Gene Otto – Spokane in Perspective

“They have gay bowling.”

Bill Clauson, who was the vice president of Washington Water Power, was a good friend—just died this spring—was one of the people involved in the “Boys of Boise,” which was in1953? The Boys of Boise. There’s a book about it.[1] Basically, they found out that there was kind of an underground gay society group, and they started busting them. A guy committed suicide over it, because they were outing all these professional people in Boise, Idaho. Bill Clauson was one of them. I heard his story about the discrimination [after he moved from Boise to Spokane]. Yeah, he was the financial officer [for Washington Water Power]. He did all the investments for them, rolled their millions of dollars around in the stock market and came up with a profit. But he remembers living in total fear.

Spokane’s wonderful at ignoring things. I had done the March in Washington, D. C. in the ‘90s and came out as a gay military person on the local radio. They interviewed me. [After that, Ted’s mother met her friend Betty] in the elevator and Betty said, “Well, I guess knew about the boys, but did they have to say that on the radio?”[2] His mom responded correctly, “Well, I guess we just don’t understand.” “Well,” [Betty] says [disgusted], “Well, I guess I knew about them.” It was, yeah she did. Everything was like, “Well, how could you ignore it?” We were always “the boys.” [His mother would say,] “I’m going to ‘the boys’ house.” It’s just odd, how people want to ignore it.

[Spokane is] such a dichotomy of, “Oh, we’re uptight and so perfect.” All of a sudden we get Jim West. You say, “Oh, wow, shocker!” No, it’s not shocking. It’s just that it’s not such a big deal, if it were L. A. There’s more of it [there], so it’s not such a big thing. Seattle’s had gay mayors. I don’t know of Portland ever having a gay mayor, but there was a lesbian who was the head of the police. There was a controversy there, too. It’s like having a black mayor. You know, Mayor [James] Chase here was a phenomenon to the outside world, because we were a white community. But listening to Ted’s mom and her lady friends from way back, the Chases were always wonderful, respected people here. His wife was [known] in singing at different events and invited to things. It’s the contrast, I think, that makes us show up.

We just [read] The Advocate [featuring] people with a Native American background: Cheyenne Jackson, from here. Cheyenne Jackson was a student of one of Ted’s students, so it makes it personal. Cheyenne’s been out there succeeding. [Spokane] gave him that nurturing, so he felt confident in who he was. You know, “Of course I can! I’m important. They taught me I’m important.” We nurture it. I think of a number of other people who have succeeded from here. You’ll see a few of them, but they all come around from that community that says, “You need to reach out, and the bigger lights are more important, or more successful.” I’m trying to think of anyone I know from Seattle that really made it. [Laughs.] I’m sure there are, but we pay attention to our own little world more than anything.

I [thought] eventually I wanted to be in Seattle, but [Spokane] was a good stopping-off place. It was still a big Montana. Well, nearly so. And people are friendly here. [Laughs.] I guess [I stayed here] because you build a comfort zone, you build a world. I mean it all worked out well, romantically, at the beginning. [Ted and I] were very romantically inclined. We built our own little world away from the bar world, which I had been part of. [Ted was] never was a bar person per se. We had a wonderful, wide circle of friends. People from all over the United States would come and visit us, whether it was for skiing or something. We likewise would go see them. We’d run to Calgary and ski with our gay friends. We’d go to Montana on business, we had gay friends. We’d run to San Francisco to dance; we’d leave Friday afternoon and dance on Saturday night and come home. You had gay friends everywhere. Spokane was a real comfortable place. We had really good friends, circle of influence. Now I think they call it “tribalism.” You know, it’s your family of choice. We always had people around us, supporting us. I suppose that’s a lot of what we represented, was a solidness, a home, entertainment.

A lot of kids went on to Seattle, [saying] “Oh, they have gay bowling.” Well, we had gay bowling, but they didn’t want to join that group. They weren’t beautiful or whatever. [Seattle] had gay this. They had gay that. They had all these opportunities when you moved to Seattle or Portland. “There are all these bars! There are all these people!” One young fellow from New York City showed up here in the Air Force. He’s one of the ones that we keep in touch with. He’s a major nurse practitioner in Seattle. He moved over there because there were all these things, gay things. A year later or two years later, [I asked him], “So are you on the bowling team? Are you on the softball? Did you. . . ?” “Well, no,” [he says,] “I don’t have time.” “Okay, what do you do that’s gay?” “Well, I go to the bars.” “We had gay bars [in Spokane]. What’s your point?” [Laughs.] “Well, I don’t know.” It’s not like they’re meeting their spouse, or their equivalent, in the bar. They’re meeting them through other social networking.

Seattle’s just a bigger, more diverse, more difficult place, I think, to meet people at times. We only live part-time in the desert [Palm Springs], but we joined Front Runners and Walkers, which is a nationwide group. You ask the people from Seattle or San Jose, “Okay, so you have a Front Runners and Walkers group. Who do you know from there?” And they go, “Well, we don’t go. It’s too much work to get to where they meet.” You’re going, “Oh, okay. So you’re not willing to put out the effort in Seattle, but you will in Palm Springs—[that’s because it’s a] smaller town.”

You [can] go to “a ghetto” to meet similar, like-minded people. Only now you don’t have to. You can go to gay mecca, which is San Francisco, or Palm Springs . . . [But] you have the ability now to live in the suburbs, make a living, be acceptable. So, we’ve all kind of gone back into the woodwork, if you will—which is what we wanted, was to blend [in], not stand out. It works great. It’s successful. When downtown wanted to have a “gay district” [in Spokane], it wasn’t going to work. We’re not as persecuted as we were. Yes, we’re still discriminated against in a lot of ways, [but] that’s changed dramatically from the beginning. We don’t need to live in a ghetto, a gay ghetto, of like-minded people. We’re very comfortable being in our established family of choice.

 

 

 

[1]John Gerassi, The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice, and Folly in an American City, New York, 1966.

[2]“Betty” is a pseudonym.

***

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.