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Steve Fulmer’s reflections on the 70s in Portland

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Steve Fulmer from way back then

I got a glimpse of Portland, OR, gay history and culture in the 70s last weekend.  The Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest hosted another in its living history series, this latest entitled: OUR STORIES: “Finding Our Voice – the 1970s”.  The evening was hosted at Portland’s Q Center.  One of the many interesting things that I heard was that the gay rights movement may not have got its initial impetus so much from the civil rights movement as from the anti-war movement.

Featured speakers included Larry Copeland, Cindy Cumfer, Jean DeMaster, Steve Fulmer, Kristan Knapp, George Nicola, Susie Shepherd, and John Wilkinson.  Steve was the founding president in 1980 of Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and it is his remarks that I have zoned in on for this blog post.

As an aside, something about the evening reminded me of a visit I made to Salem in the summer of last year to visit friends, a gay couple and their son.  As they brought me on a walking tour of the city centre we met a woman with her three grandchildren.  I was quite touched to hear that the children had four grandmothers as they were born to the son of one lesbian couple and the daughter of another couple who fell in love and married – remarkable of the moment, but probably not so for very much longer.  The children’s parents were most probably born in the 70s.

This is what Steve had to say:

My primary contributions to the sexual minority community probably came in the 80’s and 90’s, but I will limit most of my remarks tonight to the 1970’s.

When I arrived in Portland in January of 1972, I was barely 22 and sported a huge “afro.”  I found two young organizations, the Gay Liberation Front (where I met Roger Troen and Holly Hart) and PSU’s Gay Student Alliance.  I joined the GSA the day I became a student at PSU in March of ’72 and rapidly became involved, soon serving as co-chair and getting the name changed to Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance!  Many of our activities related to gaining status within the student association of the university, but we also “zapped” (disrupted) classes, especially the so-called “sex education” classes which were still treating sexual minorities as ‘maladaptive.’  We succeeded in getting the most egregious professor to resign.  We picketed the new film “Boys in the Band” despite its popularity, because we felt its portrayal was too depressing and stereotyped.  Of interest, I remember participating in a KGW-radio talk show where a (still) famous leader of Portland’s Imperial Court actually argued against “gay rights.”  GLSA organized information fairs and two friends and I created one of the first GayLib propaganda films (1972).  Perhaps most importantly, we helped organize anti-Vietnam War contingents, together with the GLF.

The burgeoning civil rights movements of the ’60s, led by NAACP and NOW, and the permissiveness of the “hippie movement” (drugs, sex, rock and roll), were fundamental to our own work.  But, in my opinion, it was the anti-war movement and its enormous street demonstrations that really gave us our first truly PUBLIC presence in Portland where we literally marched behind banners, declaring our same gender loving for any and all to see, hear and photograph.  I’ve no doubt that the local sexual minority movement would eventually have progressed, but the anti-establishment fervor of the 1970’s truly pulled us completely “out of the closet” and into the greater movement for change.  The original Gay Pride Marches were also modeled on the anti-war marches.  Years later our marches became celebratory parades.

Soon after arriving in Portland, I joined the new Board of The Second Foundation of Oregon which saw itself as a middle-ground between the fairly radical GLF and the more conservative Imperial Court.  It was at 2nd Foundation that I met Dave Fredrickson, Neil Hutchins, Lanny Swerdlow and others, but the most impressive, by far, was a young newcomer named George Nicola who was determined to begin spearheading legislative change – and with almost no funding, and minimal assistance, he almost single-handedly came within 2 votes of getting a bill passed in the 1973 Oregon House that would have banned discrimination in housing and employment statewide!

I commented a moment ago on the importance of the Afro-American, women’s, and anti-war movements.  I also want to stress another vital contributor, because of the lesson it teaches us.  That contributor, my friends, was the complacency of the homophobic establishment which was very slow to react to our initial efforts in the 1970’s.  I mention it now, knowing that they soon did react, grew strong and even today maintain control of the Republican Party nationwide.  The lesson for us today, having won some measure of equality in Oregon and elsewhere, is that we must NEVER take our rights for granted; we, ourselves, must never grow complacent, or the ‘ayatollah’s’ of the right will surely seek to return us to hiding in fear.

For me, the 70’s were extremely important ‘learning years.’  People like George Nicola and Kristan Knapp were my inspiration; Carl Wittman’s Gay Manifesto and Dennis Altman‘s Homosexual Oppression and Liberation became my Bibles; political leaders like Gretchen Kafoury, and Barbara (Sanders) Roberts, were my heroes.

But I’d like to bring attention to another small but extraordinary force in those days, one which reminded me of the power of music, because, you see, I was also a ‘choral activist’.  I witnessed the impact of folks like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie on the anti-war effort.  Later, in the ’80’s, I would gain much credit as founding President of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus.  (The importance of the Chorus cannot be underestimated – not only as a cultural contributor, but as a nearly unassailable political force.)  But the FIRST sexual minority singing group in Portland was not PGMC.  In the early 70’s I had the great good fortune of singing in a small faggot-assisted dyke choir, called Ursa Minor, led by Naomi Littlebear, then Kristan Knapp’s partner.  The work of Ursa Minor influenced formation of the Dyketones and complemented street theater groups like The Family Circus (ask Judith Rizzio).  I mention Ursa Minor tonight to underscore their influence on my own political development and that of many others.

In the 80’s and 90’s, I went on to help found PGMC, CAP, PPS’ Sexual Minority Task Force, and the Equity Foundation, and to serve in a variety of other human rights and human services organizations in Multnomah County.  But I would never have done that without the inspiration of people like George Nicola and Kristin Knapp.

So my closing comment to you, and especially to past, current or aspiring activists who may be present tonight, is to never forget, even in your moments of greatest challenge or fatigue, that what you do to advance the humanity of others will have great effects – even though you may be unaware of those effects at the time.  On dark days NEVER think that you are failing to progress.  For it may be your influence on others, even more than the battles of today, which will eventually bring about desperately needed changes in our city, our region, our nation or our planet.  For I truly believe that what we do on behalf of others always makes a difference.

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Written by Frank McMullan

31 October 2010 at 23:38

Posted in Human Rights, PDXGMC

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  1. […] The busiest day of the year was November 3rd with 45 views. The most popular post that day was Steve Fulmer’s reflections on the 70s in Portland. […]


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