Helen Bonser – Spokane in Perspective

Spokane had a chance to come around.”

[My dad] and my stepmom had settled in Spokane, Washington, because that’s where she was from. [They] were raising my three little brothers and sisters, who are kind of close to the age of my own kids. So we came here in 1975 and settled in Mead. I [had] lived all over the world. I lived four years in Europe. I lived near San Francisco, near Boston, and near Kansas City. My kids were raised a lot of times in base housing with every color of other child, parents of different races married, and this is how they thought life was.

[Earlier] I always wondered why—I don’t anymore—why we got dumped in Spokane. [Laughs.] I always say, “The ’60s never happened here.” To me nothing happened here. The student revolution didn’t happen. The Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement never happened here. Nothing happened here. It’s just a town that time forgot.

When we first moved into Mead, I was distressed, because one of the big signs on the outskirts of Mead was “Welcome to John Birch Country.” It was a very conservative place. Also, I think it’s conservative because of its geographics, where it is. [Spokane’s] the biggest town between Minneapolis and Seattle, but that’s not saying much. It’s still very rural, down in a valley, and it’s kind of isolated. It just stayed to the ‘50s and nobody ever had to do anything different here. That was the Spokane that I perceived. Maybe it wouldn’t have been anybody else’s perception, but it was mine. . . .

My first years here were kind of lonely until I found what I call “the Spokane underground”—people kind of in my age [group], my generation, with my same sensitivities and concerns. There was like six of us that worked for the city library. We found each other. Then we started to work to make a difference in the city. That was where the training of the police came and doing cross-cultural training with them. Also, [we were] doing some consciousness raising and training around AIDS issues with our city police, city fire, and all the heads of city departments, because they were handling AIDS very badly. They were obviously ignorant, so we did a lot of education around that. So, I not only had a support group and people to be with and have fun with, but we also were the kind of people that had always . . . had this same kind of [attitude]: if we could, we wanted to make a difference. So we did that on the city level. That was happening in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

But with people that just hadn’t had a chance—because there wasn’t much diversity here—to learn about diversity . . . Now, as the diverse populations have built up more, it has had more of a chance. So it’s come a lot further. Like our highway out here is named “Anderson” after the black astronaut that died, because he was from Cheney.[1] Well, when I first came here, they wouldn’t have named anything after a black man, no matter what it was. But his color doesn’t matter. We’re proud of him. He died in serving his country, and so it’s named after him. I think Spokane has come a long way. Maybe we’re out of the ‘50s now. [Laughs.] We caught up to some other decade. Media has helped, and the internet has helped, and all of that kind of thing. That’s how I’ve experienced it. But I had to leave here a lot when I was first here. Just to go to Seattle was such a wonderful experience. Or almost to go anyplace, because it was just very difficult, at first.

Now I think the city’s come a long way and, like I said, in the issue of gay rights [it has come a long way], because it was pushed hard. There was a core group of people here that worked clear up to that national level. [Spokane] had a chance to come around. It did pass that ordinance and [was] the first in the state and set precedent, and it’s continued to do that in this area.[2]

It wouldn’t be that way if it wasn’t for all the people that live here. . . . [In the Richmond/Oakland area], there was a whole huge group of people from all colors and all walks of life. You’re one of a crowd [of activists] there. Here, there wasn’t that big of a crowd. [Laughs.] I really think I was meant to be here now. I think this was why, when I would ask why. I could’ve lived anywhere and still had my family, my career, and everything. But I don’t think there’s anywhere else that I can imagine that the group that I worked with—and the different groups that I worked with—could’ve ever made so much difference in this 30-year time span, as here. I never said that before. I just said that for the first time just now.

 

[1]Michael P. Anderson Memorial Highway, Washington State Route 904.

[2]In 1999 Spokane passed an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in housing, public services and employment. Transgender individuals were not protected by the legislation.

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