Gene Otto – Discrimination

“We’d have a gay bashing . . .”

[I came to Spokane in 1974.] I had a job here. I graduated college, and that was the first good job offer. You know, everybody leaves Montana because there’s no work—or not enough to keep you going. I worked [at that job] until I got fired in ’76. It was because I was gay. There’s the subterfuge underneath and things like that, but the gayness was not accepted. I was the insurance adjuster. The company was having some problems not making profits, so it’s easy to [say,] “Well, we can thin out the ranks and save the people we want to save.” [They learned I was gay because] I went to a gay ball in Seattle, Washington. [Laughs.] I don’t know if somebody saw me, or there was some other connection, but, anyway, there was a definite connect. It’s still a small world. People know people, who have knowledge of other people.

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I think at times there were certain people [of color] that were more welcome because they were rare. At one point we knew three Dr. Jim’s, and one of them was [Dr. Jim Edmonds] a professor of music, keyboards, out at Eastern [Washington University]. And Jim was black. Jim was from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. His grandfather had been the chaplain to the troops in Glory, the black troops of men. So Jim was not raised wealthy or anything. His mother was a chore-woman, put her five children through universities, and they were all major people. All PhD’s. Anyway, we’re in Seattle at a music event and we’re walking down this dark street up on Capitol Hill. Two white guys, one black guy. And Jim is a large man, very large. We went by these kind of street kids, and some funny little comment was made [by them]—and they were black. When they were gone and we were down the road, Jim goes “Ah, I’m so glad you were with me!” We said: “Jim, we were glad you were with us, because they were black, and you’re black. They wouldn’t attack you!” And he says, “Oh no, no. They wouldn’t attack me because you were white; they wouldn’t attack white guys.” [Laughs.] Everybody perceives something from their own point and their own prejudices. Jim was seeing it that they wouldn’t attack him because we were white. It’s just one of those funny, funny moments.

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If people were bashing the gays coming or going [to a bar], the police just didn’t want to have any part of it, because it was a messy situation and [they] never won. It’s like domestic violence: you never win as a policeman. Somebody goes to jail, you’re the bad guy. The gays were getting bashed a lot at one point. Not sure why it peaked and valleyed . . . Maybe because we were becoming more visible, it pushed buttons—especially at Sonya’s [Majic Inn]. Jack’s [Nite Hawk] I think probably didn’t have much [trouble], because Jack was a friend of the police. I don’t think he paid them off, because I don’t think there was enough money. I think he did them enough other favors, like charity events: he would give them something, you know, and he always worked well.

When [my husband Ted and I] met, I was a manager of [Sonya’s]. We’d have a gay bashing; people out on the street, in fact people walking out of the bar. It happened to be the brother of one of the lesbians in the bar. You’d call the police and they wouldn’t show up. They would ignore you until they had to come. There were gay policeman at the time. They would tell us what’s going on inside the police force. [They told us that] guys didn’t want to be reprimanded for not showing up. How did they document that they couldn’t come immediately to a bar fight? “What were you doing? Were you changing tires for an old lady”? You know, “What was your excuse? And you better have a bunch of them! Because here’s 40 calls.” So, you just made a nuisance of yourself to get attention. [The police finally had to come when] you called them enough times, harassed them enough times. The paperwork built up. They had to account for why they hadn’t shown up within timeframes. “You had 20 calls.” That didn’t look good on their reports to the superiors. So then [they’d think], “Oh, we better take care of this and shut off the people stirring trouble.” We had to just make ourselves obnoxious or you got no attention. Well, you learned that. You learned to be the problem.

[Police Chief Terry] Mangan [1987-98] was probably one of the first people to help empower the gay community: “You should not accept that, or put up with it. You are citizens of this town. You pay your taxes. You deserve all the benefits of citizenship.” That, maybe again, empowered the gays to kind of lash out and cause a big scene that they weren’t being taken seriously. I think some of the gays got confrontational, because they felt empowered, but I don’t remember here that anyone got hurt. I mean, the gays always got hurt, yes! I don’t think the other people, the attackers, ever got hurt. They had enough people to back them up that they weren’t vulnerable. Again, the police aren’t going to come in and say, “Oh, here are four guys. We’re going to take them on? No, I don’t think so!”

[A gay person from Spokane was killed in Seattle,] I guess it was in the ‘90s. It was a gay bar up on Capitol Hill. That at the time was the gay area—still is kind of, but it’s been gentrified, like the Castro in San Francisco. There was a harassing thing going on in the bar. One of the guys got rough[ed up] and pushed out. There are two sides of the story that we hear. One of them was that he was pushed out in front of a car, the car ran over him, and killed him, immediately; it was on purpose. The other one was it was an accident, you know, with the car coming by. That was a real gruesome. He’d been heavily harassed in the bar. They just kept harassing him, moving him out. It was a group of people, not just one. That was a really hardcore moment. Everybody had to take ownership for that, just because it was a gay area in Seattle. [Even in Seattle,] you still could be bashed and killed. So it was, “We haven’t come as far as we thought.” You had a real sobering effect at that point. We hadn’t had a lot of gay bashing probably from ’88 to ’94. It kind of died back. I don’t know why. Maybe people just understood, we’re already here, we’re moving forward, and you’re not changing it. [We were saying, “Sorry, get comfortable with it [or] move yourself to somewhere else.”

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One of the mothers [in PFLAG] had a son who was being bashed by his lover. You know, domestic violence. You had a lot of that with the women. The police would not respond to it. [People would] end up in the emergency ward [and] the emergency doctors would just ignore [the abuse] because . . . Well, it couldn’t have happened: “You’re not a couple. . . . So, you can’t have domestic violence. You don’t fall under those rules and rights. We can’t put one of you in jail for this.” They’d blow it off until [this mom] just wouldn’t take it. She said, “You cannot allow this to happen to a human being.” She got PFLAG and a few of the other people and they started making a change. So that’s really cool.

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Oh! The Marines decided that the gays could no longer give Toys for Tots! That was in the ‘80s when AIDS was a big. “Oh, the toys would be tainted!” The gays used to give a huge number to the Marines. The Marines couldn’t have you giving toys because you would corrupt them. It really hurt the drag group. They just worked that much harder to make themselves more out there, so people knew it wasn’t a group of pedophiles. That was always the underlying message. [People thought,] “These people just want your children.” No! [Joking:] They want your husband! [Laughs.]

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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.