Christopher Lawrence – Activism

“I got angry.”

[Between 1986-89] I lived in San Francisco and I was working in the field of nutrition. I taught classes to women with cancer—and people with AIDS and HIV—on nutrition and the immune system. That’s when I became an activist. Actually, I was more of an AIDS activist [at first]. Then I realized this all boiled down to feminism, and I became a queer activist, and a feminist.

[My activism began because] I just got pissed off. [Laughs.] Lyndon LaRouche had tried to pass a bill in California where he wanted to inter all people with HIV and all their associates.[1] It was trashed, but he did get it on the ballot. Initiative 101 or something like that. It was insane. That’s where I first got angry. I got angry when I realized how people with HIV and AIDS were being treated. I lost more than 200 people [to HIV/AIDS]. I stopped counting in the ‘80s.

When I moved back to Seattle [in 1989], I really didn’t get that involved in politics so much. I’d still do the things online, [but] I wasn’t really as much of an activist until I moved to Spokane. I took like three years off, and just kind of took a break from working with people with AIDS. I was having my own PTSD, from losing so many hundreds of people in San Francisco: friends, and students, and just lots of people.


I notice a definite difference [in the amount of fear I have felt over the years in Spokane]. I think probably the difference is more because we had a perception about it than [what] the truth was. I think we’ve made a difference in putting [gay visibility] into the larger community, a social sense of who we are. I think we’ve made a big difference. There was so little stir about the billboards.[2] There were seven of them! There was so little stir! I think we’ve come a long way. I really do. There were plenty of people who didn’t like it, I’m sure. I’m sure that Penny Lancaster was just having herself. Poor little tight lipped . . . witch. God! Her whole group.[3] I’m sure they were having themselves, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. They’re the usually the ones who incite [an uproar]. It’s not the majority of the straight community that does this. It’s these small fringe, radical right, fundamentalist, take-the-Old-Testament-as-the-literal-truth right.

[The billboards campaign came about because] two or two-and-one-half years ago, I saw the Atlanta billboard campaign talked about in the news. I thought, “We could do something like that. We’re not as big as Atlanta, but I’ll bet we could do something like that.” I started thinking of what I wanted it to look like. Then I presented to the Vision Committee. This was when the Vision Committee was still part of INBA. I had presented this as something that I like to see done.

When I presented this, it was accepted sort of lukewarmly. Then I presented it again. Then people began to sort of get the vision of it. I told them what I wanted it to be, and then it could build from there. Originally we weren’t going to say, “Some of us are gay.” Originally we were to say “We’re gay.” My best friend from Seattle sat in on one of our meetings, on his way to take care of his parents in Montana.[4] He lives there now. He was the one who said, “Why don’t you say some of us are gay—and not have them all be gay?” And it was like [laughs], “Of course!” Because you always want the allies. You want the allies, because they are part of our community. They’re the part of our community that pulls rest of the [broader] community that is afraid of us! [Laughs.] Then it was like it all started coming together: Charles and Ann Wood, Raymond Reyes, straight people who love us. And gay people. It was almost exactly half-and-half [on the billboard], in case you didn’t notice that. Yeah, almost exactly half-and-half straight and gay. Almost exactly half-and-half male and female. We got as close as we could, and we tried to have a good range of ages. That’s why it ended up being up 14 people and one dog. [Laughs.] That dog was so cute! His little ears just really went up when they took the picture. [Laughs.]

So, that’s how it came into being. I had an original idea. We dialogued, it built, it changed, and morphed, and then it became. Originally it was going to be two [billboards]. Then we realized it might be as many as seven. Then I started asking around, and the first person I asked who had a lot of money said, “I would love to sponsor that. That’s a great thing. Please let me do it.” That’s exactly what he said. “Please let me be the one to do that.”

It was sort of like that too when the Stonewall [News] folded. I’m saying, “We need a paper. We need a paper to let us know what’s going on, to tell people what’s going on.” Mike [Schultz] said he would let us use his distribution [sites]. We’d pay for all of it, but he would let us use his distribution sites. I talked to the printers. I said, “Okay, how much would it cost us to do an eight-page, and we’ll do it in all color?” Things fell together. Then we were looking for sponsors for different things. And somebody said to me, “I’m worried about is there’s no Stonewall. We aren’t going to have any announcements.” I said, “Well, one of the things we’re doing . . .” And he said, “Oh, we want to sponsor that! We’ll pay for that.”

Really, that’s how it always comes. You have to give somebody an inspiration. You have to get them a picture of how they can make a difference. As soon as you can give them a picture of how they can make a difference, it comes. When you have a picture of how somebody can make a difference, and you give it to them, that’s how it comes. It just comes that way.


John Deen asked me to be the Art and Entertainment editor [for Stonewall News]. First, he asked me just to review books; then he asked me to review movies; then he asked me to review music. Then he said, “Why don’t you just be the Arts and Entertainment editor?” I felt like, “Okay. Now I have a voice.”

That’s when I started joining these other things, because I found out about them. I thought, “Okay, if I’m bitching about the [Pride] parade, and it’s embarrassing to me, then it’s time for me to do something. Get on [the OutSpokane board] and have some input.” So I did. Bonnie [Aspen] joined at the same time. Scott, who runs the websites for a bunch of our places joined it at the same time. A bunch of people did. Everyone’s intent was to bring it up a few notches, you know? Make this more of a parade, make it more of a celebration than it had been. It was being thought of as a march and a business fair. That’s actually what they were being called. Instead of the “Rainbow Festival.” This year was not a business fair. This year was a real festival. Everybody did a great job. The community showed up and they were energized. I’m just high as a kite from it. It was great fun. We had such, such a diverse entertainment. Even though it was least exciting for most of the group, I thought scoring the cast from “Assassins” was pretty hot.[5] [Laughs.] [OutSpokane] started the Heritage Pride Institute. That’s become a really important thing for us. The seed for [the Heritage Pride Institute] came in 2006. We started planning for it 2005. Heritage Pride Institute is something that OutSpokane has created to bring history to our Pride celebrations. It’s a method of connecting our youth and our community to our history, and to bigger guns. You know, people who have actually been “out there” activists. People who have made a mark for themselves—and in society—some way. It’s part of our education process, because we are a 501(3)(c) [sic] and we are trying to educate about diversity and our history.

That’s why we brought Grethe this year.[6] Last year was Patricia Nell Warren, who is one of my heroes, and has been for years. She wrote The Front Runner in 1972, the first time a book hit the bestseller list on the New York Times bestseller list, that was a gay central character, about two gay men, several gay men.[7] [That was in] ’72, and it was written by a woman, who was writing from a man’s perspective—which is pretty cool. [Laughs.]

That’s as cool as Annie What’s-Her-Name doing Brokeback [Mountain], which is another one where I was just blown away. This little old lady . . . She’s not even gay! Patricia Nell Warren is at least gay. Annie Proulx’s not even gay. She’s written a lot of things. Brokeback Mountain was meant to be a trilogy. She never got to the other two parts of the trilogy. This one was so draining and it took her a year. This was supposed to be three pieces of a book. She was sitting in a bar, I think in Wyoming? In a tavern, and she was watching some cowboys play pool. She noticed this old timer, this old cowboy over at the other end of the bar, and he was watching them. She began to realize that he was watching them “with great interest.” The story seeded right there. She got the seed of the story, and it began to come to her. The rest of the book was written as she took long walks, which were her meditation, with her dog. All that came to her. I mean, this is a woman who lived in a small Texas town, who was able to get into the mindset of two gay men, who were cowboys, and who were closeted! From a point of view that was so true, and so real. [She] just really put herself into those characters. I find that astounding that she did that. They did such a wonderful adaptation, the screenplay.[8] She was around during part of that. Yeah, both those stories were just mind blowing to me.

[OutSpokane] look[s] for sponsors to help us, to pay for these things. One of the things that we work for first, is getting somebody to sponsor the Heritage Pride Institute. We always put [the speaker] and their partner up [at a nice hotel], pay for their plane tickets, and then give them an honorarium, which is usually a few thousand dollars, to come and speak and do a forum. We try to pick somebody who’s a hero. That’s basically it: they need to be a GLBTQA hero. It’s going to be from literature, from music, from politics, from something. [So they can talk about] how they got where they went, where they’re going, what’s that meant to them, and how does that relate to now. Then, our kids and our own [adult] community can see, can see how they’re connected.

[The OutSpokane board members] all just do research, think of people, and get names [for speakers that we think would be good for the Heritage Pride Institute]. Then we start sending letters to some of them. Then, the next thing we do is, once we’ve gotten somebody’s interest in the possibility, we have former honorees send them a letter about what it was like for them, because they get treated really well, and they get a really good response. Patricia sent a wonderful letter to Grethe. And Grethe had no idea why she sent it. She just said, “These people are wonderful—not only the committee and the people who form the group, but the whole community. They’re just wonderful, responsive, loving, caring, interested, alert,” you know. When we have people writing, who’ve done it, to the people who we’re trying to get to do it, that’s an extra big push. We’re very, very pleased about that.


[At one point, the Vision Committee] did a workshop to find out what people wanted in the [proposed] gay district. It was really fascinating to find out what they really wanted to have in that district. They wanted schools, they wanted parks, they wanted all these things that the straight people want! But they wanted it in an area where they could feel safe. They wanted a paper that was a certain way. They told us a lot. We got a lot of information out of that. That helped us learn about our diversity too.


[Stonewall News is] definitely a labor of love, or of obsession—depending on who [the editor] is. [Laughs.] When I realized that John [Deen] was giving me an opportunity to have a voice [as a regular columnist], I jumped at it. [At the time,] that paper was John Deen. Any publisher make[s] the final choices. They decide what’s allowed and what isn’t. Granted, my voice was allowed to be in there, and that wasn’t really his voice, but he appreciated what my voice was. Mine was always about lifting ourselves up, looking for the positive change, creating coalitions, working together, seeing the diversity. I mean, you see that in all my work. When I do reviews, I’m always putting in something political.


In San Francisco we used [the word “queer”] as a shield. It was part of the ACT UP stuff. I wasn’t a part of ACT UP, but I was affected by it. I always thought they went too far, because they stopped traffic on the bridge. That just made a lot of people unhappy, who I wanted to be our friends, because they saw us as not being right, but being radical. I don’t mind being seen as radical, if I’m seen as somebody who is doing something that’s right. That’s the right thing to do. When you’re interrupting lives the way they did—I’m not saying they were wrong—I’m just saying when you do that, you run the risk of alienating a large group of people, who might’ve been on the fence, and might have come our way.

I’m not against that kind of activism, at all. We would not have gotten as far as we’ve gotten without ACT UP. It would not have happened. But my path is to be a personal representative in a sense to everybody that I meet and be as out as I can, to encourage the people who come to me on, or come to me for other reasons to be out, and to seek counseling, if they need it, to be okay. To do the reading they need, to have the spiritual awareness, to become who they really are, and to allow that to happen. That to me is the better way to do it.

[1]California Proposition 64 was soundly defeated in 1986; it would have categorized AIDS as a communicable disease to be reported to health authorities.

[2]The Vision Committee erected the billboards mentioned here in May and June 2007. The boards featured photographs of 14 Spokane residents. Initially, they read simply, “Hi Spokane! We’re your family, friends and neighbors!” Two weeks later, another line was added: “SOME of us are Gay. . . .” Finally, a third line added: “All of us deserve equal rights!”

[3]Community Impact Spokane, an evangelical Christian, anti-gay advocacy group.

[4]Curtis Moran.

[5]A musical by Stephen Sondheim.

[6]Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, who served in the Washington National Guard. In the early 1990s, Cammermeyer successfully challenged “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

[7]The book was first published in 1974.

[8]The motion picture “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee, was released in 2005; the short story dates from 1997.


Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, 8 August 2007; audio held in the Museum of Arts and Culture; transcribed and edited by Laura S. Hodgman.