Oregon LGBTQ History before 1970
By George T. Nicola
Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN)
Last updated 5/13/2015
The following is a very brief history of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Oregonians previous to our community’s political awaking that started in 1970. This is not intended to be detailed, but to offer a basis on which more comprehensive research can be done.
This article is mostly about social history. The largest social community of Oregon gay men and lesbians before 1970 was in Portland. Because of that, much of this article will involve that city.
A lot has been written on the subject of Oregon LGBTQ history that occurred previous to 1970. Rather than restate it all, I will simply summarize and reference some information from the below list of works. For a better understanding, I suggest you eventually read them in full.
- Article “Oregon Gay History Timeline” by GLAPN: http://glapn.org/6020timeline.html
- Article “Does Portland Need a Homophile Society” by Peter Boag: http://www.ohs.org/research/quarterly/images/ohq1051boag.pdf
- Book Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/southwestern_historical_quarterly
- Book Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, by Peter Boag: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_the_history_of_sexuality/summary/v013/13.3kissack.html
- Book A Curious and Peculiar People: A History of the Metropolitan Community Church of Portland, Oregon, and the Sexual Minority Communities of the Pacific Northwest by David Grant Kohl: http://books.google.com/books/about/A_Curious_and_Peculiar_People.html?id=5D3xngEACAAJ
- Book: The Vice Clique: Portland’s Great Sex Scandal by George Painter: Self-published in December 2013, available through Espresso Book Machine at Powell’s Bookstore. (https://www.powells.com/bookmachine/)
- Article “VICE CLIQUE: AN OLD-FASHIONED GAY SEX SCANDAL” by Robin Will: http://www.pqmonthly.com/vice-clique-old-fashioned-gay-sex-scandal/18924
- Article: “The Sensibilities of Our Forefathers -- The History of Sodomy Laws in the United States -- Oregon”: http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/oregon.htm
There have always been people who are homosexual or bisexual – individuals who are sexually attracted to people of their same gender. There have also always been people who identify with a gender that is different than the one assigned to them at birth. But how society looks on that and how it treats these people differs in time and place.
Early Euro-American explorers in the Oregon country noted that some indigenous societies appeared to accept same-gender romantic relationships and gender identity variations.
In 1806, Lewis and Clark, seeking the mouth of the Willamette River, were directed by local Indians to a place where “two young men” lived together, having left the tribe to set up a home.
An 1811 report was published about a woman in the Kutenai tribe who dressed like a man and had a “wife.” (http://glapn.org/6020timeline.html)
However, Euro-American settlers often brought with them social biases that were sometimes reflected in their laws. In 1853, the territorial legislature passed a new criminal code that contained a sodomy provision with the common law definition and a penalty of 1-5 years in the penitentiary. (http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/oregon.htm). That definition is generally vague. “Traditionally courts and statutes referred to it as a "crime against nature" or as copulation ‘against the order of nature.’” (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/sodomy) So it was open for a lot of judicial interpretation.
But it wasn’t until 1886 that someone was sent to the penitentiary for sodomy.
In 1894, a neighbor reported a Portland gay male couple to the police and both were jailed. (http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/oregon.htm)
Early 20th Century developments
In 1912, the Portland “Vice Clique Scandal” broke. After a general vice investigation in the city, 68 men were involved, including a few who have some prominence in the city. Six trials were held and four other men pled guilty to charges involving private, consensual sexual activity. Three convicted men appealed their convictions and all were freed by the Oregon Supreme Court. Historian George Painter documents the events and their repercussions in his book, The Vice Clique: Portland’s Great Sex Scandal. (http://www.pqmonthly.com/vice-clique-old-fashioned-gay-sex-scandal/18924)
Some interesting insights also come from George Painter’s “Sodomy Laws” article at http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/oregon.htm:
Governor Oswald West, who was responsible for launching a crusade against vice in 1912, urged the Oregon legislature to "investigate this subject [degeneracy]."
Rather than an investigation, the legislature responded with new laws in 1913, including a unique statute that reworded the sodomy prohibition as follows: “If any person shall commit sodomy or the crime against nature, or any act or practice of sexual perversity, either with mankind or beast, or sustain osculatory relations with the private parts of any man, woman or child, or permit such relations to be sustained with his or her private parts, such person shall upon conviction thereof, be punished by imprisonment in the penitentiary not less than one year nor more than fifteen years.”
In addition to the incredible breadth of the statute that obviously covered practically any kind of erotic activity, the maximum penalty was tripled. (Another 1913 law was the sterilization statute; see the Sterilization section.) This new sodomy law turned out to be unneeded, however. Just a few months later, the Oregon Supreme Court issued decisions that, even without the law, would have rendered fellatio illegal.
In 1913, in State v. Start, 18 the Court decided that fellatio was a "crime against nature." The Court defined the act of fellatio by Start with partner Fred Rodby for which the defendant was convicted as "taking into his mouth the penis of Rodby and sucking the same until a seminal emission ensued." After giving an anatomical lecture concerning the two openings of the alimentary canal, the Court could not understand why ancient writers did not recognize fellatio as an act of sodomy. "The moral filthiness and iniquity against which the statute is aimed is the same in both cases [anal and oral sex]."
In his book review “VICE CLIQUE: AN OLD-FASHIONED GAY SEX SCANDAL”, Robin Will details “A eugenics-and-sterilization bill, which had been submitted every year since 1907, also gained traction in 1913. The rationale was, for the good of society, to keep undesirable elements from breeding, although how this might apply to homosexuals was unclear. The 1913 bill was defeated by referendum, but the legislature brought it back unchallenged in 1917, giving the state broad powers to sterilize the feebleminded, sexual perverts and moral degenerates – including those convicted of sodomy. The last man was sterilized under that law in 1951; the last forced sterilization of any kind happened in Oregon in 1981, and the 1917 statute wasn’t repealed until 1983.” Will also notes that a study of the scandal makes it “clear that Portland had a substantial and visible population of gay men 100 years ago, in spite of everything.” (http://www.pqmonthly.com/vice-clique-old-fashioned-gay-sex-scandal/18924)
In 1928, a second gay sex scandal occurred in Portland when about 10 men were arrested for private, consensual sexual activity. (http://www.pqmonthly.com/vice-clique-old-fashioned-gay-sex-scandal/18924)
Painter also notes “Cunnilingus was found to be a violation of the sodomy statute by the Oregon Supreme Court in the 1961 case of State v. Black.” (http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/sensibilities/oregon.htm)
Early transgender advances
Alberta Lucille Hart, (1890-1962), graduated from the University of Oregon Medical School, which is now called Oregon Health & Science University, or OHSU. After graduation, Hart underwent a hysterectomy and lived the rest of his life as a man, Dr. Alan L. Hart, marrying twice. Hart is among the first female-to-male transgender people to undergo surgery in transition. (http://glapn.org/6020timeline.html)
Although there have always been people who identify with a gender different than the one they were assigned at birth and managed to express that in some way, it was not always easy. But medical developments in the latter half of the 20th Century allowed for surgical procedures which could enhance their lives considerably.
In 1961, pioneering work in transgender advocacy was started by Dr. Ira Pauly, a psychiatrist who for a while worked for OHSU. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Pauly) You can read an OHSU interview with Dr. Pauly at http://digitalcommons.ohsu.edu/hca-oralhist/44/.
World War II and its aftermath
In 2004, Pacific Northwest historian Peter Boag published his article “Does Portland Need a Homophile Society?” in the Oregon Historical Quarterly. (http://www.ohs.org/research/quarterly/images/ohq1051boag.pdf) The article analyses Portland’s gay scene between the 1940s and the beginning of its gay movement in 1970.
Boag points out that certain changes in the city’s composition during World War II fostered a new social life. “The atmosphere of relative lax morality and social dislocation provided opportunities in Portland and Seattle for lesbian and gay populations and institutions to proliferate. Likewise, entrance into the armed services allowed many Northwest youths with same-sex longings the opportunity to explore their sexuality and raise their consciousness.” An increasing number of bars began to have customers who were predominantly gay men or lesbians.
Boag writes that in 1950, “Portland Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee maintained a sincere desire to restore what she believed were proper moral values to a city shaken by the social dislocation of World War II. Among other things, Mayor Lee sponsored the first anti-gay campaign at the municipal level when she attempted to close down some of the gay and lesbian bars that had been thriving in the city since the 1940s.” One of those was a mixed gender bar called the Music Hall. “Working with the OLCC, the mayor succeeded in closing down the impersonation [drag] acts and, according to one newspaper account, eliminated its ‘lewd customers’ from the Music Hall.” Boag explains:
Although Portland Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee succeeded in closing down the Music Hall’s catering to gays and lesbians in 1950, several other bars — among them the Harbor Club, Milwaukee Tavern, Dahl & Penne Tavern, Riptide, Derek’s Tavern, Half Moon Tavern, and Other Inn — each existed for varying periods of time during the 1950s and 1960s.
After Mayor Lee’s crackdown in 1950, Portland law enforcement officials seem not to have “raided” local gay bars. This does not mean, however, that bars and their customers were left completely alone. Over the years, police made individual arrests for moral infractions and a few sex acts and occasionally influenced the OLCC to suspend licenses when bars permitted dancing and countenanced ‘lewd’ behavior. Portland police, however, had exercised what they called a “hands-off” policy, believing it was “better,” in their words, “to have deviates concentrated in a few places, where they could be watched.” Commissioner Stanley Earl, for example, remembered that when he had wanted to shut down the Harbor Club in the late 1950s the Police Department had conferred with him on the side and “asked that [the bar] be allowed to stay open for this reason; that they [homosexuals] were there and they weren’t scattered and if this place were closed, they would scatter to various places, which would compound the problem actually.” In addition to this informal policy Mayor Lee’s vice and graft crusades in the early 1950s ended the system whereby illegal and questionable entertainment establishments paid police to leave them alone. As a result, Portland’s few bars and their patrons were not mired in quite the desperate situation as were those in San Francisco or even Seattle.
Boag writes “In 1964, the situation abruptly, though temporarily, changed when Mayor Terry Schrunk and the city council launched the first concerted attack against gay and lesbian bars since Lee’s campaign in 1950.”
In 1964, the Mayor Schrunk and his four city Commissioners prepared for a “showdown” with the gay bars:
In a series of protracted meetings in late November and early December 1964, the mayor and the city council scrutinized the records of Portland’s gay bars and the gay culture that those establishments fostered, looking for a reason to shut them down.
Not surprisingly, the mayor and commissioners recommended that the OLCC deny alcohol licenses to six establishments that are “known taverns with heavy homosexual patronage”.
But things did not work out like the city had hoped:
The bars under scrutiny did not take the city’s decision lying down. They hired their own attorneys, including local lawyers James Damis and W.F. Whitely, who argued that shutting the bars because of the type of customers they catered to violated the recent Civil Rights Act, which protected people who assembled in public accommodations. The council nevertheless voted to recommend against the bars and passed the problem on to the OLCC. When the attorneys appealed their case directly to that agency, the OLCC found that the bars had not violated any law and that the city wanted them closed because of the nature of their patrons. The liquor licenses were renewed.
Early in 1965, Mayor Schrunk wrote to Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield urging him to “personally review this problem [the renewal of licenses] with members of your Oregon Liquor Control Commission.” The appeal apparently fell on deaf ears. At about the same time, the city council discovered that it had the authority to rescind the Harbor Club’s food license, making it impossible for that bar to serve the food necessary to fulfill the requirements of its Class A liquor license. The Harbor Club closed. With that, the commissioners believed that “we’ve done everything we can do about it” and determined that the city and its police would not move against the bars in all-out assault again.
As a result of Portland’s inability to close all the gay bars by 1969, Portland had numerous ones. At least one or two of them had a predominantly lesbian clientele. Walter Cole, most often know by his stage name Darcelle, opened a mixed gender gay bar in 1967. He says it was never subject to city harassment. The bar is located in Old Town and was originally called Demas Tavern. It remains open today as Darcelle XV Showplace. (http://glapn.org/6019InterestingFactsLGBTQHistory.html)
Portland’s gay drag scene had developed enough by 1965 that there were spring and fall balls held by a forerunner of today’s Imperial Sovereign Rose Court. In 1969, the Portland Forum was established to sponsor the events. Starting in 1970, the title of empress was awarded annually. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Imperial_Sovereign_Rose_Court_of_Oregon)
The Portland gay community on the eve of its political awaking
What was it like to be out and gay in Portland before our movement started here? Since I came out through the gay movement, I had no experience of being in gay life before that. So I interviewed my friend Jesse C. Gault, who had come out earlier in Portland.
Jesse explained that he had known all this adult life he was gay. He had been raised near San Francisco and had heard about the gay bars there. He also knew that there were groups like the Mattachine Society, but thought of those as intimidating.
One day in 1966 he was driving in downtown Portland when he saw two men who he thought appeared to be gay. He watched them go into a bar called the Tavern. So he parked his car and went into the bar himself.
The bartender was very friendly to him. Jesse asked him if there were “any other bars like this.” The bartender told him about another tavern nearby. Jesse drove to the other location and quickly met some people who remain his friends to this day.
Jesse did not fear police harassment, but he also didn’t let many straight people know he was gay. He never came out at work because he was afraid he would get fired. But he says that once he came out to other gay people, he had fun for the first time in his life. Previous to the launch Portland’s gay movement, he never gave any thought to the possibility of overall societal acceptance. He was just glad to finally be free to be himself in his personal life, and to have friends who shared the same feelings.
So this was the state of Portland gay life on the eve of the community’s political awaking – happy with what they had, but assuming that it could never go far beyond the walls of the bars or their homes. Few if anyone could imagine the gradual but sweeping changes that would unfold in the subsequent decades. .
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