1977, when LGBTQ+ became a political force in Washington state
by Roger L. Winters -
SGN Contributing Writer
Forty-three years ago, legislation in Olympia in the spring, followed by a voter registration drive and candidate ratings for City offices in the fall election, made 1977 the year LGBTQ+ activists became a political force in our city and state.
In 1977, celebrity beauty queen Anita Bryant led a campaign to repeal ordinances outlawing discrimination against homosexuals. Her "Save Our Children" campaigns were wildly successful in Dade County, Florida (Miami); St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. Pitched as referenda on the acceptability of homosexuality, these votes were very homophobic, scaring us nationwide.
Here, in 1977, Jim Gaylord, a Washington state teacher, was fired by the Tacoma School District for answering "Yes" when asked if he was a homosexual. The case went to the State Supreme Court, which ruled his firing was legal, citing the Catholic Dictionary, among other "legal sources," in saying so. (Today's State Supreme Court is quite different.)
In the spring of 1977, a bill was introduced in the Washington state legislature for the first time to add "sexual orientation" to the State Law Against Discrimination in Washington state. In the State Senate, Senator Pete Francis (D-Sea) held a hearing on the bill. Testimony by Rev. Wally Lanchester of the Seattle Metropolitan Community Church and former University of Washington football star David Kopay made it clear that we were serious about fighting for our rights by changing state law. The bill died immediately. It was signed into law 29 years later, in 2006. The Dorian Group (TDG) was the driving force behind this bill from its initial introduction until TDG gave way to other statewide LGBTQ+ rights groups in the mid-1980s.
During the summer of 1977, SEAMEC (Seattle Municipal Elections Committee for Gays and Lesbians) was born. Co-Chairs Kathleen Boyle and James Hughes, M.D., led the Steering Committee. Randy Henson was named Office Manager, moving into the Smith Tower office of The Dorian Group (TDG), my workplace as Office Manager. Randy recruited volunteers, coordinated fundraising, and set up a table for registering voters in front of Bailey-Coy Bookstore on Broadway. The 3,000 new voters registered thanks to SEAMEC made politicians, left and right, sit up and take notice.
Ginny Lambert and I volunteered to co-chair a Candidate Evaluation Committee. With the late attorney Lamar Faulkner, activist Karen Bosley, the late historian and activist Tim Mayhew, attorney John Forderhase, Sandy Kucera, Greg Kucera, Greg Steeve, the late Dr. Ed Estes, and Dan Haslett, we brainstormed questions, scheduled and held interviews in two private homes - one on Harvard Ave. E. near E. Roy St. (where candidates were questioned while sitting in front of a giant marijuana bush), another a living room in a home on 24th Ave. E. Those interviews and recommended ratings were reported to the Steering Committee which issued the first official SEAMEC report on where candidates stood on our concerns and issues.
Most candidates were willing to be interviewed. Our list of 40-some questions was challenging and many were hard pressed to come up with good answers. Some candidates were truly impressive. They would be friends and supporters of our community throughout their careers and we would be loyal supporters for them.
Thanks to SEAMEC many activists got to know many politicians on a first-name basis. I wrote Charles Royer, who won as Mayor in 1977, a lengthy memo on politicking in the gay community. He beat Paul Schell, who would later serve as Mayor. I also got to know Randy Revelle, who would serve on the City and County Councils and ultimately as County Executive, and it was thanks to SEAMEC I got to know Norm Rice, Greg Nickels, and others. SEAMEC activists were responsible for taking their favorite candidates on bar tours, to give them the chance to meet our constituents in person.
Many of the activists in SEAMEC and TDG would get to know candidates well thanks to our process. After initially agreeing to be neutral until after SEAMEC's ratings were published, many became volunteers and donors in the campaigns of candidates we had gotten to know from the in-person interviews.
In 1978 Seattle stopped the anti-homosexual campaigns by the religious right with a decisive victory over homophobia thanks to broad-based support from leaders who had gotten to know us in Olympia and Seattle City Hall.
SEAMEC, now known as the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee (VOTESEAMEC.ORG) is staffed completely by volunteers. I co-chaired the SEAMEC Steering Committee until the early '80s. This year, after about 40 years of involvement with other "projects," I rejoined the SEAMEC Steering Committee. I never forgot SEAMEC, because I always vote. In every election, be it national, state, or local, all other things being equal, I look to the SEAMEC election report as I decide how to vote. I make it a point to vote for every office and measure on the ballot.
The Steering Committee of SEAMEC in 2020 is about to report on candidates for President/Vice President, Congress, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and other State offices, as well as for State Senate and State House of Representatives from Seattle area districts. The work this year has been long and hard. I had hoped we might recruit volunteer interviewers and new Steering Committee members at a big community meeting in March, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 situation.
The six women and men who constitute the Steering Committee developed pre-primary questionnaires, getting in touch with candidates, deciding on ratings and endorsements, so we could publish a Primary Election Report in time to let SEAMEC's "constituency" know about candidates with time to spare before ballots were due. See the Primary Report at https://voteseamec.org/latest. Notice the number of races and the detailed information provided. A somewhat simpler report appears in this week's SGN for the November election.
Thanks to Zoom and technology generally, SEAMEC this year was able to conduct intimate face-to-face interviews with many finalist candidates. Scheduling and question development were still time-consuming chores, but interviews held online had the advantages of no one having to search for parking or rush to get to the meeting room on time.
I'm grateful for and proud of the community members who contributed significant time and resources to the 2020 process. Apart from acknowledgement in the published reports, they receive little recognition in the community. They are unpaid volunteers devoted to providing an unbiased rating of candidates solely on their actions, record, knowledge and values relating to the needs and concerns of LGBTQ+ voters and their allies. Some have given decades of service; others provide editing, publishing, and technical skills. There has been no Executive Director with a substantial budget, no large fund-raising program, no staff to ensure the work continues year after year.
The 2020 Steering Committee is constituted by Que Estevia, Herb Krohn, Deborah Rustin, Jeff Phillips, Norm Zigler, and me. Other volunteers contributed significantly to the work for the 2020 elections. Look for their names in the final Candidate Ratings. If you know them personally, express your appreciation for their hard work.
The Seattle Gay News has publicized SEAMEC ratings and endorsements throughout the past 43 years. By printing or including a copy of each SEAMEC Election Report in each issue, SGN let people learn about of SEAMEC's information on candidates. As SGN's readership grew, so did the scope of our candidate rating.
When George Bakan took over SGN, he took the extra step of paying the rent for SEAMEC's Capitol Hill office. That arrangement kept SEAMEC going for many years. A great many meetings and candidate interviews were held in that office. When SGN was no longer able to pay the rent, George continued to encourage SEAMEC's work and gave it plenty of attention in the newspaper. George Bakan and I were co-conspirators and collaborators who readily disagreed. George's support for SEAMEC was strong and unwavering. SEAMEC has honored George by dedicating its Report to his memory.
I believe SEAMEC is a perfect example of grass-roots politics. I am proud of having helped it get started and prouder still that it keeps working in our interests. Some criticize its limited focus on LGBTQ+ issues and concerns. There are other candidate reports that many LGBTQ+ voters prefer.
SEAMEC's reports are informative, non-partisan, and fair, regardless of the political affiliation or beliefs of the voter. I hope young activists will take a closer look and get involved in SEAMEC's work. It affords many practical lessons about working with a diverse group of people united in the need for good information.
I have grandiose ideas about what SEAMEC might do, if there were enough people and resources to do it. SEAMEC remains focused on offices in King County and nearby. What if the methods and procedures used to inform those voters were also available to volunteers in other parts of our state? A SEAMEC election report published in Spokane, Yakima, or Wenatchee might focus on more conservative candidates and a somewhat less Democratic populace than is found in King County. Voters in those areas should also be able to cast their ballots after being informed about candidates' actions, beliefs, knowledge, and values as they relate to LGBTQ+ concerns.
Continuing to build our shared political influence is as important today as it was in 1977. At the least, we must make sure SEAMEC continues to function. It would delight me to see SEAMEC expand and serve a wider range of our state's electorate.
o SEAMEC needs new blood. Become a member, sign up as a volunteer, consider joining the Steering Committee, make a donation (a regular ongoing donation is great). Make sure that SEAMEC will be ready to issue election reports in 2021 and beyond.
o More LGBTQ+ voters and their allies need to see SEAMEC's reports. When you see it reported at the SEAMEC Web Site or in the Seattle Gay News, share the Report widely, talk about it with friends, give it close attention, use it as you decide how to vote in all the races on your ballot.
o Donate money (it's not tax deductible) to help make sure SEAMEC keeps going. Go to VOTESEAMEC.ORG and use whatever method of donating suits you. Do it now!
The political climate of 1977 was more threatening and overtly homophobic than today's, but we face threats and real enemies who want us back in the subordinate, unequal, degraded status they believe we deserve. We have achieved a great deal in the past four or five decades. Let's keep building our political and social clout now that you know how it got going for real in 1977.
What are you going to do to keep our political influence alive?