Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project


Seattle Committee Against Thirteen

Oral History:

Tom Richards

Interviewed on July 7, 2000
by Charles Fuchs and Larry Knopp
Transcribed by Chloe Martinez

"To make them see that I was human . . ."

Larry: How did you become aware of Initiative 13? How did you decide to get involved and why?

Tom: Being involved in politics and thinking as a political person — I have a degree I history, and politics is always a part of our life. . . . I know it was very early. It was well before it was on the ballot, because we spent a good deal of our activities struggling to keep the signature-gatherers from getting the signatures, which was a touchy issue in and of itself. Because the Dorian Group and that group of folks did not believe that that was a good strategy, and very adamantly opposed our work to do that. So we not only had to fight the signature-gatherers, but half the gay community too.

It turned out we were right, of course, and now that strategy is used many times. In fact, [in Oregon], they’re attempting to do the same thing, keep it off the ballot. It’s a lot easier to keep something off the ballot than it is to fight it once it’s on, because the general population is easily seduced by a heading of an initiative, more than the technicalities of what that means and how it affects people’s lives.

This was my first big involvement in politics in a significant way. . . . I know that early on this [SCAT] was the group for me. I’m not even sure that it had totally coalesced yet. Women Against Thirteen was not even formed at the point that I got involved. I may have just picked up the phone and made a call, or may have known somebody who told me about a meeting.

I was aware of the Dorian Group. I never saw the Dorian Group as my kind of place. I saw this like, fraternity crowd. In college I was not in a fraternity, I was with the counterculture folks that lived off-campus. That’s I viewed this whole thing.

Charlie: Why did you define them as a fraternity crowd?

Tom: They were the business-established group. They were the people who I wasn’t. [laughs] They had jobs as insurance people, or owned their businesses, and they were just a little older and a little more substantial in their positions, financially speaking. I was living on [the] margins, a counter-culture lifestyle and smoking pot and having multiple sexual partners and not worrying much about that, and going out every night. It was a whole different scene from the one that they were representing. And they would probably agree with that. [laughs]

I haven’t had any animosity toward them. In fact, there were times that I’d come to the conclusion that there was an excellent strategy, if by default, that we ended up with. Them doing their work on the privacy issues, and us the grassroots work. It worked out well. And since we didn’t identify with the other, there was a dynamic that played off with each other. A sort of a competition, almost, within the gay community, to see who could do a better job, and who could get more people to rally around them. Like, we wanted to be more popular than them, we wanted people to see us as a better way to run the campaign. So we struggled to be better than them, and I think in some ways it improved the whole campaign.

[My] number one role was chair of what we called the Distribution Committee. At first it was a campaign response to the Initiative signatures gatherers. We had people all over the city, literally, who would call us and inform us when the signature gatherers were there. We would send out squads of people to surround them and talk to anyone who they tried to talk with, to encourage them to read the Initiative. We respected their right to sign it, but we wished that they would do the favor of reading it before they did so. We would give them a copy and say, “Do not sign anything until you know what you’re signing.”

Of course they [the signature gatherers] were outraged. They said we were interfering with their right to do what they were doing. We said, we’re not stopping anyone from signing. We’re just simply talking to the same people you’re talking to, we have every right to do so. But it got really ugly.

My favorite story about all that: one night we were in the campaign office and we got a phone call. There was nobody around to send, except for Phil and Tom and I. There was a woman gathering signatures at University Village, with her sixteen-year-old son. We get there, and there’s this middle-class, well-groomed conservative Mormon mother, with her son. We started our usual thing, and of course she was incensed that we would dare interfere with this, and she: “Get out of here.” She’d say stuff like “Satan be gone! In the name of Jesus Christ cast ye out!” And I said, “Look lady, I’m not gonna go up in a puff of smoke, it’s not gonna work.”

Finally the University [Village] mall manager came along and said to us, “You gentlemen are going to have to leave the premises.” I said, “I think you’re making a serious mistake there. First of all, she’s been gathering signatures here, not us. We’re simply here to talk to her and to others about this. She’s engaging the public and we’re part of the public. If we don’t have a right to be there, then neither does she.” He thought about that a minute and then he goes, “I think you’re right.” He goes, “Lady, you’re gonna have to go.” And she just blew up. “What? You’re gonna let these Satan’s devil people take over everything!”

She starts screaming and ranting, and waving her arms in the air, and her sixteen-year-old son is trying to hold them down to her side. “Mom, now come on, Mom,” dragging his mom to the car. I said, “Look, if you do this, I can have a picket line of lesbians around this place so fast your head will spin!” He was envisioning the Dykes on Bikes, I think. [laughs] I think it scared the bejeezus out of him, and so that ended that. . . .

My other favorite story about gathering signatures -- the number one signature gatherer. … She was from some small town. She always looked out of place, clearly not comfortable in the urban environment. Especially in downtown with radical faggots running around her. She would show up in front of Frederick & Nelson’s. We did our thing, and she started, “Get away from me! Leave me alone!” I says, “We are leaving you alone, as much as we can, under the circumstances. But you’re the one that brought this battle to our streets, and we’re going to do battle here in any way that’s legal.”

She would run into Fredrick & Nelson’s women’s room. We’d be waiting out front for her to come out. Then she’d come out and dart out the side door, and try to get signatures again. We’d find her and say, “Hello again.” . . . We were friendly, we didn’t do mean things to her. We just did what we thought we had a right to do. She would call the police. The police would come, and we’d explain the situation. “We’re not breaking any laws, that we know of. . . . We’re just engaging the same public she is and we have a right to do so.”

They finally gave up with the street gathering of signatures, and went door to door. They primarily went to West Seattle. It’s the time that West Seattle was threatening secession from the city over the bridge not being built. I remember saying to them, “If you guys ever secede from the city, this ordinance, won’t have any effect, because the people who signed it didn’t even live in the city.” …

At the time the strategy was, if they knock on your door, don’t be mean to them, don’t tell them to go fuck themselves. Invite them in, offer them tea, have them sit down, and ask them a million questions. Keep them there all night long if possible. We had people doing that all over town. They’d come in with stories, “I kept him there for four hours!” We figured, one signature they couldn’t get there is better than fifteen they may get if they’re out gathering. And it was a brilliant strategy. [laughs] . . . .

Larry: Reflecting on Initiative 13, do you think there’s anything that Seattle’s gay and lesbian community learned from that experience?

Tom: I certainly know it changed me dramatically and in many ways. It was how I learned to deal with the enemy, if you will, in a way that didn’t make me angry when I was done, and didn’t seem to make them angry with my approach. I got good at talking to people who didn’t like me. . . . I’m not a public person. I don’t like to make an issue of my politics. I’m not a joiner of political campaigns -- I’m a supporter, but not a joiner. I don’t get rabid about stuff like that. To this day I don’t get involved in a group way, I do it in my own private way.

So do that was a big thing for me. I remember walking downtown with big sandwich boards on about gay rights, and having kiss-ins in front of the courthouse, where we’d make out in front of the courthouse, just to gender fuck with them. You know, to challenge the notions about gender.

All this stuff was creating a lot of notice from people. I didn’t like to be hated or despised, or thought people think I’m disgusting. I’d started developing a more sophisticated approach to people like that. I would engage them as a person who they wouldn’t necessarily identify as gay, get to know them, and get them to feel like I understood them a little bit, and then introduce my politics. That was much more effective, instead of starting right out with the head-on challenge to whatever they believe. To make them see that I was human and that I understood their human-ness, and then take it from there.

Larry: Do you think Seattle was changed dramatically?

Tom: Oh, absolutely. … To this day, as far as I know, no one has run a more effective grassroots campaign in this city. We door-belled every single residence in this city. . . . I don’t know if we got to every single one but darn near it. … And that had never been done.

We got calls from politicians and organizations running campaigns after that, “How did you guys do what you did?” Because we were thought to have no chance at all, and we won. I mean, we didn’t just win, we won big. So we were seen as a very politically astute group when we were done. We started out as naïve as they come. We had no idea how to run a campaign. . . . We made all our buttons ourselves. Everything was learn as you go, and it was surprisingly sophisticated actually by the time we got rolling. It didn’t look as amateurish as it should have.

Larry: Is there a legacy of that, either organizationally or otherwise, that you’re aware of?

Tom: I think that a lot of people got their stability around that issue solidified. They knew who they were when that was over, and they went on to have influences in a lot of places, all over the city, and to this day still do. I think they learned how to do what they do now, then -- myself included. I don’t know how you could have measured that. We all had so many jobs -- none of us did just one thing.

The other thing that I had to do was the community coalition. Instead of just speaking as gay people we wanted to speak as a larger community. So we got twenty-five different social organizations to join us in a coalition against Initiative 13 -- American Friends Service Committee, the MCC church, the League of Women Voters. I guess you would call them the more progressive organizations in town. But they had some recognition as mainstream respected organizations.

I was chair of that committee, and I’m just barely in my twenties. This is my first big thing to do in life, that I ever had to be in charge. . . . We’d write a letter and they’d all sign it, and we could do that in an evening. We’d call a meeting and people would show up. It was magical in some sense, and I don’t know why, but it just happened. I think it was because the people who we were fighting were so perfectly evil looking, they just drove people into our camp, in numbers. I’m sure of it.

Larry: Do you have any recollection of a campaign stunt involving filing a mock initiative?

Tom: We were feeling our oats one meeting, and we were pissed about all the bullshit they were saying about us, and all the counter-statements we had to make. Wouldn’t it be funny to show how ridiculous it is by doing something just as absurd. . . . We should file our own initiative: “We the people of Seattle do not find it that certain people” -- I don’t know, heterosexuals or Mormons or West Seattle-ites, I forget what it was -- “should have rights to do this.” It was scandalously absurd and fascist, but almost the same as their initiative, word for word. It was a press release, is what it was.

I think we did it the day they filed their initiative, with the signatures -- they barely made it. If we’d had more support on that issue a little earlier on, I think we could have stopped it. . . . At the time, I thought that was a bad thing because I was convinced that we were going to lose. I don’t think anybody thought we were going to win. . . . To fight that hard for something you know you’re going to lose was not easy to do.

After the campaign was over … there’s a big, big pressure to keep this momentum going. We had a meeting afterwards. They’re all going, “What can we do next?” I’m just the opposite. I wait till something comes along that I feel I need to do it, and then do it. They wanted to make a cause, or find our new issue. I was saying, if we don’t have an issue, we don’t have an issue.

So I called for the disbanding of the group, and people were upset by that. But there was some movement to the first March on Washington. Also I did a boycott of a local gay bar over their discrimination against blacks and women—the Brass Door. That was my own private fight. But the March on Washington, which we headquartered out of my house -- I chaired that committee. And after that was over, I just didn’t have a cause.

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