Starting the business, I needed an accountant. A friend of mine from Seattle sent me one of the very first INBA directories. So, I looked for an accountant, called Cary Snyder, who happened to be the [INBA] president at the time. [I] went in to get the taxes done and she says, “You know, it just so happens that we’re starting our directory and we could use a graphic designer.” I thought, “Well, here is my opportunity to give back to the community.” I’d been in the closet for three years now, or four, and it’s like, “Okay. I have always been taught to help out and give back, even though in L.A., I didn’t have to.” I was not an activist at all. I was just living part of the life there. Anyway, that’s how I got involved with INBA. I just said, “Cary, why don’t I start designing the directory for you guys free? I want to give back to the community.”
Currently, the INBA hires [my company,] Thinking Cap, for management. We kind of have the INBA as an account. So, we make sure that the website is updated, that lunch flyers go out, that the phone is answered, that the directory gets produced and stuff like that. But at this point, we charge them very minimal, minimal [fees]. Again, it’s just our way to give back. I just basically said, “I can’t do it for free. We need to start establishing a bit of a budget.” Now what we have been able to do is—since [Thinking Cap has] grown—we actually [had] one of INBA’s scholarship recipients decide he wanted to become a graphic designer. He’s now interning with me; he is specifically working on INBA.
I am currently sitting on the board [of the INBA]. The board is all volunteers. When you talk to other board members, they always say I am the driving force behind the INBA currently. I served as the president at one point, but I do so much [design] work for the INBA that I just said, “It’s a conflict [of interest] for me to be producing stuff and be [an officer].” So, I just keep myself as a board member.
I’ve had a lot of other organizations invite me to be on the board, or ask if I would help out, and I’ve been pretty good about learning to say “no” in that regard. I haven’t learned to say “no” to the INBA though. It’s really my baby right now. That’s really where I want to concentrate my efforts. You can only do so much. There are a number of people out there that have their fingers in every little bit. And I don’t know how they do it. I just don’t know whether that’s the right way to push my energy.
Michael Flannery and Maggie Montana were really involved in getting [the INBA] going. I think it started with a group of maybe 15 people or so that just started meeting for lunch, and then one thing led to another.
Just a couple of years ago [was] when the whole “gay district” thing came up. I happened to be sitting on the Downtown Spokane Partnership Board at the time. It’s mostly businesses that are downtown—people high up within the businesses, really, talking about how to keep downtown vibrant and things like that. Ron Wells and Rob Brewster were kind of pushing for my membership on there. They allow a community member on the board during the year, so they invited me, as a representative of the gay community, to sit on the board. A lot of what they talked about really went right over my head. Gosh, if somebody was to say, “How was that?”—all I could say was that it was an interesting experience. There were so many times I wished I knew what they were talking about, but I just didn’t understand.
You are hearing [about] some of the things [the Downtown Spokane Partnership Board discussed] now. The whole thing about a streetcar going through downtown, the lofts that are starting to pop up, a grocery store . . . I mean, they talked really about, “How do we keep downtown vibrant?” Through that I learned of things like Richard Florida and The Creative Class. By reading that book, that’s where I got involved in saying, “Isn’t it time we had a gay district here? What do we need to do?” That really came about with having a bunch of us sit down after Pride. Odyssey and INBA had just finished “Shared Heart.” The exhibit.[The Shared Heart exhibit] was really interesting. I remember contacting the artist [Adam Mastoon] about that. I got some information. I brought it to the INBA Board and said, “This would be great. Let’s bring it to Spokane.” Odyssey [Youth Center] contacted him right around the same time, whether it was a day, two days, or whatever afterward . . . I get a call from the artist about a week later and he says, “There is another group in Spokane that wants to bring this exhibit [there].” I was like, “Oh my God! That’s the youth group! Yeah. That would be great!” Anyway, we worked together, to bring that to Spokane.
After that we sat around and said, “That was really good. What are we going to do next year?” We were throwing out a bunch of ideas. Marshall Fahlen said, “You know, the problem is just that we only get together once a year to come out of the woodwork to say, ‘I’m queer, here I am.’” He says, “And that is really stupid. That is the problem we have here. We are non-existent 364 days a year. One day a year we bring out the rainbow flags and say, ‘Here we are.’” I said, “Really what we need to do is make Pride day every day in Spokane. We should be a lot more open. We should be more visible. [That] is what needs to happen.”
That’s when I started explaining to them what I was reading of Richard Florida, what I knew of the Downtown Partnership, and what they were trying to do. They were looking at all of the different economic modules out there: “How do you kick start a community?” And Florida’s was one that they were looking at that time. Basically, Florida’s theory says you need to have three things [to have a vibrant city]. You need to have talent, tolerance, and technology. “Three T’s.” You need to have these three things. You can’t have just two; you have to have all three.
Tolerance was the big piece, because the way he measured tolerance in a community [was by asking]: “Do you have an open gay community? How visible is your gay community?” Because if you’ve got a visible gay community, that means that there is enough tolerance within that community that anybody can come and say, “Okay. Well, if the gays are here, then me—as a person of color—I should be accepted as well.” So, that’s what I brought to the group, saying, “This is what he says.” I said, “The gay community needs to stop thinking we can only come out once during the year, and then we need to hide and go back into the closet. Because, by this economic theory, the gay community is an asset to Spokane and not a deterrent, which so many people think.”[People objected,] “But our community is so disjointed! There is a lot of bickering! And da-da-da, da-da-da.” I’m like, “Yeah, and, you know, we would probably still have all that in a more visible community. But at least we would be visible, and maybe there would be other people that would step up. We would find other leaders to come up and start doing things and not just those who say, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s right. So now I’m going to open my mouth and become an activist and start pushing my own little agenda.’ We need to come together as a group, and not as individuals, saying, ‘Well I think this’ and ‘I think that.’ The community isn’t one person. It’s a lot of people—just like Spokane is one big community.”
There is so many ways to [increase visibility]. I know that they are talking about trying to get some billboards up—that’ll be a good way to get some visibility. I don’t know if that is the greatest use of funds, if they’re having to pay for it at this point, but it’s the fastest way to start getting the visibility. The only thing is, they need to be able to back that up once those boards come down. You can’t just put billboards up and say “Hey, here we are. We’re here, we’re queer,” and then just not hear anything or see anything [after that]. It’s just a little spark, then, now it’s gone, so they don’t have to look at it or think about them anymore.
I kind of helped start [the Vision Committee]. The Vision Committee has now moved on to OutSpokane. It seems like their emphasis right now is more on community and less on business. The original part of Vision was to talk about a gay community and a gay business district. I was concentrating on the business district and everybody else seemed to be concentrating on the community. I finally just said, “You know, this is not working for me. I’m spending so much of my time working on the business end, and my business is sputtering. I need to make a choice here.” And the choice was, “I need to scale back.” [I] kept business going. [I want to] get it so that my business can contribute to the community when it’s ready to, versus me, myself, only [me]. The whole thing about the gay business district will come back up eventually. I don’t know when, but I’m certain that it will because there are enough people still talking about it. Anyone in the business community that I know about will ask me about it, “So, what’s going on with the gay district, or the business community?” And I’m like, “You know, we had this great start and then . . .”
At this point, the way I look at it is, everybody has always told me that you don’t plan a gay district. And I kind of go, “No, you do plan a gay district. They always say, “It has to happen naturally and organically.” I’m like, “Well, nothing happens that way. There is some planning involved. It’s not planning like you see in City Hall, but there are people talking—and talking to each other.”
The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, New York, 2002.
The Shared Heart is an exhibit of photographs and narratives on coming out, conceived by photographer Adam Mastoon. The exhibit came to Spokane in May-June 2003; the exhibit in Spokane featured Spokane residents photographed by Steve Rodenbough, an INBA board member.
The Vision Committee erected the billboards mentioned here in May and June 2007. The boards featured photographs of 14 Spokane residents. Initially, they read simply, “Hi Spokane! We’re your family, friends and neighbors!” Two weeks later, another line was added: “SOME of us are Gay. . . .” Finally, a third line added: “All of us deserve equal rights!”
OutSpokane organizes the annual Pride celebration in Spokane.
Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, December 2006, held at the Northwest Museum for Arts and Culture.