Last edited: December 05, 2004

Pioneering Dallas Gay-Rights Activist Donald Baker Dies

Dallas Morning News, December 2, 2000
Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265
Fax: 972-263-0456

By Holly Warren, The Dallas Morning News

Donald F. Baker spent much of his life fighting for equal rights for gays and lesbians in Dallas.

Mr. Baker, 53, died Friday morning at his Boston home after a seven-year battle with cancer.

A Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady Help of All Christians Catholic Church in Boston. A Dallas memorial service will be celebrated Dec. 9 at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. The time for that service is pending.

His influence extended beyond Dallas. In 1979, Mr. Baker was the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Texas law against sodomy. The case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, but the justices refused to hear the appeal. The Texas law is still on the books but is rarely enforced.

Dr. Louise Young, a longtime Dallas lesbian activist, said she met Mr. Baker in 1977 when she joined the Dallas Gay Political Caucus, now the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. She said she could clearly remember the first time she heard him speak.

"I was just struck by his charisma," Dr. Young said. "He was very articulate and very committed."

She said she was also struck by his courage, especially when he was faced with threats and public scrutiny while challenging the Texas law.

"He did it with grace and resolve," Dr. Young said. "He was a sea of calm."

Mr. Baker had been in the media spotlight before. He was teaching at Daniel Webster Elementary School in 1977 when school Superintendent Nolan Estes announced that there were no gay teachers in Dallas schools. Mr. Baker appeared in silhouette on television, announcing his sexual orientation and his position with the district.

Dr. Young said that was a brave step because of public views toward gays and lesbians at the time.

"He was one of the most courageous people I have ever known," she said.

Dr. Young said she and Mr. Baker, who are the same age, often spoke about how the 1960s and the civil-rights movement had shaped them.

"He fervently believed in the cause, and by the cause I mean equal rights under the law. ... He was willing to go to any means ... to further the cause of equal-rights justice."

But his path with that cause was not always a clear one. Mr. Baker was raised Pentecostal and hated himself for years because he was gay, said Michael Hartwig, his life companion.

During that time, Mr. Baker had a "religious zeal" that he later used to help gays and lesbians gain acceptance, Mr. Hartwig said.

"He spent himself trying to create opportunities for other people," he said.

Born in Dallas in 1947, Mr. Baker graduated from W.H. Adamson High School and attended several Texas colleges before joining the Navy in 1968. After his discharge in 1972, he studied education at State University of New York. He returned to Dallas and began teaching at Daniel Webster Elementary and earned a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University.

He later took a job as director of training and development at Gerber Garment Technology and was transferred to Connecticut in 1989 to manage that department. He moved again, this time to Boston, to take a position as the director of training and development at Vinfen Corp. Early this year, he enrolled as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.

He started the now-defunct Community Productions, a company that brought gay performers to Dallas. He organized the first conference conducted with religious and gay leaders in 1978.

Dr. Young said that Mr. Baker was the inspiration for Finding Our Voice: The Dallas Gay and Lesbian Community, a KERA-TV (Channel 13) documentary on the growth of Dallas’ gay and lesbian community. The show won a Katie award from the Press Club of Dallas this year for television documentary.

From 1980 to 1982, Mr. Baker was president of the Dallas Gay Political Caucus. The New York Native recognized him in 1982 as one of America’s 10 most influential gay people. He received the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Alliance’s Texas Freedom Award in 1984 and the Human Rights Campaign’s Outstanding Citizen Award in 1985.

Along with Mr. Hartwig, Mr. Baker is survived by his parents, Mable and J.W. Hartwig of Kemp; and four sisters, Linda King of Arlington, Margaret Watt of Denton, Judi Baker of Albuquerque, N.M., and Carol Holt of Midlothian.

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