Gene Otto – Activism

It’s like momma shaking her finger at you.”

This was one of our biggest things in the ‘70s and ‘80s: if you knew a gay person, you were less likely to badmouth them, because then you’re talking about someone’s child, someone’s brother, or sister. I can’t remember what year it was, but the big thing was, “If we could all turn lavender for a day, or just not go to work . . . If every gay person wouldn’t [go to work, we’d] make the world understand who we are, where we’re at. We’re everywhere. Don’t try and say we’re not, because we’ve already been there, done that, and moved on.” You kept trying to put your face out there, so they had to remember that you were someone’s child, someone’s brother or sister. You did a job. If you are ignoring someone, was that a gay person related to you?

I think AIDS helped bring that to the forefront too. The churches got really scared because their parishioners had gay children who were dying of AIDS. They were, at the beginning, kicking [the parishioners] out, because, “We don’t have those people! We don’t have gay kids in our congregations.” Well, all of a sudden the parents started pushing back. The churches had to understand. [They] didn’t want to deal with it, but they still had to start understanding who they were talking about. Katie and Harry [Urbanek] have a gay son. The Presbyterian Church asking them to leave—hoo, hoo, hoo! Katie didn’t stand down! So many more [people] started that same movement. The more you saw the gay kids, the gay parents were out there, or the gay sisters and brothers were out there. It all moved us that much forward, so that they had to identify that we existed.

So, each step . . . You just grow one little bit, one more bit. Pretty soon we had three little bits! PFLAG probably was one of the biggest, biggest power structures that came to Spokane to change [the situation], because they put a face on it that wasn’t gay. When they came up against city council, the state legislature, the Rotary—it’s like momma shaking her finger at you. You back off, because that’s a mad woman and she’s going to make you earn it! Really, it’s the change of seeing the face put on all the gay community. Otherwise, you were in the dark and you didn’t matter.

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Because of [my participation in] the Dorian Group and PFLAG, I got on the Police Advisory Commission. We went to the [police] gun range. They were supposed to have sensitivity training. We were trying to provide some of that, so that they could be compliant [with] state regs and things. [We were making ourselves] known to the regular [police] on the street—not just [Chief] Mangan on the top. You kind of felt you were making a difference. [They would see,] “Hey, these are people.” [We’d say,] “No, we’re not all fighting. No, we’re not out there seducing your children.”

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One of our acquaintances said, “Gene, don’t you ever look back?” I said, “No.” Well, once in a while I’ll look back to see where I’ve been, but I’m not about to live back there. I’m living as I go up. Climb the ladder. Keep looking forward. It’ll just tell you where you’ve been. It won’t tell you anything more than that. He goes, “You can’t live like that.” I just go, “I can live that way very comfortably.” Because there’s better, and better, and better, and this [vote in favor of marriage equality] proves it. You know, 35, 40 years ago you would never have had legislation, let alone people following the legislation. And here we are. We have it. We beat California, and we rub our Californian friends’ noses in it. [Laughs.]

We, as a community—and I say that because everyone—it’s been PFLAG, Dorian, all those people—they made it happen. They told their stories. They pushed their friends, their parents, whoever. They are the ones that made it happen.

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Sources: Interview with Susan Williams on 3 December 2006, held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 27 November 2012.