Oregon no longer outlawed non- commercial private consensual adult homosexuality.  But we could still be fired from our jobs or denied housing. 

I first started lobbying for gay civil rights through the Second Foundation of Oregon, a gay group that followed the Gay Liberation Front.  The first person with any influence who gave me support was Gladys McCoy.  She happened to be the first African American elected to office in Oregon.  She had been raised in the segregated South.  Shortly after I got her support, she was berated by some public official for defending our rights.  She responded she could not ask for her rights as an African American if she did not support rights for gays. 

The second person who gave strong support was Vera Katz, who was running for the Oregon House for the first time.  I only found out recently that she was a child living in France when the Nazis seized the country.  As a Jew, they had to flee for their lives.  So with her parents and sister, she walked on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.

The third supporter was Gretchen Kafoury, one of Oregon’s pioneering feminists at a time when women’s rights were very limited.

So the three people who initially supported my efforts also were people who had experienced discrimination and bigotry themselves. 

Gretchen went to Salem to lobby for women’s rights.  She took me with her to show me how to lobby for the first bill to ban sexual orientation discrimination. 

With the help of Vera, Gretchen, and Gretchen’s husband at that time, Steve Kafoury, we were able to get 17 sponsors.  The bill failed by just 2 votes short of a majority.  But the process helped launch our movement into the mainstream of Oregon politics.

Throughout this process, the people that helped were almost entirely heterosexual. Yet many took our issue as if it was their own.  Clearly that was because they were good people who were able to empathize with the condition of others.  But I also think they understood that if other good people are for any reason marginalized and demonized, society as a whole is the biggest loser.   

The most efficient societies realize that they run most smoothly when all good people feel they belong; where they have a stake.  So when we fight prejudice and discrimination, everyone gains because the whole community reaps the benefit of every person's contributions.  We see each other as neighbors who can help each other rather than as members of some alien tribe to be feared and shunned.  

An excellent example of that is panel member Jean DeMaster whose four decades of social services work has improved the lives of countless Portlanders.  If all of those people in need had shunned Jean because they thought that a lesbian was evil or dangerous, thousands of people would have been deprived of the help they desperately needed.  

In our efforts to get the first Oregon gay civil rights law passed, we received two very supportive newspaper editorials.  We also got an amazing statement from the state’s psychiatric association saying that equal rights for homosexuals would be in the best interests of mental health.  The high point of our legislative process was the committee hearing when Rita Knapp, a minister’s wife, eloquently spoke up for her lesbian daughter Kristen. 

After the failure of that first bill, we continued to gather support for our movement, including quite a bit of television coverage.  I worked in the gay movement for many years without pay when I finally realized I needed to get a regular job.  That was not easy to do if I continued to have my name and image all over the media.  So I dropped out of the movement in 1974. 

Others who had not been more directly involved stepped in to continue the work.  As time went on, more people came forward.  The movement became increasingly larger, more sophisticated, more professional, and better financed.  A nondiscrimination bill was introduced in every legislative session for 34 years.  In 2007, through the effort of Basic Rights Oregon, our state finally passed a law that banned both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. 

It’s really not possible to talk about many of the important details.  So I have recently been narrating my experiences in writing.  At this point, I have completed three articles with much more detail.  They can be sound at glapn.org under the link PNW Queer History. 

The struggle for our rights has been grueling.  It’s certainly not over.  But I am grateful that in the past 40 years, thousands of Oregonians of all sexual orientations have made great efforts and taken considerable risk to make this a place where it is more comfortable to be gay. 

It gives me faith that despite all the flaws in human nature, there is still a fundamental decency that can be tapped.  I am reminded of this by a recent letter written by a group of 18 Beaverton parents protesting their school district’s removal of student teacher Seth Stambaugh.  Seth was dismissed after responding to a student question honestly by telling them he is gay.  The district’s action, these parent wrote, sends a message to their children “that some people are more equal than others and that identifying those differences can lead to expulsion.”

The letter’s request asking that Seth be “unconditionally reinstated to our children’s classrooms without delay” did not go unheeded.  Seth has now been rehired.  

Congratulations to Seth.  And happy 40th birthday to Portland’s LGBT movement.

 

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