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George Bakan: A giant who used the SGN to make Queer history

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Recently, I had the unenviable task of describing George Bakan, the former publisher of the SGN, to a group of diverse and talented writers here at the newspaper. Despite having a year to consolidate him into a single sound bite, I failed miserably. How do you describe someone who was a force of nature?
George could literally change the climate of a room with his mere presence and move, figuratively speaking, mountains with a single phone call. The remarkable thing is that he could achieve all this through his sheer force of will and an endearing wit and warmth.
It's hard to believe that it's been a year since George's passing on June 7, 2020. He literally died at his desk — doing what he does best. He had been making calls to rally support for an LGBTQIA+ statement condemning police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who was murdered at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
I came back to the SGN a day later to help his paper in the only way I knew how: by reporting the news. I waited more than a week before sitting at his desk, but it was the only work space available in the cluttered SGN newsroom.
I thought back to all the times George would end our conversations with one simple question: "When are you coming back to write for us?" I had left journalism to return to social service because I thought that was my true calling. However, George knew better, and he finally got his wish.
A year later, I am a contributing writer and photojournalist to five news outlets, including the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, Unite Seattle magazine, and the Tacoma Weekly.

He "changed my path forever"
George Bakan  (Source: The Legacy Project)

He "changed my path forever"

George cared deeply for his staff, although a paycheck wasn't always guaranteed to be on time or in full. The newspaper business is a tricky beast, and he was at the whim of its advertisers and their account receivables department. George was also an avid antique collector and thrift store hunter, which was a major outlet for his personal spending.
"He gave me my first job as a paid writer and, although the pay was minimal, the opportunity it provided was immense," said Albert Rodriguez via Facebook. "That job opened so many doors for me, and I'm forever grateful."
Beau Burriola, a former SGN columnist, added that "George saw and nurtured in me qualities I didn't know I had" and "helped me find my voice.
"He wasn't just an editor, an activist, or newsman. He was a visionary, a leader, and one of those rare people in my life who changed my path forever."
This week I spoke with his daughter, Angela Cragin, who inherited her father's legacy. I can remember the look of worry on her face as she first surveyed the office. The gravity of it all was overwhelming... to grieve for her father and to hold the fortunes of its staff in her hands. The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic hardship facing print publications at the time must have made the idea of saving the nation's third oldest LGBTQIA+ newspaper an insurmountable task.
"It was utterly terrifying," recalled Cragin. " When I talk to my friends about the last year, I tell them: 'I've never drank so much, cussed so much, or cried so much.' Picture yourself being plucked from your life and dropped off into unknown surroundings, where nobody knows you nor do you have knowledge of anything, but are expected to step up to a massive undertaking. It was daunting, to say the least.
"I did not feel like the right person for the job, whatsoever, and, honestly, this thought still looms at times. Nevertheless, once I decided to give it a try, I have literally poured myself into it... although nobody can ever truly fill those George shoes."

"The smartest person in the room"
Georg Bakan  (Source: Nate Gowdy)

"The smartest person in the room"

George knew who controlled the levers of power and he wasn't afraid to cajole them to advance issues of importance to him, the paper and the LGBTQIA+ community. As a former managing editor, I could remember having to smooth things over from time to time with local community organizations and leaders after George had called to offer a piece of his mind. However, most of them knew that a call with George was part of the job and were happy to do it.
"George was always the smartest person in the room... even when that room was filled with senators and governors and chiefs of police," said Mike McNamara, a former SGN staffer and George's longtime life partner. "In 2005, George took me to the inauguration of Gov. Christine Gregoire... Every two minutes someone would see George and start gushing, 'Hey, George!' They would come over for big hugs, like they were old dear friends. These are people like Christine Gregoire, Gary Locke, and Laurie Jinkins. It was a showing of the love and respect George had cultivated with the powerful of Washington state."
After his death, many of these politicians posted remembrances to George. Former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer said, "George was very kind and helpful to a brand-new mayor of Seattle." Likewise, former Mayor Greg Nickels stated he was "an important voice in a time of profound change in how the civil rights of the LGBT community were defined and respected in Seattle and beyond." Even former Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged that he was not only " a friend of over 30 years" but "generous with his time and advice." Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a longtime friend, wrote in a statement that he "literally wrote our history in Seattle at the same time he was living it."
"He was an advocate in the truest sense, and was never afraid to give you his honest opinion — whether you asked for it or not. He could be brash, but you never doubted that underneath it all was an enormous heart filled with endless compassion for Seattle and the LGBTQ community," said Durkan. "I am so grateful to George for everything he did throughout his life to pass on this history to the younger generation. He built community, and he worked tirelessly to make our entire city more just, fair, and equitable."
Cragin, who lives in the Tri-Cities, had not been prepared to receive such an overwhelming number of condolences from so many notable Washingtonians. "When he would boast about knowing the mayor or the SPD police chief, I took it with a grain of salt," she said. "The joke was on me, because he actually really did know these people. We even received a letter of condolence from [Sen.] Maria Cantwell. His contributions and accomplishments truly were impactful and were illuminated through his death."
As his daughter soon discovered, George was always active and engaged in a wide variety of issues that he believed in. King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she had talked to him "shortly before COVID struck" and that he "wanted to talk about homelessness in the LGBTQ community."
"It felt surprising, yet satisfying, to hear about all of George's accomplishments and contributions," said Cragin. "There is a piece of me that has always worried about my father: his health, his well-being, his financial security, and his place in the Seattle community. After he passed, the ocean of commentaries, calls, and news stories ambushed me. I always knew he was important, which he was not afraid to share with anyone."

A community builder: "He said 'yes.' Every time."
George Bakan - (1993 March On WA)  

A community builder: "He said 'yes.' Every time."

George seemed to have his fingers in every LGBTQIA+ project, initiative, and organization. That included anything happening in his beloved Capitol Hill neighborhood.
"Every time I asked George for help with a Gay City event, he said 'yes.' Every time," said Bruce Maeder, a former program manager at Gay City.
Before the EQUALUX - Taste of GSBA event, George called the mayor's office and asked that the day be declared "EQUALUX Day in Seattle." He was successful.
George also gave away many ads to local nonprofits and was a frequent guest at their events. "Because of his coverage over the years, people also knew about the Imperial Court of Seattle and other nonprofits and their purposes," said Gaysha Starr, a contributing writer for the SGN, celebrity drag queen, and former Empress of Seattle. "I am in debt to him and the SGN, as they were my media sponsor for my campaign for Empress of Seattle in 1999, running my ads and content during the campaign for four weeks and through my reign...
"We would randomly chat, and he would say, 'You know, Gaysha, this organization could use your help.' He was the one who directed me toward working with GLSEN and PFLAG."
PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) parent Jeaneane Hill said Geroge would publish "many of the stories I told about my journey with PFLAG" and Soulfource, such as when she would get arrested at church conferences across the United States. "I held the paper with the title facing outward as I walked, and I will continue to work to preserve and expand Gay rights," she said.
George was recognized in 2013 with a night at Neighbours, which was held in his honor for his "lifetime and continued achievements of leadership and community service."

"An activist in the truest sense"

Local journalist Geov Parrish wrote that George "deserves to be considered in the pantheon of great local civil rights leaders like Bob Santos and Roberto Maestas..." Starr agreed, stating that he "gave the pages of his paper to help fight causes, such as HIV/AIDS awareness, equal rights for our community, marriage equality, helping elect out members of our community into office, championing small businesses on Capitol Hill, and condemning police brutality."
Even in the confines of Eastern Washington, George had an impact. Jeffrey Aaron Robinson said George's passing was "devastating on a personal level," especially because of his "unique role in helping to start the Tri-Cities LGBTQIA+ movement in the mid-1970s through an activist group he founded, named Oasis.
"I met George in 1981. He was one of the pillars of the LGBTQ+ community in the Tri-Cities," said Dorie Flatt. "I had the pleasure of working with him until he moved to Seattle. He has been one of the great hearts in our community."
George was one of the early organizers of the Gays/Police Task Force, according to McNamara. "He always attended the meetings. Roger Winters, Sherry Harris, and I believe Jim Holm [were] involved in the Dorian Group," he said. "That group started as a liaison between the LGBTQIA+ community and the police who were harassing gay men in Volunteer Park."
Adam Kuglin helped produce the SGN Pride editions four years in a row before going to work for Equal Rights Washington. He said George was "an activist in the truest sense, he never gave up on a good fight."
"[W]hatever you thought about his approach, he knew what he was after, and he showed up to do the work to get it," he said. "This community owes him everything."
George had been a veteran and used the paper to push for the repeal of the Clinton-era policy of "Dont't Ask, Don't Tell." He fought for marriage equality and helped craft the messaging away from dry legal arguments to a winning formula: Love is love.
"He supported Gay marriage when I thought fighting for LGBT protections in the workplace was more realistic," said Bruce Amsbary. "Yes, he was controversial and could be a pain in the ass, but I and the LGBT community of Washington — and indeed, the nation — owe him a debt of gratitude."
In 2012, George organized a caravan of Seattleites to attend the marriage-equality bill signing in Olympia. "I was standing next to George when Gov. Chris Gregoire signed marriage equality into law," said Alexander Manila. "Courts across the state and country took up the challenge themselves, and it started with George."
George also advocated for medical marijuana and was among those who pushed the issue long before the voters set out on the path to cannabis legalization. "I first met George Bakan in the 1990s," said Allison Bigelow. "We were both advocating and collecting signatures for WHIP [the Washington Hemp Initiative Project], an initiative whose goal was legalizing medical, industrial, and recreational cannabis."
George also opposed the Iraq War. Last year, former SGN staffer Bellial Darshan wrote about one encounter at the office. "I remember sitting down with him in the office in Seattle during the time of the Iraq War in 2003 and he was furious. 'This will turn into a tinderbox,' he said. He was right, and I loved him for that. I loved that he urged me to go protest, which brought me onto the front lines with Jim McDermott, protesting the Iraq War."
George was on the Hands Off Washington (HOW) Executive Committee and served as vice chair at one point between 1992 to 1996. In addition, he was a founding member of the United Front Against Fascism.
"Through the SGN, I learned of a community meeting of a group called Citizens for Fairness, which eventually became the Hands Off Washington campaign to fight against discriminatory laws and anti-Gay initiatives, and to work toward gaining our civil rights," said George Pieper. "That is where I first met George in person. George was always very gracious to me, with his big smile and teddy bear hugs. I looked at him and saw a gentle giant, while most saw him as a lion because he could roar, and roar, and roar.
"George was unabashed and unrelenting in his pursuit of social justice. While I have been just one person in a sea of fighters happy in the background working on nuance and collaboration, George was old-school, with a megaphone, a pen, and a quick wit. He knew how to hold court and shout to the rafters if that was what was needed. The SGN was his tour de force, and they are synonymous with one another. An institution for sure — that was George."

A Pride promoter since 1982

George attended his first organizing meeting for Pride in 1982, according to McNamara. Later, he co-chaired the 1984 Freedom Day Committee — now known as Seattle Out and Proud (SOAP), the nonprofit that produces Seattle Pride each year.
"The SGN was completely behind the Pride Parade, organizing the Pride Parade/March," said Rick McKinnon, a personal friend and longtime SGN staffer. "When George got involved, he used the paper to promote the Pride Parade... We called it a Parade/March. George described it as the historic compromise... That [decision] proved to be a very important decision, because it helped bring the community together to participate in the event."
Eric Bennett, who had led Seattle Pride, concluded that although they didn't agree at times, he "cherished the challenge to my own ideas, and changed many." He said it was George's suggestion for Pride to hire Seattle photographer Nate Gowdy, who has since gone on to contribute to publications such as Time magazine, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones. "Hiring him was one of my best choices," he said.
In 2011, George received a fitting tribute from SOAP, when he was named the grand marshal of the Seattle Pride Parade.

"A force" in HIV/AIDS activism

George was a founder of the Seattle AIDS Action Committee in 1983, which later became Mobilization Against AIDS. The Seattle AIDS Action Committee organized an annual candlelight vigil at E. Pine and Broadway on Capitol Hill.
He also devoted his paper and its staff to reporting on the new threat: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). In an age before the internet, the SGN was the only source for accurate and culturally relevant information for Seattle's LGBTQIA+ community.
As hundreds began to die from complications related to AIDS, George used the paper to fight the stigma of a positive diagnosis and to publish the names of those who had been lost. The paper had been the first to publish the story of an individual who had been diagnosed with the virus while the Reagan administration and much of society remained silent on the growing epidemic.
"The Dorian Group, of course, was around then, the Lesbian Resource Center was around then," said McKinnon. "However, George was in a position to warn the community about AIDS and try to not only educate but break through the... denial around it by using the pages of the SGN to talk about AIDS every week — every week. Then, when people started dying, he used the paper to memorialize them."
Parrish wrote that "George was a force locally in getting services and help for the young men stricken with AIDS."
Julie Shaffer, a former contributing writer at the SGN, said that he "wanted me to call him after the stay-at-home to discuss ... and [to be] involved in his newest idea of an AIDS memorial wall."
"I would interview individuals about their experiences during the AIDS epidemic," she said. "He also wanted me to speak at the ceremony."
Grace Kim wrote about a similar experience. "George was active in the Gay/Queer community till the end," she said. "He attended community meetings for the Capitol Hill transit-oriented development and AIDS Memorial Pathway."
The AIDS Memorial Pathway that George championed will be dedicated during a ceremony at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station at noon this Saturday, June 26. George's name will appear on a plaque recognizing the individuals and organizations that brought the pathway to completion.

March on Washington co-chair

George was the regional co-chair for the 1987 and 1993 National Marches on Washington, DC. He fought for inclusion of the Bisexual and Transgender communities.
"I first met George before I moved to Seattle. I was living in Washington, DC, in 1987 and was on the paid staff of the Gay/Lesbian March on Washington that year," said Parrish. "I was in charge of coordinating housing for all the people who came in from out of town. The march drew 750,000 people, so it was a huge logistical job, and George was one of the regional co-chairs of the Pacific Northwest contingent.
"He and I were also two of the only voices advocating for the inclusion of Bisexuals and Trans people — very much a minority opinion then... By 1993, for the next big national march, he'd helped succeed in getting Bisexuals officially included."

"A fearless advocate for Trans people before it was cool"

I remember talking to George over the phone several years ago. When I told him that I was transitioning from male to female, he spoke to me very warmly: "That's great. What do you want me to call you?" After his death, others came forward to share similar stories.
"The last time I saw him, I showed him my facial hair," said Grey Wolfe. "He smiled and said, 'Good. You look better now. Less stress.' Just those short interactions over the years made me feel as if I was in the presence of a strong soul and champion of the people."
Charles Susat once wrote that George "was a friend and a fearless advocate for Trans people before it was cool." Likewise, Breanna Anderson concurred, writing that the former SGN publisher was "a great activist and a good friend and supporter of the Trans community in Seattle."

A changing SGN

According to McKinnon, George acquired ownership of the paper in two stages. In 1993, he bought his share from Jim Tully, who was ill with AIDS. James Arnold continued to keep his share of the paper, and the two ran the business as partners. A few years before Arnold died, his share of the paper went to George.
Over the years, the paper relocated four times before coming to rest at near the intersection of 23rd and Madison in Seattle. This is where George's body finally betrayed him. He had battled diabetes and chronic heart issues before McKinnon found him at his desk.
Cragin has since made her own mark on the Seattle institution, relocating the newspaper to the heart of Capitol Hill at Broadway E. and E. Republican Street. She hired a young editor, A.V. Eichenbaum, and a fresh crew of writing talent.
"I hope to keep his legacy alive by keeping the SGN breathing. Not only do I want to breathe new life into it, I want the blood to start pumping and the adrenaline to course through its veins," she said. "There are so many opportunities for this paper, which George envisioned throughout all these years. I view his 'true' legacy as the people that he left behind who have been touched by these stories, events and his persona over the years."