by John Griffin -
SGN Contributing Writer
To paraphrase Quentin Crisp, after a very long youth I am becoming one of the stately homos of Seattle. Contrary to the testimony of some other men about themselves, sexuality was part of me from a very early age. It must have been about 1951 or 1952, because I was walking already. My parents were going to a movie. It dealt with adult subject matter, so my sister and brother had to stay behind, but I was considered too young to take notice of such things. The only thing I remember from it was a Williamsesque scene. The leading man and leading lady were swimming under water, in a vast pool, surrounded by nude statuary. Suddenly the statue of cupid shot his arrow and all of the statues came to life in an underwater ballet; and the males were of much more interest to me than the females, even at that tender age. It is still one of my most vivid and erotic memories. (If anyone can identify this film please contact me at the SGN.) From that moment until this, there has been a parade of images that reinforce my Gay identity. Whether it was my attraction to cute boys in movies or my attention riveted to the muscular male ballet dancers I saw on television (even my parents noticed that), every indicator put me near the extreme Gay end of the Kinsey scale.
I don't know if it was deliberate or by accident, but the day I came to the word "homosexual" in the dictionary I remember thinking, "That's what I am." I was about 8 or 9 by then. It was a long time before I was brave enough to tell anyone else. In school, my gaze was continually drawn to the school sissy. He was very good looking (he still is). None of the boys would play with him, whether through repulsion or paranoia, so he had to play with the girls; but I devoted hours of thought to how I might work up the courage to talk to him. Alas, I never did when we were young. All I could do was treat him decently when fate threw us together. It was something he never forgot. Decades later, he had trodden the long road to shed the effeminate tendencies that branded him as a boy. I met him quite by accident when he was tending bar. My money was no good that evening; and even now, more decades later, his friendly demeanor lets me know what simple decency meant to him then.
Finally, in the early '60s, there was a television special that reported on the Gay underworld. My father nearly exploded when I wanted to watch it, but for some reason he let me. My Catholic upbringing was not the obstacle that outsiders may think. Despite the official teachings of the Church, the priest on the other side of the screen in the confessional always offered gentle understanding. I didn't realize then that the Church is the biggest and the oldest Gay-run organization on the earth.
The clues to Gay life were few and far between, but gradually there were enough of them to let me find my way. An article in Seattle magazine finally provided the key. On the surface it seemed to be about the wild nightlife available to everyone. It was predicated on the fact that Seattle had more establishments declared off-limits to military personnel than any other city on the West Coast; but it was soon revealed that most, if not all, of the places on the list were Gay bars and bathhouses. The key was turned, and the door swung open; never again was Gay life an obscure image inside the glass globe.
Fate shone a warm and favorable light on me, for it was within a few weeks of this time that the Stonewall riots occurred. Gay people were stepping out of the shadows and basking in that light all over the country. However, all of that didn't explain the unique niche occupied by the Gay subculture here, and I couldn't even hope to explain its complexities, but one element can be explained. For many years, here, as everywhere, Gay businesses survived by making payoffs to the police. The Gay business owners struggled under the yoke, but found one way to mitigate the cost: they started recording the payoffs with their other payroll expenses, and naming the officers on the take as employees. That way they were deductible as legitimate business expenses. It went on for a long time. Eventually the city government sought a way to break the stranglehold that the police department had on so much of the city, but how? It was the Gay businesses that supplied the evidence. Stacks of yellowed ledgers were brought into court. There was no denying it; all of the top officials in the police department were incriminated. Many were dismissed, some were allowed to retire quietly. The city was left with a department whose infrastructure had been destroyed. Its usefulness might have been destroyed with it. It could have come back worse than before. Instead of bringing in outsiders to supply direction and leadership, an officer was found within the department who was not directly implicated. He had a long record and the respect of his fellow officers. The elected government was able to do their job, and they understood that the Gay community could be dealt with in a responsible way, and depended upon to support the needs of the community at large.
Gay Liberation in Seattle followed on the heels of Stonewall. Within a week, a handsome young man wearing a GLF button walked into Photo ID, at the University of Washington, where I was working. Within another week I was attending meetings. At the first meeting I attended, the need for a Gay newsletter was brought up; by the next meeting it was being published under the direction of Eric Mitgang. The first controversy was over censorship, freedom of expression winning out, but at the expense of a few influential members of the Gay community walking out. Rallies and demonstrations were quickly organized. A bar in the U District had thrown two men out for kissing. Ironically, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts were scheduled to perform the following weekend. We were there in force, and not about to let the perfect opportunity go by. The many requests for "Different Strokes for Different Folks" couldn't be ignored. As soon as Merrilee started to sing the refrain, we all started kissing and making out. We were asked to leave almost immediately. Of course we cooperated, because we had to go to the parking lot to get our protest signs out of the cars.
At one meeting, people were asked what they wanted to be accomplished by Gay Liberation. One person said he wanted to be able to go to neighborhood Gay bars where he lived, on Capitol Hill. There was a wave of laughter and the idea of that happening very soon was scoffed at. In those days most of the bars were clustered around Pioneer Square, and all of them were downtown. The early Gay Pride parades were also down town, and not without incidents. I worked security at a few of them. At one, a pickup truck full of anti-Gay protesters broke through the barricades a short distance from me and plowed into the crowd. Luckily, there were no serious injuries. Another time there was a bomb scare at the rally following the parade. The police asked the organizers to disperse the crowd so that Westlake Square could be searched. Naturally, there was a lot of suspicion over the reasons for clearing the rally out of the area. The protests became noisier. At last, the organizers could see that the bigger problem would be not to explain the real circumstances. The crowd dispersed quietly and returned after the search was completed, and no bomb was found.
Getting the events into our neighborhood was the goal then. Our growing numbers were enough to get more coverage than we had thought possible at the beginning. An early Capitol Hill parade was one of the most memorable for me. Although there were many complaints that we were being pushed into the background, our march up 12th Avenue to Volunteer Park had a unique flavor never matched anywhere, any time. All along the route, people had seized the opportunity to have their yard sales that day. The shopping gene took over. It took hours of extra time for everyone to shop their way to the park.
In the meantime, I faced the problem of my double life. I still had all of the friends I had met in college, and I hadn't pushed my Gay identity on them. I decided that if they were going to continue to be my friends, and I didn't expect them to, they had to accept me on that level. To my surprise, the feeling I got from most of them was, "what does this have to do with anything?" What I look upon as the definitive response, that made me proud of my choice of friends, came from my friend Steve. When I bared my soul to him, he gave me a look that told me he understood why I needed to tell him. "There's a game on," he said. "You want a beer?" So I wasn't able to immerse myself in Gay life completely, you can't ignore people like that.
Gradually I did become more involved in Gay life, but my other interests still dominated my time. My first boyfriend dumped me because I wasn't ready to make a total commitment. There wasn't anybody else, but he wasn't willing to wait. I was always looking for a relationship, but there was one big obstacle: I was serious. As if to deliberately fly in the face of convention, most Gay men seemed to spurn the idea of serious commitment as a primary goal.
Work and travel were my main activities. It was in Barcelona in 1976 that the legend of the Beast became known to me. In a youth hostel there, I shared a room with Dr. Krabaje, a retired physician from India. He had received his medical degree from Oxford University and had retired to England when he gave up his practice. When he learned I was Gay, he became very concerned and told me about a new disease that had been discovered in Africa. He said that it hadn't been isolated or identified at that time. What was known was that it could be easily transmitted long before any sign of it could be detected in the carrier. I asked myself how seriously I should take the story. Duh! He was an Oxford-educated physician! He may easily have saved my life. I told people, but they didn't see the threat. If I'd dedicated my life to preaching it on a soapbox, there would have been little hope. I had no evidence, only a story which verged on the surreal.
Then a new phase of my life, and Gay Pride, began: the Gay Choral Movement. I had always enjoyed singing, and I found a new outlet for my love of music, and a completely new way to meet Gay men. Soon we were traveling around the country, triumphant in the new avenue to show our pride, and the new forum that allowed people to accept Gay culture in a different way, through the fine arts.
Within a short time, the first international Gay choral festival, "Come Out And Sing Together," was held in New York City. By the luck of the draw, the Seattle Men's Chorus had the first slot on the program. We were performing in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. I had lived in New York briefly while I was doing construction for a friend there. Those stages had seemed as distant as the surface of the moon to me. We were split into two groups for our entrance, filing in from both sides of the stage. Large choral groups are always arranged by height, so it's always the tallest or the shortest that go first. I was to be one of the first two men to go on stage the first night of the festival. I wish now I hadn't had so much coffee to drink; I was too excited to use the bathroom. We lined up in the wings. It didn't require much imagination to visualize the electricity arcing through the air as the seconds ticked down to our entrance. Finally, it was time. When the crowd saw me and my counterpart on the other side of the stage stride into view, they leapt to their feet and cheered. I almost wet my pants. They continued to cheer even after we had taken our places on the risers, and only quieted down when Dennis Coleman raised his baton. That didn't quell the excitement, though. Three times during our set, the audience jumped to their feet and applauded and cheered - and not just at the end of a piece, once right in the middle of a song. I think we got a standing ovation for every song we sang, but they didn't jump out of their seats every time. At the end of the set we got another, prolonged ovation. I must say we gave a good performance, but they were cheering for every Gay man alive who took pride in who he was. Every group got a similar response, but my own vanity still tells me that ours was a little louder, and a little longer than the others.
It was a heady experience. There was more to be proud of when our Lesbian sisters took up the song in great numbers, and forged a bond like we had never had before. Even the highest chambers in the remotest Ivory Towers of the music world called it a Renaissance of choral music.
Then the two-headed monster emerged from its lair. Now it had a name: AIDS. It made every proud Gay man a victim, and every proud Gay man and Lesbian a hero or a heroine. We watched helplessly as our many friends and acquaintances withered and died, but not for long. We reached out in every way we could, found every tool, wielded every weapon. We stood on the bridge we had built with the greater community and reached out again; and found that many were willing and proud to reach back and stand with us. What the bigots called the vengeance of God, we and our allies saw as a bug to understand and to conquer. The common enemy helped us form a wider, and a stronger bond. Now the regiments of allies used weapons of science, education, and finance; and our Lesbian sisters stood in the ranks of all of those, and were among the angels of mercy who gave the most to the cause.
The roots of our pride run deep and strong. Let us not be afraid to face the struggle before us standing on the shoulders of the bravest and strongest who came before us. Our heritage is rich, we must not let the succeeding generations forget the struggle, nor ignore the challenges ahead, and we must recognize the true enemy, ignorance, and our truest ally, pride.
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