Katie Urbanek – Activism

“I loved every minute of it.”

[Phil Donahue] had a television [show]. Two sets of parents, who had gay children [were going to be on the show]. My daughter Rebecca was in Rochester, Minnesota. She heard of this program and wanted me to be sure to see it. She came from Rochester, to watch it with me in Kansas. I was living in Kansas. There was, on this program, a woman named Amy Ashworth—and this other couple. I can’t tell you [the second couple’s] name right off of the bat. [Amy] was very active in New York City; both of [the couples were. “The Phil Donahue Show”] had a phone number [listed to call for information]. So I called Amy Ashworth. And this is in 1980 . . . ‘80 or ’81. God, I don’t know! Yeah, it had to be ’80. I called her. I could tell she was a great person, you know, because I saw her on TV. She kept telling me, “Now Katie, your son is the same person he always was.” You know, all kinds of things to try to help me get through this [process of learning my son was gay].

Amy called me one time. [We had] we moved out to Colorado in the meantime, to this little town. She said, “Katie, I’m going be in Denver.” We were about 180 miles to the west from Denver. She said, “Could you come in?” And I said, “Well, sure!” So, my husband and I, we go into Denver and meet Amy. She was wondering what I looked like, but I knew what she looked like, because I had seen her on TV. We just had the most wonderful time. We had lunch together, and we talked to the people there in Denver. Then Amy went back to New York, and I went back to Rifle, Colorado. [Amy] knew a woman whose name is Adele Starr. That’s a very important name in PFLAG. Adele and Larry Starr, in Los Angeles. In fact, she is the actual one that got [PFLAG] going. They wanted somebody from the central part of the country to come [to a meeting in Los Angeles].

So, Harry and I were living in Rifle, Colorado, and went across to Los Angeles, which is quite a long ways. We like to travel. We loved to get in the car and go. We got to Los Angeles and we had a meeting. The meetings were in Starrs’s home, and we stayed in the crappy motel. I mean [laughs], I’m not hard to please at all, but that was crappy! [Laughs.] We stayed and we met about three different days at the Starrs’s home.

This is a copy of the letter [founding PFLAG. Reading from the document:] “Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National Organization Conference.” But that wasn’t a conference. “At the home of the Larry and Adele Starr. July 30th to August 1st 1981.” It’s all right here, on this thing. We called this our Declaration of Independence. And these are all of the people that met [listed here]. And here’s Harry and Katie Urbanek in Rifle. Here, [Larry Starr] is a high-powered attorney. [Dick Ashworth] was an accountant, I believe. We were nobodies! [Laughs.] But we were involved. I loved every minute of it, and so did Harry. An attorney wrote up bylaws and that sort of thing, and the accountant did whatever we have to do, you know, to get our status as [a non-profit organization].

[Our hope was to create] a support group. [PFLAG’s] three major things, we always said . . . Our first goal was to support—we just said “gay and lesbian” people at that time; we didn’t add “bisexual” and “transgender.” But now we do support all that. The next thing was to disseminate correct information about homosexuality. Accurate information. Lord! I had stacks of books. I read them all. And the third [goal] was to be active in politics.

There were mostly parents, but there were maybe three or four gay men [at the first meeting in Los Angeles. The people at that meeting were] mostly from California and New York. And they just loved it, because here we are, people from Rifle—[a] bunch of hicks, you know. We really were hicks! They told us we were, and we laughed. Anyway, that’s how PFLAG actually got started. [When Harry and I went] back to Los Angeles [in 1982] for the first PFLAG convention, there were about 100 people there! We thought that we had in the world by the tail!

[In 1983] we moved out here to Spokane, because that’s where [my daughter Rebecca] was. She is a therapist. She had put an announcement in the paper for anybody who had gay children, [saying] that she would have a little class for them. See, she was trying to get started in her business. Five women showed up. Then my daughter was after me every minute: “Mom, get going. Get going. Get this group started here.”Finally, I called those women. Those five women came [to the first Spokane meeting of PFLAG, at our home. I was there, along with] the pastor of the MCC church, Austin Amerine. He came and he brought a lady from the church. The next meeting, it was by word-of-mouth.

I did the meetings here for three or four years in the very beginning. Then Helen Bonser and [Ann and Charles] Wood and the rest of them came in, for which I was very happy for the help. You know, we started [PFLAG here], we got a ball rolling, and kept it rolling for a while, but then these other amazing people [became active]. I just adore Helen. Oh! She’s done so much! Ann and Charlie [Wood]: they came to the library, [when we had a PFLAG meeting there.] I always had a joke about Ann, [about] when she came [to her first meeting], that I like to tell. [Laughs.] She stood up and she says, “I am a gay mother.” She meant, “I am the mother of a gay person.” [Laughs.] I don’t know if she liked it, but I told that a few times. [Laughs.] I thought that was so funny, because she’s such a great person. Parents have a lot of clout, because other parents, they can’t say too much to you. They’ve got their own dang problems, you know?

A lot of gay people helped [PFLAG]! If it wouldn’t have been for the gay community . . . ! We needed the whole gay community to help us, and they did. A lot of the gay people came to our meetings. Gene [Otto] and Ted [Clark] are my good friends. I love them. They helped [PFLAG] so much, you can’t believe it. And Larry Stone helped so much; he mostly helped financially. Larry is a wonderful guy. Who are some of the other ones? Oh, Charles [Owen]. Charles and I did a lot of things together. Charles committed suicide. I was just crushed, because I just loved him.[1] He helped a lot.

We [did] all kinds of things: we had meetings, we had the gay community come for picnics, and just all kinds of stuff like that. What we did mostly in the beginning [was] tell [our] story and then talk to people. My very dear friend Amy [Ashworth] in New York, told me, “Now, Katie, when you go to meetings to tell your story, whatever you do, don’t become angry, and always wear a dress.” [Laughs.] We just loved that.

[We’d show movies at the library.] We put up [“Pink Triangles,”] one of the very first films put out about the gay community. We showed it at least six times during the day. That film showed about the Holocaust and the gay people coming out of it. They actually sent the gay people back [to the concentration camps]. They let all everybody [else] out, but that’s how prejudiced they were at that time. Every time [we showed the film] the room was full. When I say full, 15 to 20 people. [The second year we showed a film at the library] we had a bomb threat. I don’t even know who made it. [Laughs.] I don’t know [that the police] even came. We just got out of the library. They cleared the library out.

We lobbied. My husband and I lobbied twice in Olympia before the committees. Once was the [Washington State House of] Representatives and once was [before the Washington State] Senators. The first [legislative meeting] we went to, the place was—there’s a room and the anteroom—full of people. Oh my gosh! [Gasps.] It was all the religious right! They were just . . . almost to the point of shoving us, you know. They were just hating us. We gave our little speech. My husband wrote up some of the [testimony]. I couldn’t believe it that it came out of his head, what he wrote up, to present to them, to add homosexuality to the nondiscriminatory [laws]. We went and testified before them twice. That’s where I met and learned—and I mean this—to despise Jim West. I mean, here he is, a gay man! I didn’t know it [then], but I tried to talk with him. [He said,] “Oh, we got all the laws in the world to protect [homosexuals]. Good laws to protect [them].” I said, “There are no laws to protect people! They can’t rent a house! They could be fired from their job!” At that time I knew David Biviano; he had six children; he came out gay and they fired him.[2] That was terrible—because he was doing a good job.

For two years I was the Regional Director [of PFLAG] for this area. [That covered] Washington, Oregon, Idaho . . . Montana, maybe? I can’t tell you for sure. That’s when we really got out. Harry and I went to these different towns and everything. We went to Boise twice, and they started a good group [there]. I don’t know if it’s still going. We went to Coeur d’Alene a couple of times. We went to Wenatchee, twice. We went to the Tri-Cities twice in this period of time. We went [to] all these places and talked to people. I don’t know if there were any more [places we went] or not. I can’t remember. It was just constant. We were constantly immersed in PFLAG.

 

[1]According to Urbanek, Owen wanted quicker progress in achieving gay rights.

[2]Biviano was a counselor for juvenile offenders in Spokane County; he was fired c. 1985.

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Sources: Interview with Maureen Nickerson on 14 May 2007; Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 4 June 2012.