Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project


Seattle Committee Against Thirteen

Oral History:

John Sheets

Interviewed on July 7, 2000
by Larry Knopp and Charles Fuchs
Transcribed by Lisa Galvin

"The issue was really clear . . . and the enemies were so clearly evil."

John: I kind of fell for somebody, and had a not very satisfactory relationship with him. One of the ways that I broke away from that was, I found Union of Sexual Minorities and began to attend the meetings. That’s how I got plugged in to this whole political structure. . . . That was 1976. . . . It had been going for a couple of years before I heard about it. The first USM meetings I went to were [at] an old house on, I think, 16th behind Group Health. . . . Through USM I met a number of people I liked and respected, and people I thought were strange and difficult to deal with. But I knew them for many years, and we all went into Initiative 13 activity together. …

One of the things I learned about USM over time was that it was closely intertwined with the Freedom Socialist Party -- an organization that worked on multi-pronged struggle of minority and oppressed peoples. . . . There was this women’s group, Radical Women, affiliated with it. If they perceived an organization as doing that kind of work, it would move in on the organization. The FSP folks . . . were very focused in their approach. They turned the organization that they became members of to their own end, and their organizing skills were so formidable that they’d be able to do it. . . . Not all the members of USM were Freedom Socialist Party members, but many were. . . .

Larry: Were those FSP people [in USM] gay and lesbian people?

John: Yes, for the most part, but not all of them. . . .

That was in the late ‘70s. At the end of that period . . . there was a community meeting to form a larger statewide organization, the Washington Coalition for Sexual Minority Rights. And the organization that became the Seattle Committee Against Thirteen flowed out of that.

Larry: When was WCSMR spun off?

John: I would say ’77 or so, maybe early ’78. The meeting was in the American Society of Friends building in the U-District. . . .

Charlie: But USM continued to exist?

John: I don’t know. I think that there wasn’t much of it after WCSMR formed. It was bigger, more appealing to multiple senses of political action than USM. USM was focused on Seattle. That the Freedom Socialist Party dominated it was pretty clear to just about everybody in the gay community. . . .

I met people of a wider spectrum of the gay community through WCSMR. There were people who were pretty much unpolitical, but they wanted to do something. . . . They had had some history with the Freedom Socialist Party, [and] were not naďve as I was. They were sophisticated enough to see their “assimilationist tendency,” I guess, and they backed away. And because they wouldn’t play along they were kind of badmouthed. I had my own experience with that. I didn’t respond to calls from FSP after a while. I didn’t go to their organizational things, and so I got a rep too. . . .

Larry: I just remembered an important piece, which was the moment at which WCSMR was founded, around this table, in another home.

John: Same table, right.

Larry: Probably’76 or ‘77?.

John: It was before ’78, I believe. Michael [Sever] and Joan [Kurtz] and I agreed to be the organizing committee. We would come with a draft of principles to organize with. And we met at Joan’s house also, and at Michael’s apartment. But it was around this table that we three -- Michael represented whatever political sense that he represented, Joan represented herself, and I was supposed to be the FSP little cloned person, I guess. [laughter] I don’t know. And because the organization didn’t turn out better, that may be why FSP washed their hands of me.

Yeah, I’m waiting for the plaque for the table any day.

Charlie: So when WCSMR was hived off of USM, did the link to FSP and Radical Women weaken?

John: It weakened because there were more folks who didn’t have the [ideological?] connection. I remember my friend Judith leaned over to me and said, “We’ve got to get involved in this” -- “we” meaning the Freedom Socialist Party. I wasn’t really a member -- maybe some kind of a mascot or something. So we volunteered to be on the organizing committee. And that’s how Michael Sever and Joan Kurtz and I ended up sitting at this table, working out WCSMR.

Charlie: When this woman said, “We need to get involved,” it wasn’t about her trying to keep the FSP/Radical Women agenda alive in WCSMR -- or it was?

John: That’s what I understand it to have been. Yes.

Charlie: So when you and Michael and Joan got involved, around this table, was that to keep that from happening?

John: No, it just happened to be the case. I was supposed to carry the torch, and I was not much of a torch-bearer. . . . We three represented pretty different things. I don’t believe the Freedom Socialist Party ever acquired such a hold because there were too many people who were not interested in the political analysis they offered. The people who were involved from USM were those who were ambivalent about FSP. Also, FSP was always busy with their own activities. They would have, like six meetings a week. . . .

Larry: And not too long thereafter, Initiative 13 comes along. Was it your sense that the link weakened even more, at that point?

John: Yes, I think it had to do with the way FSP analyzed the campaign issue. They thought that many of the people who were fighting were elitist or didn’t understand that it was a group struggle for the rights of all people, and not just focused on gay rights. . . . Individuals [in FSP] were moved enough to be active, but they didn’t make it their own campaign. They were fighting for all kinds of other things and didn’t want their effort to be diluted. It was a real interesting kind of a tension. . . .

We had a meeting at someone’s house in Ocean Shores [where] the political campaign for SCAT was planned, with all these activists who knew just what to do. Our attorney -- an old activist from Ann Arbor, I think -- advised SCAT on the legality of what was going on, and the best course of action to pursue. If I recall correctly, he authored a shadow initiative which was filed after Initiative 13. The city attorney sent him a letter saying, “It’s quite likely that your initiative will be in conflict with the Bill of Rights.” Anyway, it was quite funny, but it was all for publicity. . .

Larry: Now, there was also a tension between SCAT and the Citizens to Retain Fair Employment.

John: Yes, I believe that CRFE was interested more in representing the issues as issues of privacy -- your right to personal activity. They were never interested in having drag queens doing anything public; they were never interested in approaching the people in bars; they were never interested in being gay, it seemed. I mean, it was okay to do it in closed rooms. They only partly represented the problems, only partly represented the situation. They didn’t want to talk about the economic consequences if somebody couldn’t get a job because the employer wouldn’t hire them. I, at one point in the campaign, went on the radio with Roger Winters. It was a call-in show, and the conversation actually took those kinds of turns. . . .

I am not sure now, at this late age, whether it was really right to look at the Initiative 13 campaign issues in such a dichotomous way. Like, anybody who represented The Citizen Point of View was really wrong, misrepresenting gay people, didn’t understand it, and was kind of dishonest. I think the dishonesty idea was the most important thing. The SCAT people thought they were being much more honest about what the real issues were, I think. . . .

I don’t remember WAT very much. I don’t know whether there was a substantial portion of the lesbian community that did not want to work in organizations that had men in leadership roles. I remember “leadership role” -- that phrase rings in my mind because it’s something we talked about all the time. I remember the discussion around: do we want to have a leader for WCSMR? Do we want to have a leader for SCAT?

Well, we need to have someone who will meet the press. That was who our leader was -- a person articulate enough to talk to the press. I think that WAT might have been formed out of the sense that women were seriously impacted by this initiative. … Most of the women I knew who were in WAT were also active in SCAT. …

Larry: When you think back on that experience, do you think differently about it now? Are there lessons for you personally, or for the gay community, for Seattle?

John: I would like to believe that I’d be, maybe a little more active than I was -- that my understanding of people has broadened in the years that have intervened. I can remember feeling a distaste for people like Roger Winters and Charlie Brydon. I hope I wouldn’t be quite so censorious, I guess. But it seemed like it was a splendid opportunity to rally people and the issue was really clear, the challenges really clear, and the enemies were so clearly evil. It was like World War II! There was nothing complicated about Dennis Faulk and the other guy -- [in SOME]. They were, on the one hand so lame, on the other hand so menacing. I mean, they were so wrong, and we were so right! How often do you get a chance to feel that way in life? And, if anything, I’d like to rise more to the occasion than I did. . . .

Charlie: So, how did you feel going into Election Day?

John: A number of things happened. Initiatives like I-13 in other cities and had passed. Gay protection had been lost in the Midwest [and] Eugene. In these heartland American communities, gay rights had fallen. Anita Bryant’s organization gave money to SOME, and there seemed to be this national structure. So I guess it was pretty dark, although we’d done as much as we could. . . .

The election day -- it was a wonderful day. There was this wonderful party afterwards. There were actually two parties. There was a CRFE party, a Dorian party, at the Eagles Auditorium. And then ours was in the Pike Place Market. Somebody -- might have been Dennis -- knew that this hall was available and called, and organized this impromptu party. . . . We were following the campaign there -- there was a television set or something like that. It was a wonderful thing because Seattle had stopped this tide.

Then after that -- the impetus -- to have been doing so much with so much of our lives was over. We were through, at least for a while. There was a discussion about, do we want to work on a statewide gay rights bill? The pros and cons and the likelihood of that seemed less clear, and people were probably tired. I remember that there were several meetings of WCSMR after the election was over. “What do we want to do?” and it kind of disintegrated a little. There [were] still some social circles.

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