Read4: Coming Out

Although a semi-public queer life thrived in Seattle’s underground bars in Pioneer Square from the 1930s through the 1960s, it was not until the mid-1960s that a different sort of conversation began among the city’s LGBTQ citizens. In new organizations like the Dorian Society, they would begin to talk to one another in ways they had not done before — pursuing rituals of organizing to present a new public face to the city. These excerpts are from Chapter Seven, “Roberts Rules of Order and Gay Liberation.”

Shortly after MacIver Wells began his resistance against the police in late 1965, several gay men in Seattle received an invitation to the Roosevelt Hotel downtown. A gay activist from San Francisco, Hal Call, wondered if they would be interested in meeting; he had gotten their names from a subscription list of a national magazine for homosexuals called “One.”

By that time, gay men in most other cities on the West and East Coasts had already created social clubs to meet in homes, rather than bars, and to talk delicately about gaining civil rights protections. The Mattachine Society in Los Angeles was the most famous of the organizations, and, in other places like New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, similar groups had affiliated as chapters. They avoided the word “homosexual” in their titles for fear that no one would join otherwise.

The first attempt to start a chapter of Mattachine in Washington state appears to have been made in Tacoma, rather than Seattle. There, in 1959, a gay man named John Eccles began corresponding with Don Lucas, Mattachine’s secretary-general in San Francisco, telling Lucas the organization was the “answer for my life’s calling” which was to “show the reality of the homosexual problem in our society, to instigate a more understanding and sympathetic attitude in society.” Eccles, who was gay but had actually married and was blessed with both a supportive wife and parents, started a small discussion group in his home, with attendance ranging from three to ten. He also began corresponding with Dr. John Marks, the president of the Washington State Psychological Association, eventually persuading Marks to let him and Lucas address the WSPA’s convention in Tacoma in May, 1960.  “I make no plea for the homosexual to be honored as a special breed or a third sex,” Eccles told the psychologists, “to be the repository of most of the world’s artistic talent, or to be permitted any special moral licentiousness. There is . . . as wide a range of temperaments and character among homosexuals as in the population at large.” He continued, “It is unfair and unfounded to assume that homosexuals as a whole are inclined to importune, initiate or seduce individuals.” He urged the psychologists to support legal reforms and even began collecting names of those who would be helpful. “Our primary job,” he concluded,  “is not to glorify or apologize for homosexuality, but to understand it and to make it understood.”

That would become the cry of gay activists in the 1960s. If homosexuality was a disease, as the American Psychiatric Association said, then homosexuals at least wanted to promote understanding of the disease.

Eccles’ efforts in the Northwest ended shortly after 1960, though, when he moved to Los Angeles and became a vice president of Mattachine there.

In Seattle, the start of a civil rights organization languished, partly because the police tolerance system protected socializing in the bars. Thanks to the 1958 injunction MacIver Wells had won, harassment was minimal as long as the police were paid. There were no highly public bar raids such as routinely occurred in other cities, and so there simply did not seem to be as much need to organize.

Among the gay men who received Hal Call’s invitation to come to the Roosevelt and discuss setting up a chapter of Mattachine was Nicholas Heer. He had just arrived in Seattle to assume a new teaching job at the University of Washington, coming from New York where he had already belonged to Mattachine. He had also been active in gay clubs in Philadelphia and Boston, and although  new to Seattle, he felt strong enough in his own identity as a homosexual to help fill the obvious local gap. The Roosevelt meeting was held December 3, 1965, according to Herr, who decades later still kept his old appointment books. After the introductory meeting, three months passed and then men who were still interested gathered at the Rev. Mineo Katagiri’s office at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill on March 8, 1966. That was to be the formal start of gay civil rights organizing in Seattle…

For the first year, Heer and other gay men met informally in Katagiri’s office and at homes on Capitol Hill. Heer’s university connections gave the group a distinctly academic feeling. He invited another new U.W. teacher, Martin Gouterman, who in turn, eventually called his friend, Sheldon Daniels, whom he had known when both were chemistry students at the University of Chicago eight years earlier. By June 1966, both Gouterman and Daniels were teaching chemistry at U.W.

On January 22, 1967, just a few weeks after the story of the police scandal broke in the Seattle Times, the informal meetings became distinctly more serious. One member brought out a hardbound gray ledger and began to take minutes. The group voted to rent a post office box and decided to launch a newsletter. Within a week they were pondering how to incorporate, an issue that always led to the dilemma of what words homosexuals should use in public to describe their new organizations. Should the title include the word “homosexual” — since the purpose of the organization, after all, was to promote understanding and tolerance? Or should the name be deliberately vague so that homosexuals themselves would not feel as awkward about joining? They decided not to affiliate with Mattachine. Someone suggested the acronym “HIS,” for “Homophiles in Seattle,” but then another man pointed out that using “homophile” might be “prejudicial” and scare people away.

Gouterman proposed the eventual solution. He suggested they call themselves the “Dorian Society.” It was a coded reference, academically obscure but symbolically pregnant. The Dorians had been Hellenic warriors who invaded Greece about 1100 B.C., eventually mingling with other Greeks but retaining their own rituals and dialect, moving within many different cultures–much as gay men and women did. One famous sex researcher, Havelock Ellis, had reported that the Dorians considered homosexuality a virtue. The word “Doric” also contained a popular image, its architectural meaning referring to a simple straightforwardly phallic column, a contrast to the profligate, licentious and frilly Corinthian style. Buried in the coded name, in other words, was a whole self-identity being offered in contrast to the stereotypes of the red light district on the mud flat. The name was also dryly humorous. You had to think a bit in order to “get it,” Gouterman said. Years later, he remembered why he had made the suggestion.  “It had this kind of Greek flavor,” he said, emphasizing the word Greek,  glancing down with an impish smile like a professor waiting for a student to get the joke. “And Doric columns  were nice too,” he added, putting particular emphasis on the word “columns.”

Although Nick Heer would be Dorian’s first president, he would not be the first public spokesman. Indicative of the state of homosexual men in Seattle at that time, none of the organizers were ready to risk a too-public face. Instead, the Rev. Katagiri would be the friendly heterosexual ally talking to the newspapers and eventually at the public hearing in fall 1966 to city officials. A Japanese-American who had moved to Seattle from Honolulu in 1959, Katagiri had been asked by his denomination, the United Church of Christ, to launch a street ministry in Seattle. That had inevitably brought him into contact with the gay men who frequented Pioneer Square.

His defense of gay bars at a City Council hearing [on licensing gay bars] in November 1966 reflected his meetings with Heer, Gouterman, Daniels and others. It is easy to see whom he had in mind when he told the council members, “We will need to help the responsible [homosexuals] take over ‘power positions’ in the gay community and set standards of conduct. It is their hand we must help strengthen. This is not easy because many have responsible jobs and can ill-afford  exposure as homosexuals . . . .  They feel deeply the fact that they cannot live openly and honestly as homosexuals.”

That became the Dorian Society’s first “sound bite”–the core of the first  rhetoric intended to persuade the city’s heterosexuals to listen to its homosexuals. If gays in Seattle were to forge new public identities, heterosexuals needed to provide the space and support for undertaking the quest. The promised payoff: homosexuals who acted more respectably. The Dorians’ constitution and bylaws echoed the message. While they proposed to reform the sodomy law and to promote the “legal, social, psychological, and medical welfare of homosexuals,” they also promised “to encourage socially responsible conduct by all members of the homosexual community.”

That could be a Faustian bargain–the kind of schizophrenic demand that seemed to have so invaded the image and perhaps even psyche of Frances Farmer 30 years earlier. It did, after all, leave the definition of respectability to heterosexuals. And what did vaudeville, drag, the underground bars, and the steam baths–not to mention homosexual sex itself–have to do with heterosexual respectability? The Dorian mission, forged by a minister and by academics at the University of Washington, seemed to call for an oddly sanitized image of the local homosexual, far removed from the experiences of mud flat survival.

Doug Wyman, another man who attended the original meeting with Hal Call and then others with Katagiri, remembered some of the first reactions to the formation of the Dorian Society. “The bars were really down on any kind of organization because we were going to rock the boat,” he said.

The tension over respectability seems to have also appeared in the decision to start Seattle’s first publication for homosexuals. Tentatively named the Dorian Pillars, the newsletter was to be “suitable for public reading, ” according to the minutes of January 22, 1967, but also to contain “news for local people.” Since news might well address drag shows, bar events, dances, and even the sodomy arrests that were part of the homosexual experience in Seattle, there was an immediate conflict in the mission. Later minutes about the mimeographed newsletter note: “Decided to keep the tone high at first.”

The Dorians also decided to beware of associating too closely with the anti-Vietnam and student movements then beginning in Seattle. An alternative newspaper called the Helix had begun and when its editors asked whether the homosexual organization might want a column, the Dorians pondered and then decided no. The July 1968 minutes noted: “Do we want [a] column in their paper? Dorian does not want to become associated with the ‘hippie’ movement.”

Two other decisions were also critical. On May 5, 1967, Nick Heer raised a question about confidentiality and secrecy: “Should pseudonyms be used in letters and communications?” The proposition was adopted unanimously and for the next year, even the minutes carried only the members’ initials. In their public communications, each Dorian used a false name. Heer became “James Macalpine,” using his mother’s maiden name. Gouterman became “Paul Horton”; Daniels, “Gordon Stark.” Although the founders believed the secrecy was necessary to avoid police harassment, the pseudonyms, combined with the rather academic reference to Hellenic Greeks, created an air of closeted elitism for the Society.

The other crucial communication decision was about how to conduct the business of the new group. Socializing in bars and participating in vaudeville had produced certain gay rituals of communication, but until the Dorians, homosexuals in Seattle had never really gathered with one another in task-oriented organizations ruled through by-laws. It was really quite a new undertaking. How to organize internally for actions to be taken publicly would be an important building block in exploring and then projecting a new identity.

The Society settled on using Robert’s Rules of Order, the traditional parliamentary procedure for making decisions by presenting and seconding motions, calling the question, and then allowing the majority vote to rule. On the one hand, it was an obvious choice. To gain a respected face, one should mimic the conduct of business in respectable heterosexual organizations. But was it really an appropriate choice? Until then, the primary way homosexuals had communicated with one another had been within an informal oral culture. Rituals of gossip, of challenging the accepted order and accepted styles of dressing, of resisting–these were the communication strengths of those living on the margins of an urban society. Not surprisingly then, even this simple choice of how to conduct business would later become  a very serious point of contention.

But, at first, the Rules gave the Dorians their best public relations coup.

“The meeting seemed remarkably ordinary.”  So began Ruth Wolf’s story in Seattle magazine in November, 1967.

Ordinary. Not since the passage of the sodomy law in 1893 had anyone considered anything about Seattle’s homosexuals to be “ordinary.”  Even a plain choice of a word could be a rhetorical triumph….  “The routine was like that at a gathering of Young Republicans . . .  Minutes of the last meeting were read and approved, new members were voted on, old business was discussed. Everything, in short, went according to Robert’s Rules of Order.”

“The men who gathered together on that warm evening were well-educated, bright and, in the main, articulate..  . . . There were no limp wrists, no girlish giggles.  Nevertheless, the entire group was composed of practicing homosexuals.”

Again, the choice of word seemed important: “nevertheless.” Wolf had opened her story with the exact contrast the Dorians wanted to promote: the difference between the profligate, frilly “Corinthian” homosexuals of Pioneer Square and the Doric orderliness of Robert’s Rules. Her article was  full of the language of psychiatry: homosexuality was caused, Freudian-style, by “the family constellation [resulting] from an abnormal relationship with one or both parents.” It was, according to “outstanding authorities in the field…a disease.” However, it was the startling cover of the magazine that everyone would remember. A photograph showed a handsome and serious young man, looking not at all diseased, dressed conservatively in a blazer, vest and creased pants. He sat in a leather swivel chair. By his side was an attaché case. He pressed his left hand thoughtfully

Seattle Magazine cover, 1967

against his chin. He had been photographed from the front  so that his face was fully visible and in full light. He was even set against a plain white background; no shadows suggested any hiding. The headline read:

This is Peter Wichern.

He is a local businessman.

He is a homosexual.

For the first time, the Seattle public could see the actual face of a homosexual and read his actual name. He looked respectable. Only two visual hints suggested Wichern was any different from a heterosexual male. The most obvious was that beneath his otherwise ordinary blazer, he wore a bright red vest. The subtler hint was that the camera angled down at him, rather than being set at eye level or aimed upward. It was an angle more typically reserved at the time for photographing women rather than businessmen. It made Wichern seem boyishly unthreatening–another set of dual messages that, on the one hand, moved the public conversation about homosexuals in Seattle forward while assuring heterosexuals that they did not need to flee the parlor.

Copyright 2003 University of Washington Press

 

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