Monday, June 1, 2015

In Pride

With Big Sky Pride coming up this month, it seems appropriate to me to repeat something I wrote eighteen years ago.  They say that stuff you put on the web is never completely lost, but just in case, I'm copying it here.  I wrote this for the November 1997 issue of Outspoken, which was Missoula's gay/lesbian newsletter and have edited it slightly to reflect the current situation.

Grandpa's Notes:

Many and many a year ago in a kingdom by the sea.... Oops, that's another story and another writer, but once upon a time doesn't quite fit either. Still, at a time before some of the people reading this were born, a group of men met every Tuesday evening in a private home under the name of Gay Males Together. When I came out in 1977, at the age of 27, it was because I read an ad in the Missoulian that suggested I call a phone number for information about that group and its activities. I don't know how long Gay Males Together had been meeting at that point. I remember moving to Missoula in 1975 and seeing the ads then, but too frightened of my own secrets, I spent two years gathering the courage to call that phone number. When at last I did call and learned the address of the meeting, I showed up at the door, full of fear and trembling at the possibilities that lay inside that apartment. What kind of monsters would I see when the door finally opened. Remember, this was before Ellen, before before Priscilla or To Wong Foo, before even Victor/Victoria and La Cage aux folles. Would I see sights that would push me even deeper into the closet than I already was?

You see, I had been having anonymous, public sex with men for 10 years at this point. From my first experience as a hitchhiker at 17, riding in a Firebird from Reno to Sacramento, through grad school at UC Berkeley where the athletic department graciously furnished a site for nude sun-bathing and gay sex (activities I willingly engaged in--and still do, should I add), I enjoyed the anonymous encounters with other men. I enjoyed watching other naked men playing with each other sexually, and I certainly enjoyed it when they played with me. BUT I WAS NOT GAY! I had a girlfriend--with whom I never exchanged anything more sexual than the occasional chaste kiss. I knew that as much fun as playing with men was, the right woman would come along and I would settle down into the American dream (or nightmare) of married life, home in the suburbs, two and a half kids, dog, station wagon, etc. etc. ad nauseam. So in 1969 when Louis Landerson, then a classmate in Senior level French courses and later a writer for Boston's Fag Rag, showed up one day in class wearing a button which read "Gay is Good!" I ran as fast as I could in the other direction. I don't think I ever spoke to Louis after that day, and today that is one of my great regrets. A few years later, in 1973, I was studying in one of Berkeley's many parks when I noticed a celebration taking place at a distance. While I watched, amazed, the celebrants moved toward me, led by two six foot tall white rabbits. When they were close enough for my near-sightedness to focus, I saw that they were carrying banners reading "Gay Pride!" and the white rabbits were men in rabbit costumes who had their genitals exposed for all to see. Again, instead of joining the celebration, or taking those "family jewels" in my hand--which I would do today--I closed my book (with its accusatory lavender binding) and left the park. Whatever those people were celebrating, it had nothing to do with me.

So four years later I found myself standing in front of a closed door in the lower Rattlesnake, waiting for the door to open and for those damned white rabbits to accost me. What I found instead was a group of men, mostly in their 20s and early 30s, who were no different than I. Of course, you knew that, didn't you. This group of men became my family. While I wouldn't use the word "sisters" to describe them, I would happily dance to Sister Sledge singing "We Are Family," a song which became the de-facto gay anthem in the early 80s. It was with this group of men that I helped rent and decorate the basement of the Palace--where the billiard parlor now sits--for the first gay dance held to anyone's recollection in Missoula. Should I mention that the name we put on the rental agreement was The River City Rafting and Cruise Association?

Sadly, our Tuesday evening host was facing increasing scrutiny into his private life, and his job was being threatened (he was an elementary school teacher), so we had to find a new place for our meetings. They were much too important to us to give up. Fortunately, one of our group was able to offer his home and the meetings went on. At the same time, I took on the task of answering the phone number that was advertised in the paper, the gay male hot-line! That phone rang in my home for almost five years in the late 70s and early 80s. Roughly one-third of the calls were legitimate calls for information about gay people and our activities. One-third were calls seeking sex, and one third were crank calls. A pretty good average considering the times. The routine was this: if someone called to ask about the Gay Males Together meetings, I would agree to meet them at the 4-Bs or some other public space, always asking them to identify themselves, and never giving any way for them to identify me. That way I could check them out safely, and meet with them in a public setting without jeopardizing either myself or the group. One day in 1979, a fellow called on Tuesday afternoon and gave his name. This was unusual, but even more unusual was that I recognized the name. He had been a student of mine when I was a substitute at Stevensville High School in 1975. Rather than stick to the routine, I figured I could trust him and gave him the address of the meeting. That evening, early on with only four of us present, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find six young men wanting to beat us up. We refused to fight with them (after all they were six to our four), so their ringleader--the fellow who had called--opened the screen door and punched our host. We called the police who, remarkably, did show up to take our statement, then we took Rob to the Student Health Service where he was admitted with a concussion. Sometime, if you're interested, ask me about the way the police and the city attorney's office handled the whole matter. The next week, while we waited anxiously for a repeat of the trouble, a group of women showed up at Gay Males Together armed with baseball bats, chains, knives, etc. to protect their boys.

I have always felt responsible for Rob's injury, but that attack was the catalyst which brought about Out in Montana. When the women and the men started talking about our mutual concerns and needs, we started meeting in earnest with the intent of building a state-wide gay rights organization that would also provide social outlets for gay men and lesbians across Montana. Remember that at this time there were no gay bars anywhere in Montana, and only a couple in Spokane. For the next year gay men and women from across western Montana met regularly and wrote By-Laws, Articles of Incorporation and a mission statement for Out In Montana. By design the organizational duties were to be equally shared by women and men. This was a concept almost unknown in those days. A group of five of us, three men and two women, travelled to Los Angeles for a meeting of grass-roots gay/lesbian organizations and there we found men's groups and women's groups, but no other groups that incorporated both men and women on an equal footing. I'll never forget OIM officer Ellen Sue Findley standing on a chair in comedienne Robin Tyler's West Hollywood apartment shouting "Gender parity means two men, two women, no more no less." She was responding to an organizational statement that groups attending this L.A. meeting were to have gender parity, which was defined as being at least two women out of a group of four. Under the rules of the meeting, all four could be female and the group would still be considered to have achieved "gender parity." Out In Montana was in the vanguard of men and women working together.

At the height of our organizational activity, Out In Montana had chapters in Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls and Kalispell, held four board meetings each year at locations all across the state (well, actually, never east of Billings), published a newsletter for a mailing list of over 1,000, and had two main fund-raising events each year--Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends with attendance figures usually in excess of 400.

I could speculate on what went wrong and why Out In Montana didn't survive the 80s, but under the circumstances I believe such speculation to be pointless. We made mistakes in our enthusiasm and zeal, and frankly, times are quite different today than they were thirty-six years ago when OIM was founded, or even twenty-some years ago when it died.

One word that I would leave with you is participation. It's always easy to sit back and criticize what our organizations are doing. They never do what I want, right? But what takes real courage is standing up and working to change the things we don't like. Join in and make these organizations truly yours. Speak up and don't be afraid to let your voice be heard. You may not always get what you want, but at least you'll be in there trying and hearing the reasons others give for not supporting your ideas. Or maybe, wonder of wonders, they will support your ideas.

Montana's 2015 Gay Pride event will be held in Missoula this month. Get out now and help with the planning, organizing and work--and believe me there will be a lot of work that needs to be done. Make it an event that you, I, Missoula and all of Montana can truly hold as our own. Make it an event filled with pride!
Your grandpa,
Bryan D. Spellman

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