Read_Creating Marketplaces

These excerpts, about the LGBT need to create a culture of commerce in order to build a stronger LGBT community and change laws, are from Chapter 15 in “Gay Seattle” : “On Broadway: Creating Markets and Parades”. 

On the November evening in 1978 when Initiative 13 was defeated, Jan Denali, the woman who sang with “LesBeFriends” and worked at the Little Bread collective, walked with the other SCAT and WAT marchers weaving through the drizzle on the downtown streets of Seattle. Denali led a quiet rhythm of victory, singing “Let us be like drops of water, falling on the stone.” Like many other gay liberation and lesbian feminists of the 1970s, Denali continued her political work into the 1980s. She, too, would become one of those lesbians who decided to create a new kind of family, linking with a gay male activist she met during the Initiative 13 campaign to birth and parent a child. Denali would later play another critical role in 1986, when, in a small replay of the Initiative 13 issue, conservatives launched a referendum to overturn a decision by the King County Council to adopt a similar job-protection law for the unincorporated areas around the city. Denali joined a grassroots effort to defeat the referendum before it ever got on the ballot, becoming one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that persuaded a court to strike the petitions because of their misleading rhetoric.

In the 1980s, Denali could still be found on the slopes of Renton Hill, but by then she had launched a new brand of gay political work, a kind of evolution from the old experiences at the woman’s coffeehouse, the Coffee Coven.  Here’s what she told a passerby one day: “My well-developed palate for coffee was important. What I particularly had to learn was how to operate the equipment. I’ve become an expert foam maker. You know, you have to foam up the milk.”

Denali had opened an espresso cart from which she dispensed lattes, cappuccinos and mochas–as well as a postum latte for those avoiding caffeine. “Everyone has their very special way they want their coffee made,” she told the Seattle Gay News. Denali named her cart “Espress Yourself” and in front of a Thriftway supermarket she joined another aspect of Seattle’s gay life: an openly homosexual business entrepreneur trading in a new time and a new marketplace.1

In the mid-1970s, a President’s Advisory Council on Minority Business Enterprises had observed that power in American society largely results from control over economic resources. Minorities, it had added, needed to claim that power.2 While the council had in mind spreading economic power to racial and ethnic groups, the maxim also applied to the wave of gays and lesbians now choosing public visibility in Seattle. The defeat of Initiative 13 had produced a climax for their political coming out. Although similar electoral battles erupted in subsequent decades –the one over the King County ordinance in the 1980s, for example, or over a statewide initiative to overturn city civil rights laws in the 1990s–the foundation for visibly engaging in Seattle’s political conversation had largely been laid by the end of the 1970s.

A separate, troublesome problem still needed to be dealt with.

While a political crisis could prompt outpourings of volunteer time and money, on a day-to-day basis the city’s homosexuals formed only a nascent community with almost no visible economic infrastructure at the end of the 1970s. The business underpinnings were meagerly limited to the gay and lesbian bars and sex businesses that inhabited Pioneer Square and to a small Capitol Hill corridor, also of bars and baths, that had begun to stretch up along Pike and Pine Streets. Agencies like the counseling service, Stonewall, the Gay Community Center, and the Lesbian Resource Center depended on friendly funding from government agencies or supportive heterosexual groups, such as the YWCA. The disappearance of that funding, either as a result of bigotry or budget cutting, often spelled demise. Both the original Stonewall and, eventually, the Gay Community Center, met that fate, and the LRC and the counseling service came quite close when the federal government, under President Reagan, ended a jobs program that had provided salaries for staff members.3 Although the feminist and radical politics of the 1970s had added a few gay-friendly bookstores and food co-ops to the business network, as a group Seattle’s homosexuals were largely without any reliable public network of independent wealth.

It was not that homosexuals as individuals necessarily lacked money. Compared with other more impoverished groups, gay men and women sometimes seemed a golden minority, assumed to be free of the burdens of paying for families. To some extent, the glitter that others saw came from the prejudice of defining homosexuality as limited to white middle-class males, conveniently ignoring working-class and poverty-stricken gays and lesbians. Yet, it was true that being in the closet could protect wallets as well as identities, and that was just the problem. Even if wealth were present among individuals, the money did little good if it stayed hidden. One academic who had studied economic development in minority communities, Ivan Light, would argue during the 1980s that those groups which fared best developed their own entrepreneurs who felt, he said, “embedded” in supporting the community. Such business owners, he argued, would actively participate in a web where they exchanged information and supported community goals. In turn, the community members would consciously “buy Korean” or “buy Japanese” or “buy gay”. Together, the entrepreneurs and the consumers could promote social change through business.4

The challenge, then, was to become a public community of commerce as well as a community of dance, social service, and political activism.

Four developments had to occur, each a particular sort of communication. First, there had to be more gay and lesbian entrepreneurs ready to engage in their own businesses or professions openly. That way the term “gay business” could symbolize much more than bars or bathhouses. Second, those entrepreneurs needed structures for sharing information with one another. They needed a kind of Rotary or Chamber of Commerce. Then, if they were going to return some of the profits to the community, they needed a way to redistribute the money through a clearinghouse that would fund worthwhile projects. Finally, there needed to be a geographic gay business center that most definitely was not tied to the nighttime red light district. Instead, it needed to be a place where both homosexuals and heterosexuals could feel comfortable shopping either day or night.

Those four networks of communication were valuable economic resources in themselves –perhaps the most critical that a minority could gain.

In the 1980s, gays and lesbians in Seattle–Jan Denali and other activists among them–began to enter the world of trading in a public manner never before done, either as very visible consumers or as newly out corporate executives and small business owners. The international business magazine The Economist  noted the rise of what it called a new “homosexual economy” by 1981. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer  publicized the increasingly significant role gays and lesbians were playing in business in a small article on its business page in 1984. Three years later, the Advocate was trumpeting the “surprising health of gay businesses.” Even the Wall Street Journal took note of the change by the early 1990s.5 It was not just the allure of cash, but of the creation of another territory in the civic discourse where an imaginative new part of the story of being homosexual could be lived.

That seemed especially true of the small business owners. “To be an openly gay entrepreneur is to make a political statement in this society,” a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C., told the Journal.

Indeed, to create small shops where customers who were both straight and openly gay or lesbian mingled in the ritual of trading was a way of altering the city’s social geography…..

Copyright 2003, University of Washington Press