by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
Anna Schlecht has lived in Olympia, Washington, for more than 35 years. Indeed, a lot has changed for our state capitol's LGBT residents since 1976 - employment nondiscrimination, domestic partnerships-then-marriage, and official Pride celebrations, just to name a few. Schlecht wasn't just there to see all of it; she helped make it happen.
Today, Schlecht serves on the boards of the Olympia Rainbow Center (which she founded), Capitol City Pride, and Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) Olympia. She founded Black Hills Pride in 1998, served on the Pride Foundation board for six years, was one of Olympia's lead Hands Off Washington organizers, and has fought for equal rights, anti-hate-crime, sexual assault, and domestic violence legislation every chance she was able.
In 1982, Schlecht was working in carpentry with a handful of businesses, often alongside other women carpenters, both Lesbian and straight. When a carpentry position came open in the City of Olympia maintenance department, Schlecht beat out about 200 other applicants during a time when many in the department still saw the position as a man's job. Just a year later, she was promoted to Housing Program Specialist and began overseeing construction projects.
"I had to go back in the closet to some degree. There were people there that hated the fact that I was a woman, let alone a Gay woman,' Schlecht recalled.
But in 1986, when the City's Gay and Lesbian population were fighting for nondiscrimination ordinances in public services and public employment, Schlecht was poised to become a shining example of an affected city employee, for all of Olympia to see. So she came out and told her story; both campaigns were successful.
"I remember being amazed - people thought, 'Oh my God. We can do that here.'
The success became a blueprint in Schlecht's mind, to win other victories.
"This was the way to go - step by step, conversation by conversation, law by law,' Schlecht told SGN. "Getting them all on the books immediately would have been just doing the paperwork, not changing the hearts and minds. ... Each law, each city, requires a tremendous amount of face to face time, walking through.'
"Early on, we found that some of our supporters were some of the hardest obstacles - they thought we were going too far too fast,' she added.
One issue Schlecht recalls was that the unity the modern movement enjoys between Gay men and women was still developing then. On top of that, men tended to be more often closeted than women in the workplace in those days. Lesbians who weren't afraid to come out were able to take a necessary step that many men were still intimidated by.
Coming out made life significantly different for Schlecht. She recalled how people tended to react when she walked into a city council meeting or the like:
"I could see in their eyes, "Oh my God, there's that militant Lesbian.' They didn't realize how many of their own citizens needed to have these laws put in place.'
Schlecht also recalled how, as a cadre member fighting to stop the damaging laws and promote the beneficial ones, one official (whom she specified was supportive), told her not to 'worry your pretty little head.' She replied, "I can't wait - my pretty little head's at risk.'
"My boss over the years, even though he had [his] religious and political views, always admired that I always did what I thought was right,' said Schlecht. "It was an interesting alliance.'
Despite her activism, she was able to maintain the respect of the people who counted in Olympia. She earned her B.A. from Evergreen State College in 1998 and was promoted again in 2006.
"If your goal is to advance in your career, being a militant activist is not a good career move,' said Schlecht. "Many people with less credentials than I have, have gone much further. ... It was not a popular thing to be pro-Gay rights in the '70s.'
HOUSING FOR ELDERS
As housing program manager for the city (a position she still holds), Schlecht moved up from overseeing projects to being one of the people who makes those very projects happen. The longtime activist, who began working for the city using a hammer, was now doing things like finances and grant writing.
Since she completed her master's degree in public administration at Evergreen in 2009, she's been more able to bridge the gap between her professional life and her activism, particularly in regard to her work with SAGE.
"One certainly informs the other,' Schlecht told SGN. "The focus of my master's work was on elders' housing, specifically, GLBT elders' housing.'
"People still don't recognize how GLBT people are discriminated against, particularly GLBT elders,' said Schlecht, pointing out that current studies still tend to reflect a national trend of discrimination in affordable housing toward LGBT elders, as well as elders of color.
Schlecht said that while some perceive the Lesbian and Gay communities to be better off financially than their straight counterparts, the reverse is actually true.
"GLBT people are disproportionately poorer, and specifically GLBT elders are disproportionately poorer,' Schlecht told SGN.
"People don't tend to be drawn toward elder issues,' she added. "The baby boomers are now the elder boomers and we are now poised to overwhelm the elder care system.'
RESPECT FORGED BY DEEDS
Schlecht has done all this on top of raising a son. When asked how she did it all and continues to do so, Schlecht cited her "hard-working immigrant' lineage. She's also quick to point out that she wasn't alone.
"There's a network of us that have been around for 20, 25 years, and we're kind of like old warriors,' Schlecht told SGN. "Some of these folks are no longer with us.'
While Schlecht said there are too many such people to list, she mentioned Faygele Ben-Miriam as an example.
Ben-Miriam and his partner, Paul Barwick, applied for a marriage license in King County on September 20, 1971. When they were denied, Ben-Miriam sued. The case was drawn out until 1974 and ultimately was shot down, but it attracted national media attention.
"He's one of the many people that didn't live long enough to see the fruits of his work,' said Schlecht. "That's one of the things that keeps me going.'
A RECORD OF VICTORY
Over the years, Schlecht has helped to win a multitude of laws, policies, ordinances, and resolutions in Thurston County for LGBT people, including:
o For the city of Lacey: A hate-crimes ordinance in 1993, an equal opportunity housing ordinance in 1994, and a municipal equal opportunity employment and services access policy in 1997.
o For the city of Tumwater: An equal opportunity housing ordinance in 1994, a hate-crimes ordinance in 1996, a city employment nondiscrimination policy, affirmative action resolution, and domestic partnership benefits resolution in 1997, and a municipal employment benefits ordinance in 2001.
o For the city of Olympia: A public services nondiscrimination ordinance and municipal employment nondiscrimination policy in 1986, a hate-crimes ordinance in 1993, a domestic partnership benefits resolution in 1995, and an equal opportunity housing ordinance in 1997.
She also helped achieve several countywide measures, including an employment nondiscrimination policy in 1987, a domestic partnership benefits resolution in 2001, an equal opportunity housing ordinance in 2002, and a Thurston County Commission resolution in support of marriage equality, with the same resolution being passed by all three of the preceding city councils in 2004.
Schlecht said her time with Hands Off Washington was of particular import, because was the "first GLBT organization' in history "that left the big cities to bring the fight to the rural communities where GLBT people live.' She's paraphrased President Franklin D. Roosevelt many times over the years, saying proudly and boldly, "If civil rights have no meaning in the small towns, then they have no meaning at all.'
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