Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project


Jan Denali 2002

Women Against Thirteen

Oral History:

Jan Denali

Interviewed on March 4, 1998
by Karina Luboff
Transcribed by Teri Balkenende
Photo, Jan in 2002, by Marina Weisenbach

“We managed to work in wonderful coalition.”

Jan: Right about that time, Initiative 13 reared its ugly head -- which was the “other side” coming forth to take the anti-discrimination clauses out of the city employment and housing code. So we had sexual orientation in the city housing and employment code, and that hadn’t been for very long, and the other side decided they shouldn’t be there. So I was working downtown, working on construction. I was a trades gal, a carpenter’s apprentice.

And I was working at the Market, which was a wonderful job, and saw these petitioners. And it was like, “Oh my God! You know, “Here they are!” And it just riled me, this righteous indignation just came up in me -- like, how dare they! And I got on the phone to some friends and said, you must get down here! You must pick up some flyers. You must get down here and start -- you know, balancing these people out. [laughs] So that was the beginning of the signature-gathering process.

The group process, dealing with campaign strategies and issues, is completely cumbersome and challenging. There were those who thought we should not be at that level -- out there with the signature gatherers. But to me, you get involved in each step that you can. They’re out there saying a bunch of crap about you. If you can, why wouldn’t you be there saying the other side of the story? So that was the beginning.

SCAT -- Seattle Committee Against Thirteen -- was a formation out of the Union for Sexual Minorities, which was the active gay organization at that time. But it was men -- it was men, it was men. And I went to some of those meetings as they were trying to gear up for this election campaign -- one of the early ones. Anita Bryant in Dade County [Florida] within that same period. It was pretty early for this sort of stuff.

But to go to those meetings that were so unbelievably male, it was completely oppressive. They’d do these spiels about the community -- all of us needed to come together and work on this thing. But at the same time they’re saying that, they’re using only male language. It’s completely, “He, he, he,” and “every man.” It was a mind fuck. I remember pacing around outside going, “How on earth am I going to do this?” Because I was compelled by the issue -- the other side’s wanting to make us out to be such horrible people. But how on earth was I going to work with these idiots, who were talking out of both sides of their mouths? Not that it was their fault -- it was the historical time that it was, but it was time for that to change, you know?

It was mostly called the “gay community” then. It was a big deal to call it the gay and lesbian community. Of course now they want to call it the gay/lesbian/bi/trans community. But then you were lucky if you could get “gay and lesbian” out. [laughs]

So we had a brilliant, brilliant solution. The Seattle Committee Against Thirteen was not all men, but it was the outgrowth of the Union for Sexual Minorities, and it did have that male dominance. There were some good women leaders and women involved in that organization. But then, there was Women Against Thirteen -- so it was SCAT/WAT. And we managed to work in wonderful coalition. It was an amazing model. The thing that made it so cool was to have that organization of women to work with and process with, and then go to these SCAT meetings with that spport behind you -- just the power of that. The balance was wonderful. We shared office space.

What I was mostly involved with was the canvassing project, which was a joint project of SCAT/WAT. That was the door-to-door stuff. We were big on education.

So, within the gay and lesbian community there were the conservative gays and then there was us. The conservative gays had an organization. I used to call them “straight gays.” But the conservative gays had a lot of money and wanted to go on the privacy issue. That was their point: we should keep these ordinances intact because it’s a privacy issue.

They were a hierarchical organization. They paid their campaign manager a lot of money. It was a real different orientation. We, on the other hand, were completely into education, volunteer -- a really different thing. So we prioritized the city by precinct, going for the swing precincts: who do you have a prayer of convincing? And running orientation sessions to go out and canvass the city on the issue and being very educational about it. So that was my project. Door to door.

Karina: What kind of responses did you get?

Jan: A variety. But I found the project to be empowering -- addressing the issue straightforward. That was the part of me that was engaged. Like, don’t give me this crap about the kind of pervert I am. I just can’t stand that stuff, you know? So, to be able to stand there in front of somebody and have a conversation was really empowering. We had all this de-briefing and teamwork, because you’d get icky stuff too -- and how to deflect that. . .

So we won Initiative 13. It was a wonderful victory. We had the most amazing party at the Pike Place Market, where we filled up the whole outside in front of the clock. The mass-ness of that event. It was wonderful.

Then, a few years later [more anti-gay measures] kept coming. The other one that grabbed my attention, that I played a leadership role in, was [King County] Referendum 7,* which came along in [‘86]. Where the other side had [a petition] -- I have [a copy] on my bulletin board. Their petition had this flap that folded over, covering up the top of it -- the real ballot title. What the flap said was, “Repeal special rights for child molesters, sadomasochists and rapists.” That’s what it said! And what its real thing was, was to take sexual orientation out of the county housing code. Again, it was just, “Ugh.” Some force inside me was like, “Child molesters and rapists! Please!” It just had nothing, nothing to do with it.

And again, even more dramatically this time than with Initiative 13, it seems to me, this split in the gay and lesbian/bi/trans community around how to respond. You know, there’s so much that happens where we’re not in touch with our history. So here it was not that much later -- almost ten years -- that’s a long time, I guess. People didn’t have a clue about Initiative 13.

People were really excited to run a campaign, and didn’t want to do the signature gathering. Wanted to just let it get on the ballot. They were hiring campaign managers for lots of money, renting office space, and I’m like, “Wait a minute.” It’s not that running a campaign doesn’t have its positive side. It does. The community building is cool. But a million dollars? It’s not cheap to do this sort of thing, and everybody’s life is full anyway, So that was freaking me out, that people were ready to jump to that level without doing the steps leading up to it. They were treating the initiative process as if it were a candidate process.

If it’s a candidate, it’s top-down. You work on the thing because you believe in the candidate, and the candidate will tell you what to do because that’s who they are. They are the leader that you choose and believe in, so you do what they tell you. And you hire experts to find out what people think and you gear things that way. That’s how people wanted to run this campaign. No! Are you kidding?

An initiative about gay and lesbians’ lives is not the same thing. You know, they want to control what every aspect of the community is going to do to respond to this? Forget it. You don’t try to control people. You try to facilitate people and maybe guide a little bit. Besides which, nobody wanted to address the flap. This was a blatant lie -- an inflammatory lie about us and nobody wanted to address it. They wanted to let the process play on and hire their expensive experts, rent their offices, and do a campaign.

I couldn’t do that. So I kind of single-handedly took on to figure out, what’s the deal with this flap? I called the attorney general’s office and said, “Are you aware that signatures are being gathered with these flaps? Do you care?” And [called] various offices in county government to find out who knew and who cared, and who would be responsible for approving those signatures. [I started] a petition. There were fifteen of us, on Capitol Hill where the meetings were happening in response to this referendum, who wanted to challenge the flap. Fifteen of us out of about two hundred.

I had this petition duplicated and sent all over county government saying, “Would you please look at the flap?” Nothing happened with that. Their response was that at the point that the signatures were turned in would be when they would address that, but they would not stop people from gathering signatures with the flap. Of course the flap said, “Please remove this before turning it in.” It had these perforations. Nobody’s going to turn it in with a flap. And even if they did, it’s not like these people cared.

So then we did a legal challenge. It was this tiny committee -- a few of my friends, actually, and George Bakan at SGN was a supportive player. And got some people from the National Lawyers Guild interested to mount a legal challenge to this flap. And the long and the short of it is, we won.

One of my swan songs -- one of my things, besides this way that lesbians are invisible in the gay/lesbian/bi/trans, my little piece of that -- is the progressive lesbian work that has been done. You know, the “straight gays” would write history without us even being in there. And that’s the point of view of a conservative, strong element in the gay community. I’m saying "gay" specifically. Not that there aren’t any women in the gay community. There are, but there’s something different there. And how easy it is for progressive gay and lesbian/bi/trans input and projects and work to be invisible. Or to get dropped out of the history.

I’ve confronted that in hearing people talk about Initiative 13. We were certainly visible -- they bought TV ads, and I can’t remember if we [WAT] even had any TV ads. But from my point of view -- I have no problem including them in [the] forces that were involved in this issue, not at all. But it’s not true the other way. And for people who are paying attention to and documenting history, I would just say, [laughs] “Watch out for that.”

* King County Referendum 7, 1986. Full text of the flap read: “Repeal special rights for homosexuals, transvestites, child molesters, sadomasochists, rapists and other persons with deviant sexual orientations.”

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