Bonnie Aspen – Activism

“In my day there were no lesbians.”

Just a couple of months after we moved here, there was this joint project between INBA and Odyssey to bring the Shared Heart exhibit to town. [1] It was a photo-text exhibit. It’s wonderful. There’s a whole book on it. A photographer back East took, I think it’s 43, 40-something, photographs. Huge, beautiful photographs of queer youth. And underneath each photograph is a handwritten statement about how it was for them to come out. Or how it is being in school. How their family has accepted them. It’s a traveling photo-text exhibit. INBA helped fund it. At that point in time, we start looking at where we’re going to place that photo exhibit. Someone knew the person that was managing things at River Park Mall downtown. We talked to her and she was very queer friendly, and said, “No, I think it would be great if you put it right here.” So we were right there for a week, right where Ben and Jerry’s is now. Right by the theater ticket sales. Right by the food court.

[Willow and I] thought it was a great thing, but everyone said Spokane was going to be really freaked out about it. So, we arranged for there to be someone sitting with that exhibit every hour that the mall was open for a week. Once in a while someone would be looking, and you could see the other spouse figure out what the pictures were. And they’d drag someone away. This was very, very seldom.

In fact, in the comment book that we had—we had two books. One was a book that Steve Rodenbough, the local photographer, had put together of pictures of Odyssey youth done in that same genre with their statements. That book is still at Odyssey. It’s beautiful. So the local youth, the local Share Heart project. And then we had a comment book for people to leave their comments about the exhibit after they’d viewed it. And comment, after comment, after comment—it blew us away. There were no bad comments. It was, “Thank you for bringing this.” One real touching one was from a grandmother that said, “I really thought that being a homosexual was a sin against God, but after reading all of these, I can see that I was misinformed. And if any of my grandchildren tell me they’re gay, I’m going to love them even more than my others.” [That gave us] evidence that it [anti-gay sentiment] was not what people [actually] thought in Spokane. With the Shared Heart project, we realized Spokane wasn’t as conservative as people were believing.

Then, another thing that happened right with that is the Downtown Spokane Partnership folks started reading Richard Florida. Richard Florida’s research was saying that for a city to experience an economic renaissance, a downtown renaissance, they needed three things. They needed talent, technology and tolerance.[2] So, the DSP thought that that sounded really good, that in order to attract technology, a community had to have a lot of artistic talent. The artists weren’t going to come if it wasn’t a highly tolerant place, and diverse place. So, the DSP approached INBA saying, “in order for Spokane to have this [renaissance], we really need the gay folks to be more visible. How can you do that?”

So, we had the Shared Heart [exhibit], and then the DSP approached INBA right around that [time]. It was August of 2003. The committee that had done the Shared Heart got together to go over how it had gone, and debrief the project. We decided that we didn’t want to stop, and that was the birth of the Vision Committee. Right at that meeting, we decided we wanted to keep going, that the visibility was a huge issue. If there was anything that we could do to encourage our community to be more visible, [that] was part of where we wanted to go.

[At first, the Vision Committee] was a working committee and part of the INBA. Not everyone in the Vision Committee was an INBA member. We were part of INBA for a couple of years—like maybe even two-and-a-half.

[Our] next project was to bring in Candace Gingrich, which we did about a year and two months after the inception of the Vision Committee. For those folks that don’t know, Candace Gingrich is Newt Gingrich’s lesbian sister. Half-sister. Very out. Her book is called The Accidental Activist.[3] She wasn’t a real out lesbian. I think the story is, one Thanksgiving, Newt was going on and on and on about how evil gay people were, so she decided maybe she’d better say something. [Laughs.] So she did. And her mother’s response—which is kind of a community story now that Candace actually told us about [it] during her talk—was that when she came out to her mother, her mother said, “Well, dear. You’re going to have to give me some time to get used to this, because in my day there were no lesbians.” So, [Candace Gingrich] came [to Spokane in 2004]. That was the start of the “gay district” conversations and the “Let’s Get Visible” campaign.

Heritage Pride is part of OutSpokane. We’ve done that for two years. That started with Pride 2006. Our first Heritage Pride [Award recipient] was Patricia Nell Warren, and this year was Grethe Cammermeyer.

The Vision Committee’s splitting [off from the INBA], to go and be aligned with OutSpokane instead], was a win for everyone. It was really a win for INBA because, at the time when the Vision Committee had first started and was really doing a lot, INBA got an incredible amount of media attention for what we were doing. Then, at some point [media attention] stopped being helpful, because [the INBA] was becoming more community-education oriented, rather than business oriented. Moving [the Vision Committee] to OutSpokane was absolutely a win for OutSpokane, because they really need an educational arm: they don’t intend to be an organization that puts on parties twice a year.

I got involved in OutSpokane because there were a group of us from the Vision Committee who saw Bridget Potter and half another person there, trying to put on Pride every year, and doing an amazing job. But that wasn’t okay. A couple of us went from Vision to OutSpokane, and joined OutSpokane as well, to help. [The Pride celebration needed] more help for Bridget and a bigger budget. [We] asked the Vision Committee if we could borrow their “Let’s Get Visible” [motto] for the theme that year [2005]; and we switched [the Pride celebration] from a Sunday to a Saturday, so that we would be downtown on a Saturday and very visible.

That was a real hard choice. Spokane’s Pride [celebration] is the second weekend of June, because it doesn’t interfere with Portland, Boise, Seattle [Pride celebrations]. That [weekend is] kind of “ours.” So, we could have Saturday or Sunday, but that Saturday is traditionally graduation day. It was very hard to make that choice for the bigger good of being visible, but also then to know that there were some of the youth that we were going to be squeezing out. Every year it’s a debate. But anyway, [Pride got bigger by] moving it to Saturday, getting some key major sponsors, some really big ones: Northern Quest [Casino] just stepped up hugely, as has Itron. The Unitarian Church. We decided we wanted a children’s area, so the Unitarian Church has funded the children’s area.


Things are changing. There were no protestors in Olympia on the first day of the domestic partner registration [in 2007]. None. I mean, [the conservative right] did say that they’re concentrating their attention on elections and making sure people who will rescind those rights are elected, but that didn’t go very well for them last time.

I think people are going to realize that the sky isn’t falling because we’re giving people rights. That whole “Ellen” episode was only 10 years ago.[4] I mean, 10 short years. In spans of time, that’s nothing. That’s huge. We’ve been a couple for 28 years. That was just 10 years ago, and things have changed dramatically. I think exponentially things are moving very fast, and I’ve said before . . .

It’s only 40 years ago that the Supreme Court overturned the ban on interracial marriage in some of the Southern states. Only 40 years ago. I’m going to be 55 this year. That’s not very long ago. Things are moving. I don’t think they can go back. I really don’t think they can go back. There’s no way.

When the [Washington State] Supreme Court decision came down against us with the lawsuit last year, last summer, a CBS reporter called—a national person, not local—for an interview.[5] He kept trying to get me to go to how discouraging it was, and it could’ve been so fast, if they’d only decided, and how long it was going to take now. I just stopped him and said, “No. I’m not willing to put my attention on how long it may or may not take. I’m willing to put my attention on, ‘Okay, so we know what’s not going to be now. What’s the next step for what needs to be? If the people who fought for the civil rights in this country in the ‘60s, in the ‘50s, if their attention had only been on how long it was going to take, we still wouldn’t be there.’” I mean, that’s a dead road. If my attention isn’t where it needs to be, then all I see are obstacles—that’s not helpful.

[What] happens a lot with reporters [is] they end up calling me for a 5-minute thing. They spend 30 minutes on the phone, and hang up with a really different point of view than they had. And then I’ve been successful—because they [thought they] had the story written [before they talked with me]. Actually, even Virginia De Leon, when she called to ask questions, when we were getting married in Portland, had the idea of what the story was—which was these are some people who are for it, and this is what they think it’s going to do; these are some couples that are against it.[6] After [we] talked, she called back two hours later and said, “I’ve been sitting here trying to write this, and it’s not the article I thought I was writing. I’m realizing I’m writing a love story. May I ask you some more questions?” That was the beginning of our wonderful relationship with Virginia.

[1]The Shared Heart is an exhibit of photographs and narratives on coming out, conceived by photographer Adam Mastoon. The exhibit came to Spokane in May-June 2003; the exhibit in Spokane featured Spokane residents photographed by Steve Rodenbough, an INBA board member..

[2]The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, New York, 2002.

[3]First published in New York, 1996.

[4]The sitcom “Ellen,” ran from 1994-98. In 1997, the character DeGeneres played on “Ellen” came out. DeGeneres herself also came out publicly in Time Magazine (August 14, 1997) and on “The Oprah Winfrey [Television] Show.”

[5]In July 2006 the court upheld a 1998 ban on same-sex marriage, finding Washington State’s DOMA constitutional.

[6]“ that’s so Gays Divided Over the Marriage Question,” Spokesman Review, 9 March 2004.


Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, 15 August 2007; transcribed by J. Zander; edited by Laura S. Hodgman. Audio file held in the Museum of Arts and Culture