Anderson, Cal (1948-1995)

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 12/26/2012
  • Essay 10265
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State Senator Calvin "Cal" Anderson, who represented the 43rd District (encompassing portions of Seattle including the Capitol Hill neighborhood), was Washington's first openly gay state legislator. One of his priorities was extending the state civil rights law to include gays and lesbians. Anderson also fought for low-income housing and gun control legislation. Anderson, a decorated veteran, returned from his service in Vietnam to enter politics as an aide before ascending to the Washington State House of Representatives and later the state senate. Diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, Anderson died from AIDS complications in 1995. A large Capitol Hill park now bears his name.

Tukwila Roots 

Cal Anderson was born in 1948 to Robert "Bob" Anderson (d. 1971) and Alice Anderson (now Coleman, b. 1922). Growing up in Tukwila, the third of four children, Anderson showed an early interest in politics. As a middle schooler, he volunteered for one of Warren G. Magnuson's (1905-1989) senate campaigns. Cal also entered the fray of school politics. One of his first positions was to keep track of school funds, and he approached it with a single-minded verve. His sister Gaye Anderson (1950-2012), a well-known Seattle club owner, recalled: "He'd keep meticulous numbers. He'd call out numbers in his sleep. He knew which kid hadn't paid" (Rhodes, "A New Face ...").

It was in 1964 at the age of 16 that Cal first had a major role inside a real political campaign, when his father Bob, a health-department inspector, decided to run for city council. Ready to work behind the scenes, the younger Anderson took it upon himself to personally write a letter to each and every Tukwila voter, stumping for his father. Apparently, the media blitz worked: Bob Anderson was elected to the Tukwila City Council by four votes.

Anderson graduated from Foster High School in Tukwila in 1966, and got a job working for Jeanette Williams (1914-2008), then chair of the King County Democratic Party and later a longtime Seattle City Councilmember. The position was short-lived, however, as the Vietnam War took more and more able-bodied young men. While shipping off wasn't appealing, even less so was the prospect of admitting "homosexual tendencies" to get out of duty, as Anderson recounted in 1988: "Being naive, I thought if I scratched that 'yes,' next day in the paper there'd be a headline, 'Cal Anderson, Jeanette Williams' secretary, is a fairy'" (Rhodes, "A New Face ...").

From Army to Politics

Instead of being outed, Anderson joined up in the late 60s. He was a court reporter for the 23rd Infantry Division, but went into combat areas for his work. He proved himself to be an excellent soldier, earning two Bronze Stars for his work as lead court reporter during the initial investigation of the My Lai massacre (the March 1968 slaying of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. Army troops). Anderson was appointed senior court reporter in 1971, during the trial of Captain Ernest Medina (who was charged with crimes related to My Lai but eventually acquitted), and had received four army commendations by the end of his service.  

Anderson left the army in 1973. His father had passed away in 1971, and Anderson decided to work instead of pursuing college. It's a decision that he didn't entirely regret, but spoke of with mixed feelings in a 1988 interview as he entered the legislature:

"Looking back, I should have gone to school. Almost all the people in the mayor's office have degrees and advanced degrees, so there is a tendency to feel inferior. It even came up during the campaign; all my opponents have far better educational backgrounds. But I have something different ... I have a life in the trenches -- a life of accomplishment, of working with people, with a wide variety of people. It's the school of hard knocks" (Rhodes, "A New Face ...").

From 1975 to 1983, Anderson worked for Seattle City Councilmember George Benson (1919-2004) as an administrative assistant. He moved over to the office of Mayor Charles Royer's (b. 1939) as appointments secretary in 1983, and stayed until his appointment to the state House of Representatives in 1987.

Anderson never sought headlines to advertise his sexuality, but there was rarely a mention of his name without the identifier "first openly gay legislator" attached. Anderson's private coming out, however, wasn't a dramatic affair. He told his parents he was gay while still in the army, and his mother Alice's reaction was unruffled, even years later: "It doesn't bother me; I don't even think about it. I just can't see why people can't live and let live" (Rhodes, "A New Face ...").

In the 1990s, a debate over "outing" prominent closeted gays began brewing. Anderson's own feelings about outing were mixed; he cited the importance of privacy but also made an exception for those who acted with marked hypocrisy against the gay movement, despite their own sexuality. He also had a happy, regret-free view when it came to his public, decade-long relationship with partner Eric Ishino and his own coming out process. Anderson said in 1990:

It was a good decision absolutely. I don't believe I've been hurt by it. ... If I was concentrating my energy on hiding who I am and hiding my relationship with my partner, I wouldn't have energy to do anything else. ... I'd be a basket case. Hopefully, what I'll be able to show other people is, 'Hey, it ain't a big whoop. Come on in, the water's fine'" (King).

A Seat in the House  

Anderson's entrance into legislative office proved to be his first political challenge. In 1987, Janice Niemi (b. 1929) vacated her 43rd District House of Representatives seat to fill the district's senate vacancy left by Jim McDermott (b. 1936) as he joined the U.S. Foreign Service (McDermott served briefly as a State Department psychiatrist in Africa before winning election to the U.S. Congress in 1988). When precinct representatives in the 43rd District, which covered a swath of Seattle stretching from the University of Washington to the Central District, including parts of downtown and Beacon Hill as well as Capitol Hill, met to recommend a candidate to replace Niemi, Anderson received the most votes (51 out of 116). But that didn't guarantee his appointment.

The King County Council occasionally picked a candidate with fewer votes, based on -- well, politics. In this case, the 43rd District's chairwoman, Pat Thibaudeau, was an ally of two council members and thus a strong candidate over Anderson. However, King County Democratic chairman Dave McDonald publicly told the five Democrats on the council that he wouldn't "take kindly" to the council skipping over Anderson, which helped secure a victory for Anderson in the council vote (Clever). In January 1988, Anderson entered the legislature as an excited freshman representative.

But being a political animal from a young age didn't make the eager new legislator immune to hazing. On his very first day in the chamber, Anderson was burned, as he described in a "weekly diary of his first session" published in The Seattle Times:

"We did some voting on Wednesday the 13th. A piece of legislation came up that was pretty matter-of-fact. I voted yes, and then looked up and people had voted no. I thought I had voted wrong so I looked over at Brian Ebersole (the Tacoma Democrat who's) House majority leader and he said, 'It's going down, Cal,' so I changed my vote. Then the Speaker of the House asked if anyone wished to change their vote. Ebersole changed his to 'yes' and everyone did. Then I realized it was a joke, a rite of initiation for the new people" (Rhodes, "Freshman Diary").

In his very first session, Anderson jumped into his role. He sponsored legislation to take concealed-weapons permits away from people who carry weapons while intoxicated, and a bill that addressed issues in juvenile-dependency proceedings. Anderson was surprisingly open about how the legislative process works -- even if it wasn't the idealistic, rosy course that a young legislator desires.

In his first term, Anderson described negotiating not just with legislators across the aisle, but in his own party. He recalled asking Democratic bill sponsors if they needed a vote from him. "The answer was, 'yes, unless we get enough votes, then you can vote your conscience.' When I saw my vote wasn't needed, I was able to vote my own conscience. It's a matter of negotiating and finding out what's important to the complete bill, not just little pieces of it" (Rhodes, "Freshman Diary"). Indeed, although Anderson was a strong liberal Democrat, he didn't always please fellow liberals. When Mike Lowry (1939-2017) began a bid for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in April 1988, there were reports he chastised Anderson for not endorsing him against a rival Democratic candidate.

Election Victories 

But that was nothing compared to the tense primary race Anderson embarked on in 1988 to hold on to his appointed seat in the House. Anderson's opponent was Debra Wilson Mobley, a Seattle City Council clerk. A mother of two, Mobley was bold in her bid to separate herself from Anderson. Her campaign yard signs all carried the title "Mrs." before her name. One campaign advertisement that angered Anderson asked, "Which one of these candidates for state representative in Position 1 in the 43rd District could I honestly look my kids in the eye and say, 'this is a good role model to follow?'" (Konick). Anderson called those ads and ones like them "homophobic and gay-bashing" (Konick).

Still Anderson handily won the Democratic nomination, with more than 8,000 votes to Mobley's roughly 4,500. The 1988 general election proved to be even more of a romp over the Republican contender, Lee Carter. Anderson won handily with 25,437 votes to Carter's 7,208.

As a legislator, Anderson cited housing as one of his most pressing issues; he was interested in adding more low-income housing to the community. He favored a state income tax, and drug abatement policies that called for the police department to close down buildings where frequent drug-related warrants were served.

And he continued an active role championing the rights of gays in the community. In 1990, Kettle Falls Republican Representative Steve Fuhrman launched a campaign against The Evergreen State College's annual Lesbian-Gay Film Festival, writing that Evergreen administrators "have abandoned the principles of common decency and respectability. Are you so blind that you do not see you are exalting moral perversion and pumping pornography wholesale onto our young people ... ? (Simon, "Lesbian-Gay Film Festival ..."). Evergreen officials made sure to note that they were just showing films and not pornography, and you could practically hear Anderson's eye-rolling as he told a reporter that Furhman "should pay more attention to the crops rotting in the field or the timber problem or things that really matter to his district, rather than getting so worried about sex'' (Simon, "Lesbian-Gay Film Festival ...").

Fighting for Civil Rights 

The highest priority for Anderson, year after year, was always the issue of civil rights. Every year he was in office, he attempted to push through an extension of the state's civil rights law that would cover gays and lesbians. He was devastated to see it defeated every time. (The legislature finally extended the law to cover the gay and lesbian community in 2006.)

While no one could dispute that Anderson was committed to defending gay rights and causes, the more radical constituents in the 43rd District still had complaints. In 1993, someone tagged Anderson's house with graffiti that read "Budget Cuts Kills" and "AIDS Money Now." In a fax to The Seattle Times, an anonymous AIDS activist (or activists) claimed to have done so to call attention to Anderson's purported lack of support for HIV-positive patients. But while being berated for not caring about the gay community enough, Anderson was also getting death threats based on his own sexuality.

Anderson's orientation did sometimes come up professionally; several sources claim that a few legislators avoided sitting next to him -- uncomfortable with a gay colleague -- when he first was elected. One of the more combative events in his career came during a hearing in the Senate Law and Justice committee meeting, where Anderson was testifying on behalf of extending the state's malicious harassment law to include protection for gays and lesbians. When he mentioned receiving death threats, Tacoma Democratic Senator A. L. "Slim" Rasmussen (1911-1993) suggested that Anderson received them because he was too open: "If you wouldn't go around bragging that you're a homosexual, maybe it wouldn't happen. Don't you think that's true? Don't you think it's better to keep quiet?" (Spencer, "Lawmakers Clash ... ").

As at other times in his career, Anderson didn't take the bait, and only described Rasmussen later to a reporter as "especially bullying today" (Spencer, "Lawmakers Clash ... "). The malicious harassment bill that extended protection to gays (and also provided more protection for women) later passed in 1993.

Popular Politician 

It was not just Anderson's progressive politics that endeared him to the public; his sense of humor became the stuff of lore among colleagues and the media. There was the time that Anderson sponsored a bill making the apple the official fruit of Washington, ending his speech with the proclamation -- amid laughter -- that "the subject of fruit was of vital concern" to his constituents (Beers et al.). Democratic leaders, once seeking to find a woman to appoint as caucus chair, were asked by Anderson "Will a sissy do?" (Simon, "Bill's Death ... "). He also once threatened a sit-in wearing only his boxers after the state Liquor Commission challenged a gay bar's license for sponsoring an "underwear party."

His popularity was such that in 1994, when Janice Niemi decided to leave the state senate, Anderson ran for her seat with no more than token opposition. Campaigning on a platform of gun control and taxes to support education and low-income folks, Anderson was nearly a shoo-in. He trounced Boeing engineer Mike Meenen, his Republican opponent, by 81 to 19 percent at the polls. Anderson was sworn in as a state senator in January 1995.

His time in the senate was short. In February 1995, Anderson announced he was being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a complication of AIDS. He wrote in a letter to his committee chairman that he knew for some time of a positive HIV diagnosis, but was hoping an aggressive chemotherapy schedule would put the cancer in remission. (He later disclosed he had known for about 10 years that he was HIV-positive.)

Speaking with a reporter some days after the announcement, Anderson appeared gaunt and tired, but determined:

"Naturally, I see myself as one of those who will live a long life. I have every intention of beating this. I don't get caught up in the reaction of, 'Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I've got it.' I'm thinking of how I can use this situation as an opportunity to educate. ... 

"I think my being down here has shown that gays are not monsters. We're just like everybody else except that we like to have sex with people of the same gender. We care about education and transportation and agriculture. We eat food grown east of the mountains" (Murakami).

Anderson retained his trademark humor, joking after chemo left him bald that he "just couldn't do a thing with" his hair (Ammons, "A Final Tribute ..."). 

Final Days and Legacy 

Senate Democrats found themselves in a difficult position as March and April went on. With Anderson out, they no longer held a majority. But with a kindness not generally seen in politics, his colleagues were adamant about letting Anderson recover without pushing him out. Senate Majority leader Marcus Gaspard, emphasizing that senate Democrats were "a family," acknowledged "it's a difficult situation for us, but how much more difficult for Cal. I want to be very careful not to put a burden on Cal" (Ammons, "He Fights AIDS ..."). As Anderson went off the chemotherapy and appeared to gain some strength through July, he was able to make it to Olympia for a few votes.

But Anderson's fight with AIDS ended on August 4, when his partner of 10 years, Eric Ishino, found him dead at their home. Nearly 2,000 people attended his two-hour funeral at St. James Catholic Cathedral.

But Anderson's legacy lives on. In 2003, the city of Seattle decided to christen a park in the heart of Capitol Hill (at 11th Avenue E between E Denny and E Pine streets) as Cal Anderson Park.

More importantly, Anderson's political idealism has made its mark on the state. When the legislature passed a marriage equality bill in 2012 -- which state voters enacted into law that November after it was subjected to referendum -- Ishino reflected on how bittersweet it was to have the victory without Anderson there: "I just never thought in my lifetime that I would see this ... . But it's OK. We always knew in our heart that we were married" (Whittenberg).

Reflecting on his first entrance into the legislature, Anderson had acknowledged to a reporter that he was a bit nervous about starting his tenure. "But life isn't really meant to be comfortable. Actually, it can either be comfortable or it can be an adventure. I'd much rather it be an adventure" (Rhodes, "A New Face ..."). No one could deny that Anderson got his wish.


Dick Clever, "Royer Aide Tops List for Vacant House Seat," The Seattle Times, October 2, 1987, p. E-3; Elizabeth Rhodes, "A New Face in the House -- First Openly Gay Legislator Reaps Rewards of Paying Political Dues," Ibid., January 10, 1988, p. K-1; Rhodes, "Freshman Diary," Ibid., March 11, 1988, p. D-1; "Inside Politics," Ibid., March 7, 1988, p. B-1; Terry McDermott, "Lowry Losing His Invincible Image," Ibid., April 5, 1988, p. A-1; "Times Endorsements," Ibid., September 14, 1988, p. A-12; "Election Results," Ibid., September 21, 1988, p. B-6; Lisa Konick, "Drugs and Schools Dominate District 43 Races," Ibid., September 16, 1988, B-3; Hal Spencer, "Band-travel Dispute Prompts Bill on Conflicts of Interest," Ibid., December 2, 1990, p. B-8; Spencer, "Lawmaker Sees Big Fight Over Executing Retarded," Ibid., January 13, 1991, p. B-2; Spencer, "Lawmakers Clash Amid Hate-crimes Testimony," Ibid., February 27, 1992, p. G-1; "District 43 -- Legislature," Ibid., November 5, 1990, p. C-5; Marsha King, "Concerned About Privacy as Well as Hypocrisy, Gays and Lesbians Debate the Practice of Outing," Ibid., June 22, 1990, p. C-1; Jim Simon, "Lesbian-Gay Film Festival at College Draws Fire," Ibid., May 6, 1990, p. B-5; Simon, "Bill's Death a Bitter Loss for Gay Legislator," Ibid., April 18, 1993, p. B-1; Simon, "Anderson Used His Life to Educate," Ibid., August 6, 1995, p. B-1; "Anderson Denies Forgetting AIDS Victims," Ibid., March 2, 1993, p. B-2; Barbara A. Serrano, "Senate Oks Harassment Protection for Gays," Ibid., April 14, 1993, p. C-1; Joni Balter, "Gay Power Brokers," Ibid., August 1, 1993, p. A-1; "Election Results," Ibid., November 9, 1994, p. B-9; David Postman and Dee Norton, "State Sen. Cal Anderson Says He Has AIDS, Cancer," Ibid., February 13, 1995, p. A-1; Kery Murakami, "Anderson Makes His Fight with AIDS a Public One," Ibid., February 14, 1995, p. A-1; David Ammons, "He Fights AIDS, Demos Fight On," Ibid., April 13, 1995, p. B-4; Ammons, "A Final Tribute to Cal Anderson," Ibid., August 11, 1995, p. B-4; Jonathan Martin, "Anderson Ponders Whether to Resign," Ibid., May 10, 1995, p. B-1; Carole Beers, Anne Koch, Dee Norton, and Jim Simon, "Cal Anderson, Legislator, Dies." Ibid., August 5, 1995, p. A-1; "Newswatch," Ibid., April 4, 2003, p. B-3; "Election results," Ibid., November 9, 1988, p. E-11; "Anderson to Launch Senate Race," Ibid.,  May 3, 1994, p. B-2; "State Legislative Races," Ibid.,  November 1, 1994, p. G-11; Diane Ahroni, "Cal Anderson -- Lawmaker's Kindness Shown in Surprise Gift of Key Chains," The Seattle Times, August 12, 1995 (; Mike Lindblom, "Cal Anderson Portrait Unveiled at Park Bearing His Name," Ibid., March 24, 2012; Paul de Barros, "Musicians Mourn Owner of Pioneer Square Club," Ibid., September 1, 2012; Jake Whittenberg, "Partner of Late State Senator: 'Cal would be proud,'" February 2, 2012, KING 5 News website accessed November 23, 2012 (; Matthew McQuilkin, "Five Years Later, Cal Anderson's Legacy Lives On," Seattle Gay News, June 16, 2000, excerpt available at website accessed December 23, 2012 (; "Resolution No. 266," July 6, 1971, City of Tukwila website accessed December 26, 2012 (; "Biography," Congressman Jim McDermott website accessed November 23, 2012 (; Gary Atkins, Gay Seattle, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 352-372; Kate Kershner interview with Alice Coleman, November 29, 2012, Bellingham, transcript and audio in possession of Kate Kershner, Bellingham; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Cal Anderson becomes Washington's first openly gay legislator on November 9, 1987" (by David Wilma), and "Governor Christine Gregoire signs bill extending civil rights laws to gays and lesbians on January 31, 2006," (by Kit Oldham), (accessed November 23, 2012).

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