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The Gay Rights Movement and the City of Seattle during the 1970s


During the decade of the 1970s, gay rights issues repeatedly found their way onto the municipal agenda. At the decade's start, members of the city's gay constituency began developing a public profile after decades of life hidden from public view. The social tumults of the late 1960s in general - and the battle cry of homosexual rights sounded in the Stonewall (New York City) riots of 1969 particularly - inspired a confident sense of activism among many Seattleites. Interest groups like the Dorian Society, Seattle Gay Alliance, and the Lesbian Resource Center mobilized this exuberance, and turned it towards gaining new legal recognitions of their rights as municipal citizens.

Concentrated on the area surrounding the modern Capitol Hill neighborhood, these groups formed a core around which a constellation of gay-centered businesses and establishments grew, initiating the area's long-standing reputation as the center of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) life in Seattle. The Dorians, for example, founded the Seattle Counseling Service for Sexual Minorities in a residential area near 15th Ave E., one of the first support centers of its kind in the country. Even the 'drag' community of cross-dressers and female impersonators, once fiercely underground for its own safety, began to occupy public spaces in clubs and bars, and after 1971 elected an annual "Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle" to act as its symbolic leadership.

In addition to a place to live, work, and play, this mobilization enabled gay and lesbian activists to gain a new prominence in City politics. Spurred on by widespread police harassment, gay rights proponents continually agitated for increased protection against discrimination to be incorporated into municipal law. The first opportunity came in 1973, when City Councilmember Jeanette Williams introduced a proposed revision of the city's Fair Employment Practices Ordinance that would prohibit job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Williams, a gay rights advocate and early sponsor of the Seattle Women's Commission, gradually garnered sufficient support for the revision from fellow council-members and Mayor Wes Uhlman. On September 10, the new ordinance was passed 8 to 1. This episode was momentous not only for the protections gained against job discrimination, but for the historic introduction of sexual orientation into Seattle's legal record. Organized gays and lesbians became legitimized actors within the City's political constellation.

By 1975, activist groups were continuing to press for legal protections similar to those in the Fair Employment Practices Ordinance. The Dorian Group, a loose organization of prominent gay businessmen and activists led by Charlie Brydon, proposed a revision of the city's Open Housing Ordinance that would make it illegal for landlords and home sellers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, much as it already was on the grounds of race. Sponsored by frequent Dorian Group ally Councilmember, the revised ordinance was introduced to heated debate that lasted for over a month, with strong opposition by the Seattle Apartment Operator's Association clashing against proponents like the Seattle Gay Alliance's Tim Mayhew.

After Mayor Uhlman's announcement that he would sign the law if it reached his desk, the ordinance was eventually passed on August 4, though by a tenuous 5 to 4 vote. The responsibility for monitoring and enforcing compliance with both the Open Housing and Fair Employment ordinances rested with the Office for Women's Rights, which would fill the role of organizational advocate for LGBT rights within City government through the 1970s.

Continuing legal victories in the City Council paralleled Seattle's jubilant new celebration of an annual Gay Pride Week. Started in the summer of 1973, the events surrounding Pride Week were growing larger and better attended, culminating in the first Gay Pride March that was scheduled for 1977. Mayor Uhlman, encouraged by a close political relationship with Charlie Brydon, chose to commemorate the parade with a historic first, officially declaring June 25 to July 1 to be Gay Pride Week in the City of Seattle. Local opponents of gay rights were incensed by this, which appeared to them to be clear evidence of the Mayor's endorsement of what they viewed as the 'amoral' homosexual lifestyle. Reactions ranged from letter-writing campaigns to published threats of recall to picketing outside City Hall. Uhlman's ceremonial acceptance of the LGBT community, nevertheless, resulted in an outpouring of support for the embattled Mayor, and gave added significance to the Pride proceedings of that year.

This run of prominent successes was certainly noticed by conservative-minded elements in Seattle, who banded together to aggressively challenge LGBT legal protections during 1978. The organization Save Our Moral Ethics (SOME), founded by Seattle Police officers David Estes and Dennis Falk, spearheaded a successful signature drive to place an initiative on the November ballot giving voters the choice to remove 'sexual orientation' from the text of the Fair Employment and Open Housing ordinances.

As part of a nationwide conservative reaction to gay activism's political triumphs, SOME operated among a wave of anti-gay initiative campaigns, supported politically and financially by conservative activist Anita Bryant's Save Our Children group. By late 1978, the first of these efforts proved successful, limiting protections in Miami, Wichita, and St. Paul-Minneapolis. Anxious to prevent a similar defeat, gay and lesbian activists quickly rallied in opposition to the upcoming Initiative 13, as it was known. The most prominent of the anti-Initiative associations was Charlie Brydon's Citizens to Retain Fair Employment, which organized an array of fund-raising and promotional activities aimed at educating the public on the perils of rolling back discrimination protections.

Following months of demonstrations, debates, and heated rhetoric from both sides, the Initiative 13 proposal was put to a vote on November 7. To the surprise of many, it was defeated by 63 per cent to 37. Coming a day before the defeat of the similarly-themed 'Briggs Initiative' in California, the vote was hailed by many activists as a heartening rejection of the resurgent anti-gay sentiment represented by groups like SOME and Save Our Children. Not all the news was positive that month, however, as Harvey Milk, San Francisco City Supervisor and the nation's first openly gay elected official, was slain by disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White only a few weeks following the victory.

After Initiative 13, the LGBT community ceased to pose any issues of citywide importance for several years. By 1983, however, the growing public awareness of AIDS' devastating impact upon Seattle's gays prompted a program of surveillance and education by the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, as well as further debate on what else should be done. This crisis ultimately overshadowed the great strides previously made in political representation, though the community mobilization of that decade would prove valuable in the fight against the epidemic. By the close of the 1970s, the LGBT community could no longer be ignored within the centers of municipal power. Seattle's sexual minorities had taken their place as vibrant members of Seattle's civil society.