Helen Bonser – Activism

“Oh, and my house got egged.”

I was born in Bend, Oregon, on November 3, 1942. It was Election Day and that marked me for life as being a political person. [Laughs.]

I’ve been an activist in the woman’s movement, [and] before that, the civil rights movement. Before that, even as a youngster, I worked for youth rights, and also for the farmers—the farm workers in California: migrant farm workers. So I was an activist and had risked a lot to be that. I would’ve been on the buses, the freedom buses, if I hadn’t been a mother. But I was a young mother, so I didn’t ride those buses. Justice and equality were really important to me.

I’d been bullied as a child, very badly in [grade] school, for being fat. I wasn’t heavy in the first grade, but my mother always said after I had my tonsils out, I got heavy. In the little three-room schoolhouse where I went, we had eight grades and three rooms. The bigger boys were always around and they found me very easy to pick on. I didn’t have a champion. By the fourth grade, it got so bad that I ended up with a big hematoma in the back of my head and a concussion from falling down on cement. We were playing “Red Rover,” where you had to break through people’s hands, and they just kept sending me because I couldn’t run. I was short, fat, slow, and I couldn’t run very fast—so I’d just bounce off. Well, finally I got so angry about that that I revved up every ounce of energy and made my fat little legs go as fast as they could and I went [push!]. I broke through, but my feet went up and my head came down, and I came home with this concussion.

That’s when I told my folks, “I’m not going back to school.” My folks went to school. Whatever happened with the principal and his wife, who was my fourth grade teacher, I was not physically abused anymore. People didn’t say anything to me verbally. They ignored me, but that was a lot better than being abused. But I internalized all of that too, and it made me angry inside. I didn’t know what to do with the anger, but it made me angry.

From then on, whenever I saw somebody who was being abused, I didn’t think. I ran right towards them. One time that that happened specifically, I was in high school. By the time I went to high school, I didn’t have weight issues. A new kid had come to school that was kind of a nerd. He had the glasses, the little pencil [pocket protector] thing in his pocket, and he was shy. A big gang of what we would’ve called “tough kids”—the ones that smoked cigarettes, rode motorcycles, and had pompadours—were all around him. They ran in a gang and they had him in the middle. They were just bullying him like everything. My friends and I were coming up the sidewalk. I saw them doing that, I ran right into the circle, and said, “If you want to hurt him, you have to come through me. You have to hurt a girl. You have to beat up a girl before you can get him, because you’re nothing but a bunch of bullies that have to be together in a big gang to just pick on one little kid. You should be ashamed!” I just gave them “what for.” I stood in front of this kid. I didn’t think. It was just impulse and instinct to do that. That’s where the anger part came in. When I came back out of there, holding this kid by the hand, my friends all said, “Didn’t you realize that they could’ve hurt you?” I said, “I didn’t care at the time. I just couldn’t stand what was going on.”

That’s my own personal story. I think that made me really aware of how badly people could be treated, if they were perceived as different from somebody else. I don’t know how it is for other people, but I do believe that a lot of people who stick up for the underdog were once that themselves. Or somebody they loved was, so they have that experience. And it made it important enough to devote time and effort to that.

At the same time, while I was growing up, my dad was a vet. We homesteaded with all those other veterans: patriotism, and the Pledge of Allegiance, “liberty and justice for all.” I won a California State essay contest writing about the Pledge of Allegiance and what that meant. I was taught growing up: if you want to get something done, you have to do something about it. You can’t just sit and wait for somebody else to do it. You have to get up.

In our homestead community, my dad was one of the leaders. He was political. One of the things he did, with my brother and I, is he took us to city hall, in the little town that I grew up in. And the jail was part of too. [He] had us meet the mayor, saying this was our city government. “We’re part of this.” Then he took us to the county seat in Alturas, California, and said, “This is where the county things happen.” He took us to Sacramento, to the state capital, and we toured the capitol building. He knew the lieutenant governor at the time, Harold Powers. So we got to go and meet Harold, because [dad] was working all the time from the homestead.

They were trying to get roads built and schools. We were clear up in the last corner of northern California, four miles from the Oregon border. It wasn’t like they expected to have to send funds to this wilderness area. He was one of the people active in [saying], “We need roads. We need schools. We need things for our children.” He got the Boy Scouts going. My mother was a Girl Scout leader. [My parents worked] to bring all those things to our little community too. [My dad] did things; he led by example. [His] family went way back to the Revolution. They were comfortable working in their country.

My mom’s parents were immigrants from Norway. She was first generation born in this country. They were very patriotic when they came here. My grandfather wouldn’t even talk Norwegian to us. He’d say [capturing dialect], “Ve speak English now. Vat a vonderful land America is.” And we’d say, “Teach us how [to speak Norwegian].” “No. Ve are Americans. Ve speak English.”

I guess that was the example. I would’ve expected to do something about [discrimination].

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[Spokane’s participation in the March on Washington in 1993] wasn’t very organized. People just went there who could afford it. I remember, when I went, I didn’t even know who was going. I just knew that we were going to march on the Capitol. I wanted to be there. I was the only woman in the whole delegation from here.[1] It was all men. So my roommate was a guy: Craig Peterson is his name. He’s gone on to be a great activist and a daddy. He’s adopted kids. But I could always tell people we slept together, which is our big joke [laughs] because I’m old enough to be his mother, and all that.

Our own [Pride] march here started in 1992. June 3, 1992. That was [organized by] me and another mom, whose name was Marion Dumoulin. She’s Marion Hammer now. She was actually the catalyst part, because she said, “I think Spokane should come out. I think our community should know that we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people living here. We need to march.” I said, “Good idea.” But we were a minority of two.

We kept the idea going with our PFLAG group. They said, “We don’t think you can get that going.” We had to go to the Chamber of Commerce. We had to talk to the Spokane business association.[2] You can’t do anything in downtown Spokane without the business association’s permission. And they said, “Well, we already have enough parades. We have the Lilac Parade. We have the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” They had a little Martin Luther King thing that was going on that was never more than a thousand people, but I used to be in that one too. “We don’t need to close down businesses,” they said, “You can’t have a parade. You can have a march, on the sidewalk.” We finally did get that from them.

Then we had to go from there—it was always just Marion and I—to the police department and talk. Fortunately, [the meeting was with] somebody I’d helped train, because I did cross-cultural training for this state with the police here, as part of my work. The Sergeant [was] somebody I’d helped to train. He looked at these two mothers—in our business outfits, because we came from work to talk to him—and said, “Why do you want to do this?” And we looked right back at him and said, “Because we love our children and it’s time.” So he said, “Well. Okay, we’ll try, if they let you have a march. But,” he said, “it’s going to be hard.” And it was.

As it went along, PFLAG got kind of scared about doing it by themselves, so we joined with MCC Church. If it wasn’t for the people in the MCC Church we wouldn’t have pulled it off. One of the guys there made the first t-shirts. We actually had procedures and policies, because we didn’t want it to be like some San Francisco parades or where they took off their clothes. We said, “We’re going to appear in Spokane. We can’t do it that way. We have to be respectful of the whole community, march and sing our songs, but it has to be peaceful, and nonviolent.” It was sort of that way the first year. We did have a group from ACT UP, which was the AIDS people, that came [from the West Side]. They—ACT UP—kept falling down in the middle of the street, not on the sidewalk, because they were demonstrating dying of AIDS and all this kind of stuff. We kept getting them back on the sidewalk.

Because I was one of the founders [of the Pride march], I kept getting phone calls from people in the community. “We should not do this. It’s going to look bad.” [I asked,] “Why?” “Because if it we’re going to do something like this, it has to be right. We shouldn’t do this, because if we just got three people it’ll really look . . .” and “It’s scary,” and, you know. It was like, “Well, we’re doing it! It’s up to you—either come, or you don’t.” But finally we just said, “We’re doing this thing.”

It was dangerous, that first year, because it came out in the newspaper. When the publicity came out, [it] was all kinds of real gossipy publicity: “Oh, guess what they’re going to do now? Some people are going to have this parade, and gay people are going to march.” It was kind of like that. But there was one reporter that just was really fascinated. He came to talk to me about this. Then, he actually ended up marching right in the front with me because he was so intrigued by it all. But there was lots of threats too. That’s what the police had to deal with. [People] would call up [the police] and say, “If you put those faggots in the street, we’ll get up on top of the buildings and shoot them as they march.” That was the kind of threats we got. That was real.

I was threatened personally on the day of the march. I was standing out there wearing my first pride t-shirt and handing out my protocol things, right by the running statues, where we’d started off. A man rode up on a bicycle and said, “What is ‘Spokane Pride?’”—because that’s what it said. I said, “See this little pink triangle? It’s gay pride. I’m a proud mother of a lesbian daughter. This is our first Spokane gay Pride parade.” And he said, “Good, I’ll go home and get my gun.” As he rode off. I ran over and reported him to the Sergeant. I’m sure he was followed. But what people really don’t know is how many plain clothes policeman, how many undercover vehicles [there were]. There were ambulances along the way even, because they expected violence.

But it all was threats and nobody [violent] really showed up. They didn’t show up to holler at us, except for a few religious people. They just threatened and then stayed away. And that day—which I’ll never forget—we didn’t know if we’d have three people, or 30, or 300. But standing there . . . I’ll cry when I say this part, because I never can say it without crying. [Crying, and continuing to speak]: They came from all parts of the city: north, south, east, and west. Some of them had to cover themselves up. They wear bags or big hats, because they couldn’t risk being out—because of work, because of their family. About 500 people did show up. So, that was amazing to me. We marched on the street, around the sidewalk, singing our songs, and then ended up back at the park. It was good. But, I’ll never forget watching them come that day. They were the bravest people I’ve ever seen, because we were under threat of being hurt, or murdered. After it was all over, that same reporter came, and he did a big video of me. He taped me, just like you’re doing now. He said, “Were you willing to risk your life?” I had never thought of it that way before, but I said, “Yeah, I was.” And we did. So did he. So that was the hardest thing.

We had peacekeepers in the parade, which Peace and Justice Action League helped train. They came and they were the peacekeepers a lot. We worked with Rusty Nelson and his wife. When they retired after 20 years of being in charge of the Peace and Justice Action League, they were asked, “In all your time doing this, what was the biggest movement? What was the most successful?” They said, “Without a doubt, in Spokane, [crying, and continuing to speak] the gay, lesbian, and transgender movement, was the most successful.” So, in all of Spokane’s history, as far as we know, ours has progressed step-by-step and been the most successful.

Oh, and my house got egged. The day of the Pride march I came home to an egged house. I was kind of proud when I was scrubbing those eggs off the house actually.

 

[1]Peter Williams, who was interviewed for this project, was another woman from Spokane who attended.

[2]Possibly the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

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Source: Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 14 March 2013.