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The 1992 battle over including "Bisexual" and "Transgender" in Seattle Pride's name

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Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

The year 1991 had been a turbulent one for Seattle's Lesbian and Gay community. AIDS deaths were soaring, anti-Gay violence on Capitol Hill had reached epidemic levels, and Lesbian and Gay military personnel were being dishonorably discharged. The new year was looking even less promising, what with the Capitol Hill police riot in January and the emergence of Oregon Citizens Alliance with its promise of anti-Gay citizens' initiatives in the months and years to come.

These factors may have created a feeling that the community was under siege, but it also gave birth to a new form of activism, a Queer revolution. It was unapologetic, unabashed, and in your face. Demanding unconditional acceptance as Queer people replaced a strategy of waiting for acceptance by appearing respectable.

A younger generation galvanized by ACT UP and Queer Nation, more racially diverse and proud to defy gender expectations and boundaries, was driving this new activism. The revolution created the dynamics of a community both under fire and on fire. It was a clarion call for marginalized Queer people to come out of the shadows, a call heard by Seattle's Transgender community.

The front page of SGN January 17, 1992  

Demanding inclusivity
After Stonewall, that community was still not considered part of the "Gay" rights movement. But in January 1992, the Seattle delegation to the 1993 March on Washington attempted to change this. Driven by Seattle Bisexual and Transgender activists, the delegation proposed that "the Lesbian and Gay March on Washington" (MOW) include the words "Bisexual" and "Transgender." MOW was only willing to include the term "Bi" as a sanitized version of "Bisexual."

In response to the vote, the Transgender Caucus issued a written statement that read in part: "Arguments which demand that transsexuals, transvestites, cross dressers and transgenderal people stay in the closet so that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals can cling to imagined respectability are denying the roots of our common history."[1] Despite the loss, the caucus declared victory since they succeeded at putting Transgender rights and liberation at the center of the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual movement.

A driving force behind the Transgender Caucus was Princess LaRouge. Having failed to persuade MOW organizers to include "Transgender," she and Bisexual activist ben e. factory set their sights on the Seattle Pride events organized by the Freedom Day Committee (FDC). The attire Princess LaRouge wore that Sunday evening in February 1992 was reflective of her rural Southern roots. She was tall and lean, with long, blond flowing hair. Her face hinted at the hardship and struggles she had endured, having been born and raised in North Carolina in the shadow of military bases during WWII. This was her first FDC meeting, and she and ben had come to make a request. Her voice was soft, but her presentation was powerful.

Out of the shadows
She was not the only Transgender person FDC members knew, but she was perhaps the first to lay bare in raw terms how her community was living in the shadows, often unseen and unheard by the Lesbian and Gay community. For too long, her Trans sisters and brothers lived in isolation, not feeling they were part of the larger Lesbian and Gay community, even though so many of their struggles were the same: familial rejection, discrimination, societal demonization. She described how she had been marginalized and how that oppression ravaged her life and those of her friends. They were, as she said, brothers and sisters fighting for the same causes of equality and dignity. She hoped if her request was granted that the LGBT communities would see themselves as a rainbow coalition supporting each other. She asked FDC to add "Bisexual" and "Transgender" to the title of the Pride March.

Determined that the FDC would not make the same mistake as MOW, LaRouge invited her friends to the next FDC meetings. They described growing up not knowing anyone like themselves and not even being able to give their identity a name. People talked about their experiences traveling to Europe for gender-affirming surgery. They shared the overwhelming euphoria of waking up knowing they were now who they were meant to be, only to return to Seattle to face discrimination. If the Lesbian and Gay community were to embrace the Transgender community, it would help them feel like they were not fighting their battles alone. It would ease their isolation.

When FDC members walked down Broadway and saw the animosity directed towards Trans women, they witnessed firsthand the daily indignation that Transgender people were forced to endure. The attempts to shame were a gut punch to FDC members and left an indelible impression. For the FDC, these stories and experiences breathed life into the word "Transgender," revealing a shared humanity and moral imperative to end the invisibility and silence of that community. There would be no turning back.

On Sunday March 1, 1992, after weeks of reflection, the FDC voted for "The 1992 Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender March/Parade and Freedom Rally in Seattle" as the official title for the Pride event, with only one person voting for a different name.

Members knew this was a historic moment and took immense pride in the fact that Seattle did it first. George Bakan, the owner of Seattle Gay News and an FDC founding member, called the name change "the new Stonewall."

Perhaps it was wishful thinking or maybe naiveté, but the FDC members believed the vote would be uncontroversial. The weeks that followed would prove nothing could have been further from the truth.

Article in March 27, 1992 issue of SGN announcing the name change  

Controversy over the name change
The reaction to the name change was swift and vitriolic. While some people objected to the length of the name, most objections reflected the erasure of Transgender people from the history of the Stonewall Riots, a lack of awareness of Transgender people, lingering resentment of the inclusion of "Lesbian" in the title; transphobia, and internalized homophobia. At the heart of these objections were the dynamics of Gay white male privilege that had dominated the "Gay" rights movement after Stonewall.

This was something the Transgender Caucus mentioned in its statement. The movement was based on the belief that equal rights could be obtained if the community was perceived as "being respectable, just like everyone else" — meaning "straight-acting," middle class, attractive, educated, and white. Transgender people, and many others, were perceived as a hindrance to achieving "Gay" rights.

This dynamic was manifested during Lambda Legal's efforts to stop the military from purging Lesbian and Gay personnel. Although Tacoma resident Sgt. Perry Watkins was the only openly Gay person discharged from the US Army with full honors after a lengthy court battle, Lambda Legal shunned him, describing his experience as a drag artist in the Army and admissions of sexual encounters with other male service members as a "public relations problem."[2] Sgt. Watkins was certain Lambda Legal shunned him because he was Black.

FDC members were bombarded with complaints. For weeks, the Seattle Gay News published letters from community members expressing their opinions about the name. Most were in opposition. One was particularly offensive, because it, like many others, erased Transgender people from the history of Stonewall and was dismissive of the discrimination unique to the Transgender community. It read: "I would like to remind the Freedom Day Committee that this annual event is and always has been the commemmoration [sic] of the Stonewall riots in 1969. An event that is regarded as the beginning of the modern-day Gay rights movement. A movement that has always been inclusive in that every piece of legislation passed since 1969 has used the blanket term sexual orientation to define those to be protected... I would also urge the representatives of the Bisexual and transsexual organizations who proposed the change of name to take another look at the Gay and Lesbian rights movement. A movement that has included them with or without their participation for the past 20-odd years".[3]

Collision course
Princess LaRouge's response held nothing back: "For most of the years following the Stonewall Rebellion, the majority of Lesbians and Gays demanded that transgender people not be seen so Lesbians and Gays could look respectable... The Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals should be wary of cutting off the roots of the pride heritage tree."[4] The community was now on a collision course.

Within a week, opponents circulated a petition with 1,000 signatures requesting the FDC host a community forum and reverse the decision. They hinted that several bar owners discussed organizing an alternative Pride event and prohibiting the FDC from selling Pride buttons and T-shirts in their establishments. The FDC took this as a veiled threat.

FDC members never discussed changing course, however. The petition had only strengthened their resolve. Behind closed doors, the threats angered them. Noting that the signatories only represented one demographic group, members began soliciting support from Queer, Lesbian, Black, Indigenous, and people of color organizations, and immediately engaged in direct dialogue with people who had signed the petition — only to discover many of them had not fully understood the issue.

Behind the scenes, George Bakan worked tirelessly to garner community support. He recruited then State Rep. Cal Anderson to moderate the first community forum, convinced Hamburger Mary's at the Broadway Market to host both community forums, and ensured that his newspaper gave the Transgender community a voice. Princess LaRouge and her Trans sisters and allies continued to write letters to the SGN and mobilized the Transgender community to speak publicly about their experiences.

Community forum 1
On Tuesday, April 21, 1992, 90 people attended the first forum and over 30 people spoke. The SGN described it as a night of grand speeches. FDC members Gwen Hall and Bill Ross presented the committee's rationale for the new name. They spoke about how oppression exists when people are unseen and unheard and that none of us can be free if one of us remains bound. Quoting Hall: "The price of our freedom is a willingness to grow beyond our comfort zone. We must rise to the occasion, and we take a step in that direction tonight."[5]

One Transgender woman echoed the need for visibility: "We want to be visible. We, the Transgendered community, have been stripped of our identity by many people."[6]

For the most part, those opposing were respectful. Howard Martin, who had presented the petition to the FDC, resigned himself to the new name but hoped for a simpler one in the future. His gracious concession helped lower the temperature. He would later serve as the event's emcee in 1994.

As the evening went on, more people rose to support the inclusion of "Transgender" and "Bisexual." One speaker chose not to be respectful, though, accusing the FDC of political correctness and personally maligning Princess LaRouge. He told her to have her own parade, since she had only been involved with the community for two years and asked her where she had been all those years when others had fought against oppression.

Princess LaRouge rose to speak and gave a poignant narrative of her life, describing how years of oppression ravaged her being. A hush fell over the room as she described years of abuse, never being hugged, being the victim of multiple stabbings, getting shot at, her descent into alcoholism and homelessness, and jumping on freight cars from Florida to Tacoma to escape and find a better life. She spoke about how she eventually came to Seattle and found the love and support that helped her heal and recover and, more importantly, how she found her voice. She concluded with these words:

"When I was a child, my family always told me to shut up, and if I didn't, they would give me a reason to shut up. I'm talking now. I'm tired of being told to shut up. I'm here. I'm Queer. And I'm a Lesbian."[7]

No one dared ask her again, "Where have you been?"

Community forum 2
Under the banner "Fighting Transgender Oppression," the FDC and the Transgender community hosted a community forum the following week. It had the feel of a Queer revival, highly emotionally charged, with people giving testimonies, bearing witness to their individual truths, and finding power and strength in their collective experiences. It was an evening of affirmation.

The moderator, Kaz, lamented how inadequate our words are for gender identity for someone like himself who identified as a female-to-male transvestite. Jason Crowell, Ingersoll Gender Center board president, described Transgender history as stolen history, because the role the Trans community played in igniting the Stonewall Riots was being erased. They spoke about years of isolation and shame giving way to experiencing the wonderful gift of being Transgender, about feeling beautiful and no longer treated as "freaks." They were proud, authentic, and excited to be included at Pride.

By the end of the evening, one thing was certain: this was a community that would be silent and invisible no more. But the FDC still had more work to do.

Bar runs were a long-standing tradition of the FDC. In the weeks leading to the Pride March, FDC volunteers would go to Gay and Lesbian bars on Capitol Hill every Friday and Saturday evening selling buttons and T-shirts bearing the logo of that year's Pride event. That year, the FDC utilized the runs to engage people in face-to-face dialogue regarding the inclusion of the Bisexual and Transgender communities.

As they interacted with bar patrons, FDC members were greeted with a mixture of hostility and indifference. For those willing to listen, volunteers explained how "Transgender" was added to the title because we cannot end oppression until we are willing to call the oppressed by their name. To others, the volunteers suggested people continue to refer to the event as "Pride," as had always been the practice.

Every evening drained the volunteers. As the weeks went by, the level of hostility seemed to lessen, however. Perhaps the one-on-one outreach to thousands of people had worked.

Pride Day on Sunday, June 27, 1992, was hot, sunny, and beautiful. The event shattered Seattle Pride attendance records for both participants and spectators. The streets and sidewalks of Broadway were overflowing with that indescribable energy unique to Pride.

When the parade emcee announced the FDC over the loudspeakers, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was as if the bitterness and contention of the prior months had never existed. As the FDC fundraising chair, I was both exhausted and energized that day after months of difficult bar runs and community dialogue advocating for the inclusion of our Trans sisters and brothers.

It would be three years until another city followed our example.

I will always be proud of what we accomplished. Many people who made that day possible are no longer with us; others have moved away. I am grateful to have known each of them.

As for Princess LaRouge, she is now living off the grid. We hope to speak soon. Until we do, I will remember the lessons she taught me that winter and spring in 1992 and the endless possibilities of one indomitable human spirit to change our world. I write this (our) story with the hope that her contribution and the contributions of all those involved are never forgotten.

[1] Statement from the Transgender Caucus of the March on Washington, January 24, 1992
[2] Devon Carbado, "Black Rights, Gay Rights, Civil Rights: The Deployment of Race/Sexual Orientation Analogies in the Debates about the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy," in Devon Carbado, ed., Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: A Critical Reader (New York University Press, 1999), available online, accessed May 14, 2013.
[3] Seattle Gay News (SGN), April 3, 1992, 4.
[4] SGN, April 10, 1992, 4.
[5] SGN, April 24, 1992, 1.
[6] SGN, April 24, 1992, 2.
[7] SGN, April 24, 1992, 3.

Will (Bill) Ross is an attorney with a nonprofit in Seattle. He was part of Queer Nation in the early 1990s and also served as the fundraising dhair for the Freedom Day Committee in 1992 and was the FDC co-chair in 1993 and 1997. He would later serve on the Seattle Commission for Sexual Minorities and as the Hands Off Washington Seattle Coalition co-chair. He currently works with nonprofits and faith communities to improve their antiracism initiatives and also serves on a coalition of legal service providers dedicated to improving access to justice for all Washington residents.

Reprinted with permission from Front Porch (Seattle Dept. of Neighborhoods), June 21, 2023.