David Cornelius – Spokane in Perspective

“A very accepting community.”

[A] job at Eastern [Washington University] opened up and I applied for it. I only applied for it because I had a friend who had just been hired by U[niversity of] W[ashington]. I thought, “Well, we’ll be in the same state, and Spokane is a suburb of Seattle,” because I’d never been over here before. I hadn’t been to Northwest. I just had the geography, all wrong. [EWU] called me up for an interview. I came over, and realized, “Well, this was like what I was looking for in the South.” You know: a small school, a nice-sized town, a very relaxed way of living—that this was okay. I was actually kind of surprised.

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When I was first [in Spokane], I thought I would die if I didn’t get to a big city more often. I’d go over to Seattle a lot. I didn’t even have a car when I first got here. I’d take bus, train, and go over.

Now, obviously, when I would first go over to Seattle, I would do wilder things, because they just weren’t available here. This is particularly true when I first moved here. I’d have friends from Florida, New York, Virginia, who’d come visit me. We’d be here for short while and they’d say, “Oh, Spokane is ‘nice.’” Then we’d drive over [to Seattle].

I had this really wild friend. I took him to Seattle. I swear, he just goes out and meets people constant. He’s just amazing. One night there we were riding on the backs of motorcycles—[with] two guys he’d picked up—late at night through the streets of Seattle. I thought, “Gee, I’d never thought I’d be doing all of this.” But that’s because of this wild, crazy guy I was with. They always wanted to go to Seattle because that’s where the excitement was.

There’s just no real excitement here. That’s okay. When I first moved here, I said, “I can’t live in Cheney because that’s just too small of a town. I’d die.”[1] I had to live in Spokane. Of course, now I could even live in Cheney. You know, you adjust to an area. [Spokane’s] a very comfortable city. I am comfortable. Now, even though I still miss large cities, I’m not as comfortable in them as I used to be. That’s because I’m used to this.

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Every now and then I’ll read some of [Terry Miller’s] comments about Spokane.[2] I’m a little offended by them. He just thought it was so awful. I never saw it that way. Of course, I didn’t go to high school here. But I was used to high school in Kentucky, which I’m sure was worse than here.

There are times—particularly the people from Seattle—view Spokane in such a negative way. I think they’re wrong. I remember, I was doing some work [with a friend] working at HP, Hewlett Packard. He had them bring me in to talk to them about gay issues and so forth. They said, “Oh, you’ve got to come to this performance by this group from Seattle dealing with issues of tolerance.” I said, “Oh, okay. I’d love to.” So I attended, and this wonderful group, they acted out things. This one woman got on the stage and she was going to do her performance, and she started talking. She said she just felt so sorry for people who were born and raised over here. This was in Spokane! She just couldn’t imagine how they’ve lived through all of this, and how terrible it was. I thought, “Well, that’s just so unfair! That’s just wrong. That’s just blind.” In other words, [she thought], “It’s not Seattle, so therefore you’re suffering a great deal, and it’s just terrible.”

I’ve always hated that view because it just isn’t fair—especially since, I see it as a very accepting community and I don’t see the same negative aspects. That’s why, when I read some of Dan Savage’s comments . . . He just says in an article, “I just feel sorry for anyone who was ever raised in Spokane. What an awful place to be. It’s just a terrible place.” I think, “Well, he’s wrong.” I really like him and I think he’s very smart, but that’s wrong. He’s originally from Chicago, and I’ve seen more persecution in Chicago than I ever did in Spokane! So I just don’t accept that viewpoint, that east side/west side viewpoint [of Washinton state that] there’s this horrible difference.

It is funny—it causes people on the west side to do some interesting things. I had a very good friend. He’s dead now, but he had this big house in the area Madrona in Seattle. He felt so sorry for the people on the east side of the state, that he just made his house open to them. Whenever they came over, they could always stay there, because they were obviously living in such oppression that they needed a place to escape to. It’s almost like an underground railroad. Well, I have to admit, I would go over with a friend from Eastern and we would stay at his house! [My friend in Madrona] would say, “Oh, you must be relieved to be here.” I just thought it was so funny, because it was so overdone, overwrought, his perceptions.

But then, he felt the same way about Kentucky. His parents lived in Danville, Kentucky. They’d moved from New York to Danville, Kentucky. When he found out that I’d lived near his parents, he said, “Oh God! I’m so sorry! You were raised in Kentucky.” And I thought, “Oh, I am so sick of this liberal, urban Seattle viewpoint that everybody else . . .” It’s like the people who live in New York City, who think there is no other place to live and everybody else is suffering. It’s just not true. I don’t buy that.

You do see that a lot and particularly with gay populations, because they do often have to—to really enjoy themselves—go to urban areas. But after a while, [they] view all the other places as being so oppressive, and that’s not true.

Now, thank goodness, it’s starting to change a great deal. Like Moscow, Idaho, is just a wonderful place for gay people. Then there are places in Montana and, you know, there’s a whole rural group of gay people who have their own publications and they’re starting to recognize that it’s possible. If you can’t be gay and live everywhere, then, you know, why be gay? That’s just awful. That isn’t right. So, I hate that extreme.

Now, I don’t know . . . Obviously, I feel that way about Kentucky, so maybe I feel the same way—I don’t know why I can never think of Terry’s last name, but anyway—if I’d gone to Shadle Park High School, maybe I’d feel that way too. But I’ve never viewed this area that way, even though it’s very Republican and very conservative. It’s always been a very accepting area to me, as far as I’m concerned.

All my neighbors are quite accepting. I never had to worry about that issue at all. They always know. They just figure it out. Two men living together. It’s too easy to figure it out. It’s so easy to get acceptance here—that’s why I tend to view it as the norm.

It must be just me, because I’ve always lived in an academic world. . . . I was always in an academic world and that’s a different world. It is more accepting of gay people.

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I wasn’t [fearful at early Pride marches]. I probably was just not smart enough to figure out that I should be fearful. I never felt that. I did think there were going to be more demonstrators against than there were. There was always just this one evangelical group. Or that one guy with the big sign. That was it. It was always on Sunday morning—the first ones—and there’s not that many people downtown. So, you went marching around and think, “Well, nobody’s going to see me because there’s nobody here!” [Laughs.]

I’ve always been impressed with this area, even though you had those crazy people in North Idaho, who did try to come over [in the mid-1980s] and bomb the gay bar once—and the neo-Nazis, who can be pretty violent. But I’m used to the South, where people know how to be violent. This area just seems, you know, pretty safe.

 

And the whole notion of privacy! There’s this big emphasis on privacy in this area that didn’t exist in the South. I always felt very safe here.

You know, once, when I was in Tallahassee—there was a state capital with two universities—but that still could be pretty scary. I went to a gay bar one night, came out, and every one of us had our tires slashed. I said, [disappointed,] “Oh God.” [Laughs.] So, I was used to that. I had never seen anything like that in Spokane.

They didn’t [actually bomb the gay bar]. It was one of these groups in North Idaho who had plans to come over here to Spokane. They were going to bomb a gay bar. They were going to bomb . . . I don’t know . . . Planned Parenthood, and a couple other things. Now I can’t give you specifics on that, but I do know that that was real.

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Rick and I took one trip over to Seattle for the gay pride parade in Seattle, just so we could experience it. It’s just so overwhelming. It’s so big. The one in Seattle was just so neat, because you got to see all of these different places in Washington participating. Whitman College always has this huge delegation in the gay pride. Then there are people from Spokane and all these different places. It’s really, really very nice. The Broadway area and Capitol Hill is always a great place to go. It was fun. So we did that—just that one time. We never went back. The one in Spokane hasn’t quite reached that.

I also did the one in Toronto, which was very nice as well. I’ve never done San Francisco or those other places. I think what happens here is very nice. The people from Pullman come up. They even have their own little parade, but they come up for this. I had some friends down at WSU, I remember one year with tee shirts they had made up saying, “Out in the Middle of Nowhere. [Laughs.] Pullman Gay Students.” It’s really been a nice institution. It’s served its purpose.

[1]Eastern Washington University is in Cheney, about 20 miles outside of the city of Spokane.

[2]Terry Miller was harassed when he attended Shadle Park High School in the 1980s. He and his partner, sex columnist Dan Savage, began the “It Gets Better Project.”

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Sources: Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 15 November 2012 and 6 May 2014; transcribed by J. Zander; edited by Laura S. Hodgman.