Dean Speaking On:
I’d Like You to Know
Identity and Awareness
Mentoring and Support
Spirituality and Religion
Spokane in Perspective
I am an individual that could clearly pass in society. Obviously, since I’m so public, people know that I’m gay. But if I were to move to someplace else, to a farm community, they would not know unless I did something to out myself. That is the way I’ve always been. I played sports. I was very involved in youth activities and all that standard kinds of things that people do growing up. It’s who I am. I would assume that 94 percent to 96 percent of the people wouldn’t have a clue that I was gay, unless I was trying to let them know.
For many years I taught foster parents. That was one of my jobs. A percentage of foster parents come from pretty strong religious backgrounds, because it’s like a mission for them; it’s giving. I believed that if I were to be an open gay person, at that time, that it would interfere with my ability to teach them. I had to teach the class on sexual education. I could do that better from the perspective of a straight man.
I knew I would pass unless I did something to not pass. I was very adept at the proper use of pronouns. “I did this,” instead of, “We did this.” When you are living in the closet, which I did for many, many years, one becomes very skilled at the use of language. I started wearing a ring on my wedding hand, so I wouldn’t get a whole lot of questions, like “Are you married?” I’m not a great jewelry person. [Wearing a ring reinforced people’s assumptions and made it easier to pass.] I’d had enough experiences to know that. Once I started wearing it, I wore it for many years.
We had a party. Not only did we invite our gay and lesbian friends, we invited straight folk. One of our gay friends was very uncomfortable with that, because that meant we were outing him. Although he was being outed with people who were supportive and could care less, that was a big issue, for him and other people as well.
Where do I even begin [to describe my reaction to the mayor being outed in 2005]?
I knew [Mayor Jim West] enough to say, “Hi,” and he knew who I was. It was pretty open among a lot of people in the know that he was having sex with men. I’m not sure I’d want to give him the privilege of being “gay,” but he certainly was “having sex with men.” It was also pretty understood that his marriage, that was arranged on the floor of the State [House of] Representatives, was a cover, was an arranged marriage. I knew that [he pursued] young men—they were of a certain type and age: right around 20, 22, somewhere in there. So, one could do some typecasting.
I know people who saw him at a WSU football game, the Rose Bowl, with a young man, and talked to him there. He did not introduce the young man. You know, very credible people who had that one-on-one interaction with him. There was no doubt in my mind . . .
I’m trying to remember when the story broke, what time of year it was, because in 2005, that summer, I was in Nicaragua. It was on the news in Nicaragua. I was driving in Managua and heard it on the radio! I mean, it was like [shaking his head], “This can’t be! Gosh. How could this possibly be?” Then [reporter] Mike Fitzsimmons got in contact with me. I did a phone interview over the radio, for Spokane, from Nicaragua. Because, I mean, I was the “go-to gay.” There were other people [they could have talked with], but I was the “political gay.” That was 2005. You know, 2001 was when I was on the city council . . .
The thoughts are everything, but there was never any question in my mind about the validity of it, because I knew enough to know that if it wasn’t 100 percent true on this case, it was true on another one, or another one, or another one. Even if it was a composite of people, it was true.
My feelings would range from, “Jim West is deserving this,” to great empathy and sorrow for Ryan [Oelrich] and all of the other young men who have been used—also for two or three women that I knew, who Jim West had dated, out of convenience for political cover or whatever. They did not understand, they didn’t know, and how destructive that was for them.
Then, when I learned about [West] being sick [with cancer], it made perfect sense to me how he had gotten sloppy. These are not new behaviors. What happened was, in my mind, he got sloppy. I think that you combine the fact that he had power—he had a huge amount of power—that he was given a diagnosis of something which more likely than not is terminal and relatively soon . . .
Spending the energy fighting a terminal disease, you have less energy to hide who you are. It’s easier to make mistakes. He got sloppy and made mistakes.
Then I vacillate about feeling sorry for him, knowing how tormented he had to be. The compassion side of me felt compassion, felt sorry for him. The other side of being aware of how many lives, individually and communally, he had negatively impacted, it’s hard to maintain compassion when you see both sides of that balance, as I often do.
I have one regret about Jim West, and that is that I didn’t climb up and say, “Can I come and talk to you?” Or “come and listen to you?” Or, “Can I lend you my ear, and you can talk to me?” I wished I had done that. Maybe he would’ve said, “No, Dean. I don’t want to talk to you.” Who knows? But I regret that I had not reached out in that way, giving him the opportunity to tell his story to somebody.
I believe that our culture today is very quick to judge people as either being saints or devils. Very quickly. [We] don’t give the question of doubt, that there’s two sides. I know that Jim West and I differed politically. We differed on our approach to things and how we believed things, but I truly believe that he wanted to do what he thought was the best. I think his motivation was good. I just disagree with it. I don’t think he should be villainized strictly for that. I guess maybe, for me, it would’ve been the opportunity to get to know him enough to see the compassionate side of him. Help him move into some balance. Help him [if] there was something he needed to say to someone. I wasn’t his victim, but [I was] someone who could speak for his victims, or who could be representative of the gay community. I’m not sure that I’m making any sense out of that. But it was something that I have felt strongly about, and it is one regret that I didn’t do.
I don’t know whether it’s my background, whether it’s my training, whether it’s me as an individual, but with a social service/social work background, I believe that people can change. If I didn’t believe that they could change, then I couldn’t have done my job. I couldn’t have. I pride myself on always being able to see the positives of someone, so that you can work with those positive attributes of that individual. Jim West was effective, he was powerful, and he got there multiple ways, but he was a human being, flawed as he was. I’m also flawed. I don’t agree with, but to some level I understand, why he would’ve behaved the way he did towards the LGBT community, and equality. I understand.
He didn’t see it. He didn’t believe he had a choice. I don’t believe he saw that there was an alternative for him. When you’re that stuck, you’re just plain stuck. You react or act, associated with that perception. That perception becomes your reality, even if it’s not real. That is your reality. And, quite frankly, had he come out and said, “I’m a gay man,” he may not have been elected. Or re-elected. That’s a very real issue.
I doubt he [ever identified as “gay”]. I know there are times when I have slipped and said that Jim West was “gay.” I actually resist him being identified as gay. I think that’s a very appropriate time to use the term, “a man who had sex with men.” To my knowledge, he didn’t self identify.
I definitely think [Mayor West’s secretive life affected his politics]. The thing about being in the closet: if you’re in the closet, you’re always fearful of being outed. You want to “pass.” You control your language, you control where you go, who you do things with and when. I don’t know how his votes could not have been affected by that issue. We have seen over and over again nationally, where legislators finally come out, because they no longer can be congruent with their lifestyle, their life, and stay in the closet. It just would be really, really tough. I remember when I was not out, and the use of pronouns, and how you just phrase everything. [It’s hard to remember] what you said to whom. You’re not lying, but you’re not telling the truth.
***[I could generally] describe an individual who was in a relationship with another man for 50 years. Now, they didn’t live together in the same house. They had separate houses. I’ve never talked about the intimacy of the relationship.
I knew [this person] for maybe 15 years before I knew that he was gay. During that time I did not know he had a partner. I didn’t know that he had a partner until after his partner had died. So, here is someone who is now probably in his early to mid-70s. No one—his family, his partner’s family, co-workers, neighbors—as far as he knows, there is no one who knew that he was gay and had a gay partner. He did what people of that generation [did].
I think people do what they need to do in order to survive. He involved himself in a hobby, which has turned into being pretty much all-consuming. I’m guessing that he’s married to his hobby. He was married to his hobby while he was still working. That was his solace. That’s his relationship. He has many friends that he’s met in association with this hobby.[He didn’t tell me, even though] he knew I was gay. He did not seek me out. I think I sought him out, as someone I wanted to be a friend with, and then in that process learned. [Another person that I know] retired from a very important position in Spokane, where [the individual] had supervisory responsibility for many people and many things. And was not out at work. I’m guessing as to what the motivation [is], but I would say that part of the reason is because of habit. [This person was not a patient, but he] had been out to Eastern State Hospital. There was a time when, at Eastern State Hospital, many of the people there were admitted for homosexuality. That made a very, very strong impression on this individual. He went to work in an environment that did not have non-discrimination policies for people who were homosexual. As he worked his way up the ranks, he would not have had the success [that he did] had he been an out gay man. I think that there may have been some changes later on in administration—and changes in the law in the State of Washington—which may have made it easier for him to have come out and said, “This is who I am.” But he didn’t. [This] individual is quite integrated within the gay community—in several different circles, lots of friends, and is seen with his partner of over 20 years. They do things together.
Sources: Two interviews with Maureen Nickerson [c. 2007]; transcribed by K. M. and Laura S. Hodgman; edited by Maureen Nickerson and Laura S. Hodgman; held in the Northwest Museum for Arts and Culture. Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 25 July 2013 and 12 September 2013.