Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project


Women Against Thirteen

Oral History:

Vernell Pratt

Interviewed on August 13, 2000
by Larry Knopp and Ruth Pettis
Transcribed by CHris Beahler

“There were times when you wanted a label.”

Vernell: I was in the national office of the [National Lawyers] Guild helping to put together this newspaper, and there was an ad. Some people that I had known since they were law students were now lawyers -- were opening up an office in Seattle, and they wanted a paralegal. I had been to Seattle for a National Lawyers Guild convention in 1977, and I fell in love with Lake Washington immediately upon seeing it. And I liked these people, they were all heterosexual but they were all friendly, progressive political people. I thought they would be okay to work with, so I came up here.

Larry: How important was a politically active, conscious, progressive environment to you?

Vernell: It was important. I knew enough about their political orientation to know that. I left Austin because there wasn't enough [progressiveness]. It was just overkill in the Bay area. So I was ready for Seattle, which turned out to be a good middle ground. I moved to Seattle in March of 1978, and within weeks if not days, Initiative 13 was filed. I didn't come here knowing much about the lesbian and gay community. I just assumed it would be a groovy one, but within maybe three weeks I was at a house to organize Women Against Thirteen.

Larry: How did you hear about that?

Vernell: A lesbian lawyer, who I knew of before I moved here -- I don't remember if we had actually met. Because of the Guild I knew of her and she knew of me. I believe she called me to come to a meeting. …

Larry: Just a reflection-type question: it's becoming clear that social justice has always been a passion of yours. Is that fundamental to the way you were raised, or about your particular experiences?

Vernell: I don't know. I think my mother instilled it, in some way. My father -- he voted for Eisenhower and he was a bigot and all that, but he was a working guy, and he had some pretty value-laden stuff. I don't remember being taught much of anything except that my mother had a sense of justice with regard to the treatment of black people. So I think it probably comes from that, and experience. . . .

I went to this Women Against Thirteen meeting, and I don't remember what committee I originally signed up on. . . . It had a lot to do with the enthusiasm because [my girlfriend] got into canvassing and that seemed okay to me. So I did that too, and I wrote some songs, and generally took an anarchistic approach to my involvement in the campaign. I tried not to be on committees but just to do a little of this and a little of that. I think it was really a good experience in terms of learning organizational skills, and also about the difference between issue campaigns and candidate campaigns. Learning those differences and getting pretty good at an issue kind of campaign was helpful later when I did the [Jesse] Jackson thing, because you were able to bring those two things together. You had a candidate that finally had the right position on most of the issues, including the gay issues.

So that, and the participation of straight people in a serious way in the Initiative 13 campaign, is something that was impressive to me. I never hung out with homophobes in Austin, but none of those people would have been likely to get active in something like that. And then, the social thing -- friendships with people that I'm still friends with because of Initiative 13. The only regret I have is that it's 27 years later and we still have to fight the same kind of crap. . . .

And then [the] aftermath of the campaign. I became involved with a theater group that was originally the Women Against 13 Theater Group -- later changed its name to the Freedom of Information Act. ... It continued [on] other political issues. I was involved with a production about one of the earlier invasions in the Middle East. It was called "The Oily Bird Gets the War," and we took it all around Seattle street fairs, and went to University of Oregon and Eugene, took it someplace in Portland, and traveled around a little bit with that theater group. And that was all lesbians. . . .

Ruth: There was some participation by the National Lawyers Guild involvement in the Initiative 13 campaign, wasn't there?

Vernell: That's right. I had something to do with that, but I wasn't the official Guild representative. It was mostly straight people. But they were definitely there. . . .

I don't feel, so much, a sense of the gay community any more. But I'm immediately defensive when somebody says something homophobic. I'm proud that a million people show up for the gay march on Washington. And even with all the hoopla about it I thought Ellen coming out as a lesbian on national television was a wonderful thing. I was very touched by that. . . .

And then I got involved with more of a sectarian (I didn't think so at the time) hard core Marxist-Leninist group, and that became my community. But the thing that attracted me to it in the first place was that there were a large number of gays and lesbians in leadership. Line of March, it was called.

Larry: Freedom Socialist Party also had a history [with] gay people?

Vernell: Yeah, and not to be too elitist about all this -- In the larger scheme of things, Freedom Socialist Party would be considered Trotskyist. Line of March is Leninist. So, they're apples and oranges as far as they are concerned.

[Line of March] -- they're hard working people. Freedom Socialist Party, very hard-working people. I worked with them in Initiative 13 and they were very good, as were the Socialist Workers Party, and Radical Women. I think they are a little kind of out there in some ways. You know, a lot of sectarian people just talk and don't do anything, and those people at least worked. . . .

There's a pattern of my approach to things even when I take them seriously -- somewhat anarchistic. While I was with the Line of March, I participated in an 18 month study group about Marxist-Leninist history. We read Capital. We read Mao. I gave those people 36 months of my life. Again, the thing that attracted me to it in the first place was the presence of lesbians and gays in prominent roles, and also minorities. . . .

[Lately] I haven't done a whole lot of political or otherwise activity. I don't feel a sense of the community, and that is just as much my fault as it is the fault of whatever community is out there, because I just haven't been active. I believe some of that comes from having been really, really active for a lot of years, and I did get burned out. . . .

The times that I marched in the gay pride or even debated people, I wasn't always sexually active, but I certainly did identify as a lesbian for most of that time. I mean, there were times when you wanted a label. I generally don't like labels but there were times when you had to distinguish yourself between yourself and other people. In certain circumstances I would certainly still say I am one -- if for no other reason than to get a rise out of someone. [laughs] . . .

I went to the labor demonstration of the WTO and hung around a little bit for some of the other stuff. ... I was really impressed with the participation of young people, and the fact there are young people who have political consciousness. I assume that some of them are queer, and that that's okay for them to be that way. Again, as isolated as I sometimes am, I get a little cynical about that. But that inspired me, to see so many young people.

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