by Dru Dinero -
Special to the SGN
I first met Shaun Knittel when I was 8 years old. One of my older brother's best friends, Shaun had recently come out of the closet at 16. Shaun was young, Gay, and - since coming out - homeless. My parents, although Evangelical Christians, welcomed Shaun into our home, when my older brother, Alex, asked if Shaun could stay with us for a while.
Shaun was a very intriguing and intrigued young man. I would always see him reading something, deeply concentrated into whatever he had in his hands. I used to sneak into my brother's room, where Shaun slept on the floor, to use my brother's super-computer at the time. Always a bit reserved myself, I would only greet Shaun and play games on my brother's computer - never striking up any conversation. Being the biggest Elvis Presley fan I've ever met, Shaun was one day reading a coffee table-style book of The King himself. The flashy pictures of this man intrigued me and I asked him about what he was reading. That began one of the most ed-ucative, inspiring and fun friendships I will ever have.
Shaun taught me about Elvis. But he didn't stop there. We began having long conversations about life and the world. Already at 16, Shaun's mind was expanded way beyond his age, his struggles and the Eastside of Las Vegas where we grew up. At some point, Shaun got an apartment with some roommates and got a job at Glamour Shots inside of the Boulevard Mall. He got Alex a job at the same location and although I didn't see Shaun as much, I would hear the crazy, funny stories of Shaun, Alex and their friends causing mayhem as only a group of teenagers who grew up in Las Vegas could.
At some point, Shaun decided to join the U.S. Navy to do PR work for the government and I didn't see him for approximately 10 years. Shaun would, of course, write us; his stories about living in Japan, being shipped off to the Middle East after 9/11, living in Italy and getting to see a number of countries in the double digits fascinated me. Shaun was a great writer. Throughout this time, Shaun and I would speak over MySpace and eventually Facebook. He mentored me through my adolescence and early teenage years by reminding me of the importance of educa-tion, self-esteem, and would push me to achieve my goals and to dream big; a constant theme amongst his friends.
When I was 17, Shaun returned to Las Vegas after finishing his duty. We celebrated Shaun's homecoming, admiring his stories of service for our country. At this time, one thing was for certain, Shaun's solidified world view and his experiences during wartime had flipped a switch inside of him. Shaun served under Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) and although he was able to navigate the system, Shaun having to go back in the closet lit a fire under him to want to live his most authentic self again. He told us he could've renewed his contract with the U.S. Navy, stay living in Naples, Italy and have a fairly perfect life for all intents and purposes, but he was tired of "telling the military story". Shaun had a yearning to "report on Gay issues and tell the Gay story", as he would often say.
After a few months of catching up with his old friends and partying, Shaun left Las Vegas to begin his civilian career as a journalist writing for the Seattle Gay News. He had never even visited Seattle before. Keeping up with his tradition of writing his friends, Shaun would tell us about this new world he'd discovered in Seattle, WA. Shaun hit the ground running, involving himself in issues and circles he cared about. For his 30th birthday a few of us decided to join him in Seattle for a celebration. It was here that I met the legendary Gaysha Starr, one of Shaun's best friends in Seattle. Gaysha fascinated me - actually all of the queens that performed at Shaun's birthday party fascinated me. Being a young filmmaker, I told Shaun I would love to make a documentary on some of the drag queens he knew. Always encouraging, Shaun told me he would help me out.
I moved to Seattle, WA in August of 2011. Upon getting to Seattle, however, it wasn't just drag queens that fascinated me, but the political movement Shaun was getting involved in for Marriage Equality. Shaun would lament that there wasn't enough grassroots excitement for what he deemed as the ultimate fight for LGBTQ rights. He recruited me and a group of his friends to start Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea), a non-profit organization with the purpose of raising awareness of LGBTQ issues in Seattle. Our first goal, help Washington state introduce Marriage Equality through the ballot box. Through Shaun's leadership, we rallied, produced con-tent and events to help bring awareness at the grassroots level - and we won.
This was just the beginning of Shaun's leadership and community activism. Through his efforts, SOSea set up free self-defense classes, a safety shuttle to get partygoers on Capitol Hill home safe, worked with SPD to help bring crime on the Hill down, helped get the rainbow crosswalks painted around the Hill and other countless acts of community building and activism. Shaun did all of this because of his love for community; wanting to build a safer world for not just himself but his husband, Yee-Shin, along with all of their friends.
In 2013, immediately after the win for Marriage Equality, Shaun brought up the idea of making a documentary on LGBTQ history and the movement in Seattle. Using his contacts of policy makers and cultural leaders around the Hill, we began filming extensive interviews for content on what would eventually be called The Legacy Project.
A few years into the project, I had to head back to Las Vegas to look after my aging parents. Looking for a new breadth of life, Shaun and Yee-Shin also moved to Las Vegas. Both Shaun and Yee-Shin took up jobs educating mentally disabled individuals with Yee-Shin teaching in a wood shop and Shaun helping the individuals publish a quarterly magazine. Unfortunately, Shaun's health began to have complications and Shaun passed away in December of 2019, just shy of the new decade.
I miss my good friend, mentor, and chosen brother. Through his mischievous style Shaun had the ability to make you laugh until you were in tears and your stomach hurt. He also had the ability to bring you to his level of problem solving and look at the world with a sobering and methodical view. I've often thought of how comforting it would be to have Shaun around during these uncertain times; just to hear his viewpoint and rely on his leadership.
Shaun would've turned 40 on March 25th, 2020. In remembrance of Shaun, I've decided to bring The Legacy Project to life. I know that Shaun's main purpose in filming these interviews was to bring LGBTQ youth, as he once was, a sense of pride in their own history. This is a culmination of everything Shaun stood for and his work, which he held dear.
Interviews for The Legacy Project can now be found on YouTube. We filmed quite a bit, having in mind that we would make a feature out of them. In the spirit of the times, I've decided to release the interviews wholly. Shaun and I believed the entirety of these interviews should be seen and were having a hard time deciding what to cut out and what to leave in for a feature. Due to the number of them, I will be releasing interviews as fast as I can edit them in a digestible format. Please look up The Legacy Project on YouTube and subscribe to the channel for notifications about new interviews.
Here are the links to 5 interview videos with George: