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Sunday, April 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Groundbreaking book tells history of Seattle and its gay community

Special to The Seattle Times

For the first 50 years of its existence, frontier Seattle had no laws concerning homosexual behavior.

That changed in 1893, when a vague anti-sodomy law was passed by the Washington Legislature, eventually trapping two teenage boys, John Collins and Benjamin Layton, who were seen frolicking in bed in a rented room at the Canal Saloon on Washington Street.

"A new legal weapon had suddenly publicly penetrated what had been two young men's private search for companionship," writes Gary L. Atkins in his groundbreaking new book, "Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging" (University of Washington Press, $28.95).

Atkins believes that the story of Seattle's present gay and lesbian community "can be said to start with Collins and Layton, and with others whose individual stories of same-sex affection began to be recorded at the turn of the century because of legal prosecutions arising from the 1893 law."

Although the book seems comprehensive at first glance (it runs 464 pages and covers more than a century), there are major gaps that Atkins acknowledges. He calls the book "at best a thread, not a quilt," partly because so little is known about how Seattle gays hid their orientation during the early part of the last century, and how couples lived together in a homophobic environment in the 1940s and 1950s.

As a historian, how do you deal with a subject that was so closeted for so long that it was once even illegal to discuss?

When George Cotterill became Seattle's mayor in 1912, he established a new moral order, defining "sodomy" as anything but the missionary position, while making it a misdemeanor even to write about nonprocreative sex. Adding to the tense atmosphere was the Rev. Mark Matthews, who vowed to "exterminate dens of vice" while arguing that dissidents "be taken without the walls of the city and there executed."

Code talkers

Much of Seattle's gay history had to be written in code. One bar was referred to as "Madame Peabody's School of Dance." Remembering the late 1950s, Tamara Turner (a University of Washington history student at the time) claimed that "you could say you were going to Miss Peabody's and gays would know what you were talking about, but straights wouldn't. In those days, everybody talked in code, and it was the only way."

Photographs from the period are particularly difficult to come by. Although the book includes pictures of Cal Anderson, Charlie Brydon and Frances Farmer, few people wanted their pictures taken at gay bars during the post-World War II era.

"It's tough for any researcher who is dealing with homosexuality," said Atkins in his office at Seattle University, where he has taught journalism for the past 25 years. "Before the early 1990s, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of gay people about giving material to the archives."

Atkins, who lives with his partner of 22 years, Tony Krebs, got his first break in spring 1992 — the same year he started working on the book in earnest. Through a serendipitous connection, he was able to interview MacIver Wells, a Canadian who opened a Seattle gay bar in 1957, turned it into a same-sex success, and won a landmark 1958 court case barring police harassment. After working on the book during a sabbatical, Atkins taught a course, "Gay Images and Mass Media," and had his students tape oral histories with key Seattle gays.

"I just became fascinated by the way gay history intersected with the history of Seattle," he said. "There are lots of books about individuals coming out, but what interested me was that this was a group, developing consciousness as a group and coming out to the city."

Gaining a voice

He was particularly taken with the close relationship between gays and Catholics on Capitol Hill, and the late-1980s showdown between the Vatican and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who tried to soften the church's stance toward homosexuals. In the end, Hunthausen may have lost, but Atkins feels that the confrontation "had shaken the religious conversation in Seattle into at least acknowledging gay and lesbian concerns."

Atkins sees a similar effect in the seemingly fruitless efforts of the late Cal Anderson, who became Washington state's first openly gay state legislator in 1988. He died of AIDS in 1995, before he could pass a civil-rights bill protecting gays.

"The book is about the political life of a community, and about being frustrated by the city's institutions," said Atkins. "How do you get a voice in this civic place? How do you get taken seriously by the police chief?"

One of the more dramatic chapters concerns the early-1970s showdown between the progressive mayor, Wes Uhlman, and his police chief, George Tielsch, who became infamous within the gay community for encouraging policemen to taunt and entrap homosexuals.

The story has been told in fragmented fashion in newspapers and on television, but it's never been put together in such dramatic fashion before. While Atkins considers himself a "synthesizer" who relies largely on press reports, he has a gift for transforming each story into a page-turner.

"I'd like to see more books about our past," said Atkins. "For a city that had the gold rush and all this (turmoil) down in Pioneer Square, there's not much history." Although his book pays tribute to such classics as Murray Morgan's "Skid Road" (1960) and Roger Sale's "Seattle: Past to Present" (1976), he'd like to see updates of them.

In the meantime, there's "Gay Seattle," which for all its gaps probably tells the story of 20th-century Seattle in more compelling detail than any other book.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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