INITIATIVE 13 STORIES
Seattle Committee Against Thirteen
Interviewed on May 27, 2000
by Larry Knopp and Charles Fuchs
Transcribed by Renia Ehrenfeucht
“I was living a revolution.”
Dennis: I took a trip with three other gay men. We crossed the Rocky Mountain range around December 18 with no chains and almost died. We had no idea what we were doing and almost plunged over a mountain top. This was my West Coast exploration trip. I knew I was going to end up in the West Coast. A lot of my friends had preceded me. It seemed like everybody under thirty had succumbed to this sort of tilt where they were all rolling down to this edge of the county. A lot of people that I really loved and knew from before I came out even.
So I came, did an exploration. Loved Seattle -- this was ’72. And then got in a big van with Faygele [ben Miriam] and a bunch of other people. We had the words “Gay Power” printed on all three sides of it and drove down to Portland. We looked around -- Portland was too small. We went to San Francisco and met people there. San Francisco was too big. So Seattle was just right. . . .
Larry: What was it about the West Coast? Was it beauty? Something else?
Dennis: I think it was legendary in many ways. You know, Haight Ashbury. It just seemed a lot more progressive. Whether that was true or not, it seemed that way. More relaxed. More opportunities. Beauty. It seemed like it might be easier to be gay there -- I got that confirmed after I visited here. I hooked in with a community of people. . . .
I had looked into the Dorian Group, and found them -- well, they had aligned themselves together as business people. I wasn’t a business person and so it didn’t seem to be a good fit. Their agenda was conservative. And if anything, my approach to sexuality and to gay liberation was comparatively radical. So it was always curious to me that the organized drag community -- Imperial Seattle?
Larry: Imperial Court?
Dennis: Yeah. That they had aligned with the Dorian Group, but they did. But folks like Roger [Winters] and Charlie [Brydon] -- I knew them. I’d talk with them. I’d argue with them. I just found -- their strategies would not be effective as far as I was concerned. That really proved out, I think, during the Initiative 13 struggle.
As I saw them, they were sort of an outcropping of the Mattachine Society approach, which is: we’re here, and we want to be considered, but we’re not going to make too much of a fuss. We’re going to go through existing channels. For myself, a 23 year-old, I was living a revolution. [laughter] I didn’t want anything to do with the channels they were trying to suck up to. I was -- not anarchistic, but to upset the apple cart. To be disruptive of the status quo. And that was an approach that pitted the forces of Dorian Group against what became SCAT and WAT, when Estes and Falk launched their initiative. Dennis Falk -- a right-winger extraordinaire, John Bircher -- he used to carry a chain glove when he would patrol the University of Washington -- the Ave. He was notorious for beating people up. And David [Estes], a total closet case, religious nut. To fight those two loonies, you needed to expose them -- on every front. . . .
Jerry DeGriek had steered me into [Union of Sexual Minorities] -- became very involved. Made some lifelong friends. There was always, I think, looming, the possibility the fair employment and housing ordinance would be repealed. We kept getting signals that this was coming. So that was in the background. There were other issues that had to do with police entrapment, raiding of bars, things like that. That was still going on at that time, although less and less so. Seattle was a much more progressive community than most towns for gays.
There was a famous bar -- the first disco that Seattle had, called Shelly’s Leg, in Pioneer Square. What distinguished it was that it was men and women, it was a disco, and they had windows that were open to the street. So on any night you would see straight people outside looking in the windows. [laughs] It was that whole era captured in that one place. Still, there were issues that came up around the police.
When Falk and Estes came forward, that galvanized everybody. There was at that time also the women’s movement. There was kind of a separation between the dykes and the faggots. How they were going to come together was the rare experience. Union of Sexual Minorities was one place; Shelly’s Leg was another. Yet at the same time there was a distinct need for a lot of the political women to put together their own organization, which became Women Against Thirteen. The organization I was involved with, Seattle Committee Against Thirteen -- we shared office space with Women Against Thirteen. We had our differences too, but they were mostly tactical differences, not so much strategic differences.
It became very clear that we had real differences with Roger [Winters] and with Charlie [Brydon] about how to approach this. How to inform the public that it was in their interest to, first of all, not sign the initiative and, once the initiative was signed and was going to go up to a vote, why the public should vote against it. We had some great tactics -- really, the kind of tactics that a nimble organization could do. CRFE could not do things like what we did. They were operating, you could say, at a different level. Higher up -- schmoozing with politicians and business interests, I suppose. We were more willing to work on the street level.
We would send out hoards of people when we found out that the pro-Thirteeners were gathering signatures. There was a phone list. You would call and say, “It’s happening now. Get out to Northgate Mall.” And people would just descend down there. It was illegal to block people from signing the initiative, but we’d stand right near the signature gatherers and talk very openly to people before they had an opportunity to sign. “Do you really know what this is about?” So we had some great fun with that.
You might remember Cookie Hunt, who is now deceased. Cookie was in SCAT. Basically, she was a lesbian welfare mother. She came out and she got very political. She had two very young kids, hand in hand, and she would go to these petition signings [laughs] would engage with the pro-Thirteen forces. Act like a dumb housewife. “Really, I didn’t know that. Tell me more.” [laughter] And they were such zealots, they would just spend all their time trying to convince her. [laugh] She was a perfect foil, having these two little kids in hand. Oh, geez!
Larry: Back in Detroit and in Ann Arbor, were there things you learned there that you put into practice here?
Dennis: Guerilla tactics, definitely. When I think back about some of the actions I was involved with -- disruptive actions sometimes, with City Hall in Ann Arbor, going to Hudson’s [Department Store].
The idea was that information and visibility would be the strength. Gay people were invisible, essentially. They needed to be part of the social fabric. I definitely am an integrationist. I feel it’s crucial for gay people to have their places, but also not to be ghettoized. It’s pretty clear that’s happened now, much to the chagrin of Dr. Laura and others. But, yeah, I would say fearless tactics about just being open in public.
In my youth, I really believed that everybody had to come out, and I don’t believe that anymore. I think that’s very, very personal. It’s really arrogant to think that that could be a tactic adapted by everyone, because people have investments in their lives and some of them could be jeopardized, whether it be a job or family, whatever. But for those people that can, I think that it’s advisable. But I realize that’s just the tip of the iceberg too. I just need to go across the mountains or travel a little bit south or north or even west and that’s not the case. It takes a lot of courage, I think, to make that declaration.
Larry: What do you feel the Initiative Thirteen experience taught you?
Dennis: I have to think about that for a minute. One of the things that comes to mind immediately was just the value of people working together who are not necessarily all the same. There were people that worked on Initiative Thirteen that, to this day, I didn’t know whether they were gay or not. I remember husbands and wives coming in and working together. The campaign slogan was, “Someone in your life is gay.” That was distinctly different -- a more humanist approach -- than what Citizens To Retain Fair Employment put forward, which was privacy. “Protect your privacy” was their motto. We took the approach that, if you just think about it, your actions will have an effect on somebody you know. It was pretty confronting, because it asked people to consider the personal consequences of their actions. You know -- to actually take away someone’s right to a job and housing.
Larry: Did you expect to win that campaign?
Dennis: We didn’t know. I didn’t know. It was a pretty depressing election day. I remember, with Tom Richards -- we drove around. I don’t even know why we were driving around. But there was nothing more to be done at that point. I remember just looking out in other people’s car windows and people just looked, suddenly, not very friendly. I began to fear, to doubt this was going to happen. I just began to see, in people’s faces, that things were shutting down.
Charlie: Could you say how you felt when the results were final?
Dennis: That was complex. We were at the party. We had rented a space in the Pike Market, an upper story. There was an open balcony and I remember somebody from a very famous electronics store had lent us, at no cost, sound equipment for that evening. It seemed like all my friends in the world were gathered there. And we got the results and it was an early win. It was evident very early.
It was just -- jubilation. In the aftermath, there was kind of a letdown too, because this moving force, this thing that had developed its own life and its own structure, and timetable, and community -- it wasn’t happening anymore. As people went back into their own lives and communities, it became clear that this was an extraordinary experience. Hopefully, there will be others in life. And there have been. But an experience of community on that level really changes you. I felt a kind of loss afterwards -- even though we won. Because people that I loved and loved to work with -- it just wasn’t happening on that level of adrenaline. [laughs] So, we’ve all gone our separate ways, done different things, found other places -- or we’ve continued in some of the same organizations or offshoots. I’ve found my own ways to express myself in the manner of community, too.
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