Peter Williams – Activism

“It just takes so much energy.”

I left Connecticut when I was 21 and moved to Berkeley. Got a job at Berkeley from a connection with somebody I worked with. I moved there in 1966. I had heard enough about how California was. The whole hippie thing seemed interesting. The gay/lesbian revolution seemed to be pretty strong there. And it was far enough away. New York was too close [to where I grew up].

It was a wonderful time to be in Berkeley! [Laughs.] I got involved with politics. Obviously, the whole thing. People’s Park: I was living on property that eventually they kicked us out of, so that they could tear everything down and build . . . nothing. I got really involved in politics—antiwar politics, immigrant politics, all kinds of things. I moved to San Francisco and lived in the Haight, and then the Fillmore, then the Castro area. When I lived in the Castro area, I lived in a house that had four bedrooms. We had four roommates, and split the rent, and split the duties. That was my first really communal living experience.

I went to the Daughters of the Bilitis meetings soon after I moved to the area. I had heard of Daughters of Bilitis. I had read some of their magazine, The Ladder. So I found out where the meetings were and I went to a meeting. It was in some store front in San Francisco. I can’t for the life of me remember where now. But one of the things I remember was the first night I was there. There were two now-very-famous lesbian women who were a couple there, Phyl and Del.[1] Phyllis took me aside and wanted to see my driver’s license, because I looked so young. I was 21. You had to be 21 to belong there. They were worried about the cops busting them for minors coming to it. One of the other women there was really appalled and said, “You can’t ask her that!  You can’t ask for ID!!” You know, “Because this is supposed to be safe. What if she wanted to use a pseudonym?” I went to like two or three meetings, and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. They were so one-sided. You couldn’t bring up things like anti-war demonstrations.

[My vision of what needed to change was global.] It was like everything was very opening: you can see that this is discrimination. And you can see that this is discrimination. [I was] exposed to all the different things that were happening. You know, the problems in Hunters Point—which is the equivalent of Watts Area. Hunters Point of San Francisco had riots just like Watts did. The problems there, the problems over in Oakland and the black neighborhoods there. I mean, the fact that, at the time, it seemed like most of the guys being sent off to Vietnam were black, or a large percentage [were]. It all fit together. You couldn’t separate it out, because it was all part and parcel of how some people were putting everybody else down. Whether it was gay people, or people of color, or . . . It didn’t matter.

The gay Pride marches and different things around that was big. I worked in the Full Moon Coffeehouse and Bookstore for Women, which was on 18th, just above Castro, a couple blocks. That was a co-op. It was primarily lesbians, but not solely. We had musicians come in. So I got some into the women’s music scene and that sort of thing too. At the time, it was just an incredibly rich possibility of exploration [and] growth.


[After I moved to Spokane] I went to the ’79 March on Washington [for Lesbian and Gay Rights]. I got my airline ticket paid, by some organization over in Seattle who wanted representation from Eastern Washington. I don’t remember the name of that organization. I moved here in May. I let them know that I was here, I was interested, and I wanted to do something in Spokane that was more political.

I had lived in San Francisco for years. So, I remember [the 1979 march in D. C. as] being large, but not that large. I know when I first moved up here and I went over to Seattle to their [Pride] march, it was like a couple hundred [people]. I was blown away [by] how small it was compared to San Francisco, which we had thousands. I was used to crowds and a lot of the other people. I remember, in the ’79 march especially, [a lot of participants] were not used to crowds of gay people, and were like blown away that there were this many [laughs] gay-lesbian people there. That didn’t blow me away.

I felt really comfortable. I got the name of someone who was offering space in their house. I didn’t know this person at all. He gave me a key. I came and went as I pleased. I walked around Washington D. C.—alone. Rode the buses alone. Never felt any fear, which some people I know expressed, “Oh my God!” Now, again, I had lived in San Francisco, in a biggish city. But I remember other people expressing, “Oh, aren’t you afraid to be walking alone at night?  Don’t you think you should take a cab?” [I thought] “Oh, no, it’s only, you know, however many blocks to this place.” They were fearful about what would happen. They were fearful about having their pictures in the paper. It was still pretty early.

[During the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, the dedication at the Holocaust Museum] was really powerful. That was . . . Wow! When you think about of all the ways that people get persecuted for whoever they are. They had some great speakers. I don’t remember who spoke, but they had some wonderful speakers. I can remember tears just coming down people’s faces. The fact that the organizers of the dedication talked about gay and lesbian—which at the time was still not necessarily a big thing for people to do . . . I’ve gone to several of the different holocaust museums—I went to one down in the L. A. area—but it seems sort of like they concentrate on the Jewish experience, but not necessarily the Gypsy or the [homosexual experience]. It’s all part of the same thing. It’s all part of denying people rights.

I think that, being in Spokane, it was helpful to have that sort of invigorating, “There’s something happening nationally. Let’s keep moving locally.” Now, [in] ’93: I did take my partner with me. So part of what we ended up doing was just [exploring Washington, D. C.]. She had never been east of the Mississippi. We stayed at this person’s house out in . . . who knows where? We would ride the metro into D. C. There was another couple staying there, and the other couple was very fearful. I don’t remember where they were from, but I think it was somewhere like the Midwest. They were very fearful, even riding the subway. This one woman said, “Don’t look at them. Don’t look at them.” And it’s like, “What are you talking about?” [She didn’t want to make eye contact] with any of the natives of Washington [D. C.], who were sometimes heckling.

I was involved in helping plan and do some of [the early Spokane Pride marches. At the first Spokane march] I was one of the monitors who tried to keep the peace. We got trained through Peace and Justice [Action League of Spokane]. I did that for many years on the early marches. On the early marches, we had some really vitriolic people telling us we were damned and going to hell. One of the things you just had to do [as a peacekeeper] was just get in between them and the marchers, so that hopefully there would be no violence. It was pretty easy, actually. I don’t let that sort of thing get to me, very much.

Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I was a peacekeeper at the ’79 march in D. C. That’s sort of how I got things going to have peacekeepers here, because I had that experience there, and the training there. I knew we needed to do something about that here as well. I had forgotten about that. I think Peace and Justice was right up there, wanting to do that.

I wasn’t fearful [during that first march in Spokane]. I don’t know where I developed my sense of not being afraid. Now, it’s true the people that were yelling at us in the parade weren’t willing to be nice to us no matter what, but they also weren’t going to be violent towards us, I didn’t think. Not that violence didn’t happen to gay and lesbians in Spokane, but not in the middle of the day, at a public event, where there are police officers. I think in the beginning they almost had more police than us! [Laughs.] They pretty much surrounded us. In front of us and behind us . . . There were some motorcycle police on the sides. I think they were worried that something would happen.

[The organizers of Spokane’s first Pride march] wanted us to not show flesh, and be orderly and polite, and follow the rules. I know that in the beginning we had to stay on the sidewalks, because we didn’t have a permit to be in the street. They wanted us to be sure we stayed on the sidewalks. I think there were people who definitely chaffed at that kind of restrictions. You know, “If you’re going to have a Pride march, how can you be so restrictive?” In San Francisco there was a lot of nudity [during Pride]. San Francisco even tried to tone it down, in later years, because they wanted to keep it from being confrontational.

There was an altercation [at the Spokane march in 1994,] in the staging area. Somebody threw a beer bottle or whatever. The marcher was probably a little drunk, and responded . . . I don’t remember exactly [what happened]. Everybody got really, sort of, edgy. Then people did start singing. I think individuals just started automatically [singing], trying to [calm people down]. The peacekeepers that were involved, in trying to make a break between the people, were just busy trying to keep people separated. But it was pretty minor in a lot of ways. I mean, really.


When I first moved here, one of the first things that happened was we started a support group. The YWCA had a Women’s Resource Center. One night a week, we had a meeting there—just so people could come and talk, “How’s your life? What’s going on?” [That group was for] lesbian women. People had been talking about doing that for a long time, apparently, from what people told me. One woman and I, we were a part of this once-a-week get together meeting, and we wanted to have something more political. So we formed the Lesbian Alliance. We went down and spoke in Pullman at WSU’s psychology person’s class. We put ads in national newspapers trying to get people, but [the Lesbian Alliance] never did much. [We were] trying to get people to know that there was something happening in Spokane—that it wasn’t totally [laughs] nonpolitical. The people that communicated with us, a large number of them, were prison inmates. I don’t know what they thought we were going to do. [Laughs.] Some of them were women; they wanted pen pals, basically. I really wanted to be more political, but it didn’t always happen.

[Later, I served on the Spokane Regional Women’s Commission].[2] As with many things feminist, there was hesitation to be known as associating with lesbians, just because their feminist ideas might get discredited. The bulk of the women that started that were involved in the Spokane Chapter of NOW. A lot of them were fairly active politically, one way or another. They wanted to have a representational commission, so they wanted not just radical feminists, or feminists, but they had some non-feminist straight women on it. “Straight” not in the sense just of heterosexual, but “straight” in the sense of what their idea of what it is to be a woman is. They were trying to get a broad base. At some point, someone pointed out to them that they were lacking an out lesbian. My name came up. I had worked with many of these women. Because I’d been involved with NOW, at least peripherally, I knew them. So I became on the commission and I then was their out lesbian. It didn’t last really long.

The whole purpose [of the Commission] was to try to get women from all different backgrounds to talk and to try to develop some kind of meaningful dialogue. That happened to some extent. It was kind of interesting. You know, some of them chaffed at having a lesbian. Some of them chaffed to having people of color on there. But what we were looking at was, “What policies for city, county, government would be most helpful for women?” So we needed a broad representation. It was one of the few experiences I had with working—in a political way—with women that were as diverse as that. When I lived in San Francisco, I was pretty much in the lesbian-feminist community and stayed there. [I was] somewhat involved with men, but not a whole lot. When I moved up here, I was, in the not-very-political Spokane lesbian community, [the] statewide representative “Spokane” person, you know. Although I had been part of NOW, NOW was just the feminist side. It was kind of interesting to work with women who really had a very traditional [view of women’s roles]. But we could sit down and talk together. That was one of those sort of “ah-ha” moments. Sort of like what Peace and Justice [Action League of Spokane] wants to accomplish: “We can sit down and talk, even if we don’t have the same philosophy.”

I also worked with the [Spokane Mental Health’s] Suicide Hotline early on. There existed a gay section; if someone on suicide hotline got a caller who identified as being gay or lesbian, who was in crisis, they would pass them off to us. I went through the training and did that for a couple of years. I know that suicide prevention no longer does the gay-lesbian [section] anymore, from what I understand, anyway. I talked to somebody just a little while ago who still works on suicide hotline and says they don’t. They don’t split it out as separate anyway.

I spoke at Spokane [Regional] Health [District] about AIDS a couple of times. I worked with Spokane AIDS Network some. I worked with a group that did one-on-ones: going in and being with somebody who had AIDS, spending time with them, and helping them out. In the late ‘80s I got connected with a group of people that do a healing technique called reiki. I would do reiki with some of the AIDS people I went to see.

It was probably [in the] early ‘90s that I started pulling out of things. I just told [people] I was burned out. And I was. There were other people doing things. Spokane had become a little less . . . head in the sand, I guess. I love going to San Francisco and going to marches and all that. But my natural thing is not to be involved in the organization, out front, and speaking up. I don’t like what it takes to do the organization. It just takes so much energy. You know, because the infighting within. I mean, the various gay groups in Washington state, the infighting between men and women, and east side and west side. You name it. It just was very draining.

[Sighs.] I’m too old to be that involved in things, I think—partly. I think that’s partly why I got just burnt out. I think it was partly just getting old and not having the energy that I did as a youth. You can do that in your 20s. I slowed down. I was still doing things, but I wasn’t living in San Francisco, going out every other day or on the weekends and protesting, and . . . At some point I just got like, “This is enough.”

[When I first moved to Spokane,] for me, there was the void of activism, and somebody had to do it. So, it may as well be me, because I had been out for all my life. I wasn’t particularly worried about what might happen. But it’s not really my style. [If I had stayed in the Bay area] I would’ve done things, but I wouldn’t have been trying to move things along. I wouldn’t have gone speaking to the Spokane Regional Health District. I wouldn’t have [been doing all these things]. I don’t mind being out as a visible [lesbian], but I really don’t like speaking . . . It seemed like [somebody else wasn’t going to do it]. But then, you know, I got burnt out. I quit doing it—other people stepped in. That’s a good thing, right?

But I’ve discovered that it’s really hard to not get totally wound up and out of control in my head about injustice. So like, when the Occupy thing happened, I was excited that it looked like, “Wow! Here’s something that maybe’s actually going to make a difference.” Then also realizing that I have to limit my energy, I guess. I’m older. Quite frankly, it’s hard to stay focused on not getting totally blown off into the wind, I guess. And . . . unfortunately, I think a lot of my time of all that excitement and stuff is totally mixed up with partying, drugs and alcohol. You know, the excitement. It all sort of fit together from the early days. And it’s not who I am now.

[Now] it’s more personal. It’s more individuals. Less global. So, something happens at work: I’ll go talk to someone about it. I’ve had some rather tense conversations where I’ve been told that it’s not appropriate to talk about these things. People were being let go in very questionable circumstances. In a lot of ways, I am in a privileged situation. I’m old enough: I could retire. Basically, I’m really not afraid of them. A lot of the people are, because so many people have lost their jobs. I try to, in a nonthreatening way, hopefully, point out to people that either something they’ve said is not acceptable, to me anyway. Or, in the case of employment issues, where people who are doing the same job are being paid differently—[different] rates—pointing out that it’s not really right. [It’s not easy], but, somebody has to.


Well, even the men who were doing activism, in the early days, they were still closeted in a lot of ways. It was like they were really upset about people saying that being gay was a choice, for example. [To me] it was like, “What’s the big deal? Whether it’s a choice or not, it’s who we are, right? So rather than let [the outside] dominate, saying, “Well, it’s a choice. You’re choosing to be deviant, right?” Rather than taking that on, just say, “Sure fine. I chose this.” They didn’t like that at all. And then the men’s political issues seemed . . . They were much more conservative in a lot of ways, I guess, besides that. [They were] not wanting to rock the boat. You know, keeping it to issues that they thought that people would understand better, like AIDS. But not trans issues, for sure. Early on, anyway. They were pretty good on employment. But they weren’t as interested in, say, women’s issues. Which is okay, I guess. But we all have to work together and coalition building seemed more important to me.

It’s all the same. If you’re going to fight for the freedoms, or rights, or whatever, you have to fight for everyone. You can’t just single out and say, “Well, our strongest point is . . . this. And we’ll get to you eventually.” That’s how it felt like. “We’ll get to you eventually.” It’s like, “No, you won’t. Because once you have what you want, then you’re not going to want to share, because that’s how it seems to be.”


[1]Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who founded the Daughters of Bilitis.

[2]The Commission was established in April 1986.


Sources: Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 9 November 2012, 3 December 2012, and 20 February 2014.