Ten years after the Stonewall Riots sparked the gay rights movement, a conservative backlash hit Seattle in the form of Initiative 13, a measure to repeal laws protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is the story of Seattle's "Stonewall" - a battle at the ballot box for the hearts and minds of voters.
On Monday night (April 25, 2011), KCTS 9 will be presenting a terrific film called "Stonewall Uprising," chronicling the riots near the Stonewall bar in New York in 1968 that helped launch the gay rights movement. Watching an advance preview of the film, I was struck by how this country treated homosexuality before the late 1960s.
“Barbaric” is the word that comes to mind.
It wasn’t simply that gays and lesbians were shunned by society, ostracized by their families, or denied workplace benefits. Homosexuality was illegal in most states. It was also considered a mental illness.
Think about that contradiction for a second. Society was simultaneously telling gays that they were sick AND that they were criminals; that they needed treatment AND incarceration; that being gay wasn’t their fault, BUT they’d be held responsible.
Homosexuals were locked-up in jails and mental institutions. Many were subjected to drugs and electric shock therapy to “cure” them. Some were castrated. Others were lobotomized.
Like I said – barbaric.
None of this is “news” to gays and lesbians who lived during that time, but it’s a part of our history that I don’t think is known very well among younger generations. Speaking as someone born after Stonewall, my perception has always been that the fight for gay rights centered around gay marriage, workplace benefits, and military service, not ending what amounted to society-sanctioned torture.
But there was a time when that was a central issue, which is why we decided this week to take a closer look at the history of Seattle’s gay community. With the second largest LGBT population in the country after San Francisco, Seattle has a reputation for being a progressive city for gay rights – first offering domestic-partner benefits in 1989, and recognizing gay marriages in 2004.
But it hasn’t always been that way. In this week’s show, we’ll take you back to a time when gays and lesbians in Seattle lived in secret in the “vice” neighborhoods south of Yessler Way. And we’ll show you the battle over Initiative 13 in the 1970s which pitted a local Seattle lawyer against former beauty queen Anita Bryant in a political fight for gay rights that had national ramifications.
It’s a history that isn’t visited very often, but worth knowing.