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Queer History in Seattle, Part 1: to 1967

HistoryLink.org Essay 4154 : Printer-Friendly Format

Sexual minority individuals, including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans-gendered, and queer in Seattle and in the Pacific Northwest share a history that is both rich and vibrant. Living what some historians call the "silenced" or "invisible" (Katz) minority experience, gay and lesbian histories are scarce, with local histories even more difficult to come by. However difficult, the retelling of even the smallest details captures precious glimpses of early homosexual lives, reminding us that their history does exist, however buried or insufficiently documented. This essay highlights a collection of only a few of these moments, those that have been previously documented in other histories, local news, personal interviews, magazine articles, and photographs. It is to those lives and experiences that we cannot find and will never know that this piece is dedicated.
Note: Amidst ongoing dialog around the appropriateness of this and other terms, I use the word "queer" in the title, as I believe it is the historical term that signifies the broadest possible inclusion of sexual minority individuals.

Early History

There is little known documentation of queer life at the turn of the twentieth century, but it must have been moving along beneath the surface of a mainstream culture that was discriminating, or perhaps even unaware, of its existence. There are scattered but incomplete snapshots of individuals who were known or widely rumored to have romantic relationships with members of their same sex.

In 1853, King County was named after William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853), a popular Alabama politician who briefly served as vice president under Franklin Pierce. King was widely rumored to be lovers with his "inseparable companion" James Buchanan. Known as "Miss Nancy" at the White House, King became the eponym of the county that would become the locus of gay and lesbian life in the Pacific Northwest (NWLGHMP, Mosaic).

In Seattle, Sarah Yesler (1822-1887), a prominent community figure, wife of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892), and founder of the Seattle Public Library, developed a passionate relationship with her friend Eliza Hurd. Eliza wrote to Sarah in 1860, "I wish to say so much and I cannot say anything -- I want to sleep with you again!" (NWLGHMP, Map). Despite these hints of social acceptance, queers still suffered oppression, misunderstanding, and discrimination. In 1893, a King County court sentenced Charles Wesley to seven years at hard labor for "intent to know Eddie Kalberg, a male person" (NWLGHMP, Mosaic).

Seattle -- Always a Ball

In the 1920s and 1930s, as in other American urban centers, Seattle queers began to create visible public spaces outside their own social circles of close friends and family. Early establishments open to them were concentrated in areas of ill repute, where "police found it convenient to keep the marginal types in one nicely packaged ghetto" (B&W). Also known as "Skid Road" or "Fairyville," Pioneer Square, with its bars, clubs, and cabarets must have been the center of early public queer life in Seattle.

The Casino, on the corner of Washington Street and 2nd Avenue, was known as "the only place on the West Coast that was open and free for gay people." A straight café, pool hall, and card room, The Casino was opened by Joseph Bellotti in 1930 and operated by John and Margaret Delevitti. Nicknamed "Madame Peabody's Dancing Academy for Young Ladies," The Casino was one of the few places where same-sex dancing was allowed.

Vilma, a frequent patron of the Casino, came to Seattle at the age of 18, after friends who had traveled west told him about the city as welcoming place for gay men. "Two friends of mine visited Seattle and raved about it," Vilma remembers. "That's all I heard, Seattle, Seattle, Seattle and this fabulous place called The Casino and all the neat kids there." Vilma hopped a boxcar and arrived in Seattle on June 15, 1930. He "headed straight for the Casino … We could hardly wait to get down those stairs!" (Paulson).

Rita Kelsey remembers that Madame Peabody's was also a place for lesbian women. "There have been some mean fights there," she recalls, "girls jealous of each other, half drunk, bottles flying. I always sat on the boys' side" (Paulson).

Hanna Banana

Vilma recalls a "darling old queen" by the name of Hanna Banana, who came to Seattle with the Alaska Gold Rush in the late 1890s. A gay man who lived in and out of drag, Hanna was always telling stories about how Seattle was "always a ball" and a "hot town for gay people." She described Seattle as "a party town," with unlimited access to single male travelers. By the 1930s, Hanna also frequented The Casino, where Vilma remembers "all the gay kids would treat her like royalty and she'd listen to all their troubles and offer advice and camp it up and tell wild stories about her life. She was into lumberjacks. Oh, how she loved her lumberjacks!" (Paulson).

Two other bars, The Spinning Wheel (2nd Avenue and Union Street) and The Double Header (2nd Avenue and Washington Street, above The Casino) were straight-owned, but open to both gay and straight clientele during the 1930s. The Spinning Wheel cabaret featured female impersonators, and The Double Header, opened in 1934, is believed to be (in 2003) the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the country.

The Greyhound bus depot, Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill, and the restrooms in the University Plaza Hotel and at the University of Washington were also known as meeting spots for gay men.

Dry Behind the Ears

Already considered friendly to gays and lesbians, Seattle may have been an envied spot for gay men serving in the military during World War II. Len Tritsch, recalled that he was listening to the radio when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the air waves. "All of my classmates, the males, we all enlisted," he recalls. "The day after we graduated from high school, we were gone." Soon after, the Navy brought Tritsch to Seattle for operating room technician training. He served on a number of major landings, from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima, and later his ship was commissioned at Pier 91. It was in the Navy that Tritsch received both his career and social education:

"I guess the way you look at the war versus how we look at the war -- it was just a different feeling. The caring, the camaraderie -- it's very hard to put into words ... I began to understand sexual orientation and what it meant. When we were aboard ship, there was just a real affection for each other ... We had a lot of young guys who were my age who were just dry behind the ears yet. Then you had the old salts. They had been across the equator and they would use the term "homo" and "faggot" and "queer" ... There were huts [living quarters] aboard ship that did identify with being queer, and they were aware of that before they came in, especially some of the guys from bigger cities ... For a kid coming from a community of 300 people to be able to be in Seattle and all these places and then all the foreign ports -- oh yeah! That was an experience, and education that money could never buy" (NWLGHMP, Mosaic).

Butterfly Time!

After the war, Seattle queers took bolder strides in creating public spaces for themselves and their community. In 1946, Fred Coleman and Frank Reid opened The Garden of Allah (1st Avenue between University and Seneca streets, underneath the Arlington Hotel), the first gay-owned cabaret in Seattle. The site had been a speakeasy, and then a tavern in the 20 years previous, but the new owners made vaudeville and female impersonation the main attractions there. A place for both gay men and lesbians, The Garden of Allah was the center of social life for more than 10 years.

With local female impersonators and singing/dancing stars such as Wanda Brown, Michael Phelan, Jackie Starr, Robin Raye, Skippy LaRue, Hotcha Hinton, and Paris Delair, The Garden was a hot spot for vaudevillian entertainment, popular since the Depression. It also became a place for solace, friendship, and even family for young gay people in the area.

Shirley Maser, a long-time Seattleite, remembers that The Garden was her "home away from home" during her early 20s, when she was first coming out as a butch lesbian. "Bobby and Big Nick were the super butches at the Garden," she recalls, "I'd see [them] dressed up in tuxedos and I'd be in awe and think, wow! -- there's the gals dressed up like guys! I was pretty enthralled." Although there were separate sections for men and women, Maser remembers "there was no hostility ... We all went down there for one purpose -- to meet and be with people of our own sex" (Paulson).

Pat Freeman was born in Seattle and was 17 when she first went to the Garden:

"This was, of course, the absolute ultimate in growing up, to go into a tavern and not get kicked out and then to be with our own kind. This was butterfly time! I believe we were the only teenagers that regularly went there. There were no support groups for gay teenagers, let alone for gay adults. The Garden was our entrée [sic] into the gay world; it was our support group. We met gay people ... we went to their parties, we were accepted, and they became our family. It was our refuge from society's homophobia and we could be ourselves. Besides, the entertainers were tops" (NWLGHMP, Mosaic).

The 1950s

Over the years, many establishments that served lesbian and gay clients were pushed out by police department grafting and harassment. The Garden of Allah finally closed in 1956, as the McCarthy era settled its oppression on gay individuals and establishments alike. The military kept the Garden off limits to servicemen. A local board censored drag reviews, instituting what one performer remembered as "some screwy rules" (Paulson). Rules included requiring men's underwear under drag costumes and carrying ID at all times, even while onstage.(Paulson). Seattle Police used a payoff system and abuse of homosexuals (especially those in drag) as an extra toll on gay businesses. Additionally, the novelty of female impersonation was being replaced by a new kind of drag where performers simply moved their lips to recorded music. According to Kim Drake, a performer at the Garden, "after about 1954, everybody just seemed to scatter."

Despite a thriving gay scene in the Pioneer Square area and despite Seattle's reputation for being friendly, growing up queer in Seattle during the 1950s was similar to growing up queer in other major American cities. Those who were there often report feeling like they were "the only one." With little or no public information on gay culture or life, young people were desperate for any mention of "their own kind." Seattleite Nancy King remembered:

"I read Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness [a pioneering lesbian novel published in 1928]. I read anything that was in the library! I was frightened by all the things I read ... being gay or lesbian was a perversity. So, I didn't want to be perverse."

Pat Freeman corroborated:

"I remember asking the librarian whether or not she had anything on lesbianism. I don't know if she was shocked, but she was certainly startled. I don't recall her answer, but I never came out with any material on it" (Mosaic).

During this period, local materials related to homosexuality were clipped and cataloged under "Vice" by Seattle librarians.

Still, cultural life blossomed for Seattle gay communities during the 1950s and early 1960s. Public spaces proliferated and grew more visible throughout the Downtown/Pioneer Square area, growing to seven by the late 1950s. A number of lesbian-owned establishments (The Hub, The Madison Tavern, and Sappho's Tavern) sprang up, further delineating lesbian women from gay men in the community. Where they once sat in separate sections at The Spinning Wheel or The Garden, lesbians and gay men now had spaces they could call their own.

Political and social groups that organized to gain mutual respect and acceptance from the straight world were launched in the early 1950s. Harry Hay started the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization, in 1951, and Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin started the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights association, in 1955. Though both groups started in San Francisco, Lyon and Martin met in Seattle in the early 1950s.

The Dorian Society

By 1967, The Dorian Society, Seattle's first gay rights organization, was founded by UW Professor Nicholas Heer and others. (The Dorian Group, active during the mid-to late 1970s and founded by Charles Brydon, is often confused with the earlier Dorian Society.) The Dorian Society was one of many social action organizations springing up from Vancouver to Los Angeles that worked to educate mainstream society in these areas. In 1967, Seattle was the site of a convention of these organizations, and the Dorian Society took part. On July 7, 1969, Seattle's Dorian House, which provided counseling and employment help for homosexuals, opened its doors. It was the first institution of its kind in the United States.

Perhaps in response to the efforts of the Dorian Society and other groups, the first local newspaper articles about the gay community in Seattle began to appear, making even more public Seattle's reputed tolerance for lesbians and gays. A Seattle Times headline proclaimed on September 21, 1966, "Tolerant Reputation: Seattle homosexual problem reported to be 'out of hand.' Seattle Chief of Police Frank Ramon 'confirmed' and 'admitted' that Seattle's homosexual problem is 'out of hand.'" Noting that the city had become known nationally as being tolerant, Assistant Police chief M. E. Cook went on to say, "The word got out that Seattle is soft on homosexuals." and "We're not going to let this city get like San Francisco."

The officers stated that the city was working with the military to have the 15 known establishments that catered to homosexuals banned from servicemen. In addition, city licenses would be revoked, and the assistance of the State Liquor Control Board had been solicited. Finally, the long standing practice of off-duty policemen working at bar doors on Saturday nights would be banned by the Chief for the department. (Cook was later convicted of perjury and imprisoned in connection with the police payoff system.)

Although Seattle may have been more tolerant of their gay and lesbian communities than other urban areas, the lives and experiences of lesbians and gays were still shrouded by secrecy and haunted by fear of discrimination, harassment, or worse. Although many were increasingly comfortable appearing in gay or lesbian establishments, and many had begun to organize actively for social education, some still felt that if they were to reveal their identities to a broader culture, they would jeopardize relationships, careers, and homes.

Out in Seattle

In November 1967, an unprecedented article, "The Homosexual in Seattle," appeared in Seattle, a local magazine. Reporter Ruth Wolf attempted to shed "new light on a complex, highly controversial and widely misunderstood problem" by reporting that "informed observers estimate the number [of homosexuals in Seattle] as high as 50,000."

The figure may have astonished mainstream readers, even as Seattle was increasingly noted as tolerant. A member of The Dorian Society, businessman Peter Wichern (1946-1996), posed for the magazine cover and made the bold move of identifying himself publicly as a homosexual. Through a series of candid interviews, Wichern reveals the life and experiences of a closeted, and then open, homosexual man, in the hopes that "all homosexuals will be able to take off the mask." Having spent his younger years "in the bars all the time ... like someone possessed by demons," Wichern presents himself as a reformed citizen, "a reasonably happy, useful human being now."

Several other Seattle homosexuals interviewed for the article also identified themselves as professionals with stable relationships, and distanced themselves from "fairies" and "screamers" (overtly effeminate homosexuals), saying they "wouldn't be caught dead in the bars," made up of mostly gay men in their twenties. Sam and Edward, for example, are described in the article as "successful men in their late forties" sharing a "beautiful home" on Lake Washington. "We don't have many gay friends any more," they report. "We move mainly in straight circles now." Just two years before a civil rights revolution for gay and lesbian people was about to begin in a New York City bar, varied notions of liberation had already begun to unfold.

Sources:
Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbian and Gay Men in the USA: a Documentary History (New York: Meridian, 1992); A Historical Map of Lesbian and Gay Seattle, map, (Seattle: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, 1996), Map Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Mosaic 1: Life Stories, from Isolation to Community (Seattle: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, 2002); Don Paulson, An Evening at the Garden of Allah: a Gay Cabaret in Seattle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Rose Mesec, A Gender and Space Analysis of Seattle's Lesbian and Gay Communities, master's thesis, University of Washington, 1992; Ruth Wolf, "The Homosexual in Seattle," Seattle, November, 1967; John Wilson, "Tolerant Reputation: Seattle Homosexual Problem Reported To Be 'Out of Hand,'" The Seattle Times, September 21, 1966.
Note: The confusion between the Dorian Society, founded in the mid-1960s, and the Dorian Group, founded a decade later, was corrected on December 30, 2005, with thanks to the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project.


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Vice President William Rufus de Vane King (1786-1853), original eponym for King County
Courtesy W. Raymond Jones


Sarah Yesler (1822-1887), San Francisco, ca. 1880
Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. SHS6371)


Greyhound bus terminal, 1950s
Postcard


Seattle magazine cover, November 1967, which reads: This is Peter Wichern. He is a Local Businessman. He is a Homosexual.
Courtesy Seattle Public Library


 
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