As you walk the streets of Pioneer Square this Pride, you may be unaware of the rich, complex and fascinating queer history all around you — or indeed beneath the very bricks you step on.
In fact, for a time, Gay Seattle and Pioneer Square were so linked that they almost seemed synonymous. Yet today for a layperson, a tourist or even a Seattle resident of more than 20 years like myself, this fact could be entirely unknown.
Terrilyn Johnson, the co-owner of the tour company Beneath the Streets, felt this history deserved to be showcased. Johnson said this June that Beneath the Streets will re-launch the small-group queer history tours the company began last summer.
“So, I’ve just loved Pioneer Square from the beginning. I’ve known for a while that some of these underground spaces were used for queer hangout spots, and so we decided to jump in and do the queer history tour,” Johnson said.
Much of the work of preserving Seattle’s rich queer histories has been done by the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project (NWLGHMP), which was founded in 1994 to document many of the community’s stories that were quickly disappearing. The organization’s work has helped keep the city’s queer histories alive, making efforts like Johnson’s tour possible.
Seattle’s documented queer histories stretch all the way back to the city’s earliest settlers. In 1860, Sarah Yesler, who was married to Henry Yesler, of Yesler Way fame, wrote to her lover Eliza that “I wish to say so much and I cannot say anything — I want to sleep with you again!”
Yesler Way was known at the time as “Skid Row.” The southern district was considered disreputable, home to brothels and temporary lodging. Within this environment, Christian sexual mores were often relaxed, allowing people who might today identify as queer to meet like-minded individuals. This behavior became so prevalent that, in 1893, the Washington Legislature passed a prohibition on “sodomy,” effectively criminalizing gay sex. The law was only repealed in 1975.
Despite this repression, gays and lesbians still found ways to create public — if often subterranean — spaces to build community and socialize. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Pioneer Square’s underground was augmented by a number of speakeasies, some of which would later become gay bars and bathhouses. Between the 1930s and 1950s, a number of gay and lesbian establishments opened, including the Double Header, which was considered among the longest continually open gay bars in the United States, operating from 1934 to 2015.
Paralleling changes in cities such as New York and San Francisco, Seattle’s queer community saw growth and transformation after World War II. Drag balls and shows proliferated, concentrated in Pioneer Square but also stretching into downtown. In fact, the queer social and charitable organization Imperial Court’s 1978 coronation ball was so popular that then-mayor Charles Royer and his wife attended.
At the same time queer social spaces were burgeoning, so was the political identity of gay, lesbian, queer and transgender people. In 1967, the Dorian Society was founded, with a mission of uplifting the civil rights struggles of queer people. More radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Women’s Alliance and Seattle Gay Alliance also proliferated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with many building alliances with other feminist and progressive movements.
“Well, you felt very free there. Talking about having a gay space — we definitely had that feeling, that this was our space,” said Nicholas Heer, the founding president of the Dorian Society, in an oral history gathered by NWLGHMP. “No one of the straight community [would] be seen dead down there, so … And you could go there and you could be certain that no one would ever see you there.”
One colorful story of the vibrant nightlife in Pioneer Square is that of Shelly Bauman and her disco bar, Shelly’s Leg. At a 1970 Bastille Day celebration, Bauman was nearly killed by a confetti cannon and had her left leg amputated. She sued the city of Seattle, winning $330,000 for alleged negligence by police officers who were present at the scene. Using this money, she opened up the bar Shelly’s Leg, whose name made light of the incident. Bauman’s bar was popular among both queer and straight patrons, leading her to explicitly delineate it as a “gay bar provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”
Seattle’s queer history is also full of complexity and contradiction. Despite facing marginalization on the basis of gender and sexuality, white supremacy was just as rampant in gay and lesbian bars as in the larger society. Historical segregation led to the rise of queer groups of color such as the Lesbians of Color Caucus and The Ebony Council, which created spaces for queer Black and Brown people to meet away from the queerphobic and racist mainstream.
The queer community has also had varying experiences with respectability. During the 1950s and ’60s, Pioneer Square’s queer community was part of a larger subculture that was seen as less reputable. This “desirability divide” was the primary demarcation in Seattle, with many middle-class white Seattleites largely unaware of the bustling underground gay and lesbian nightlife.
“The quote I loved, and it goes back I think from the Garden of Allah,” she said, referring to a popular midcentury performance venue, “that Pioneer Square is not only the lowest geographically, but morally as well. And it definitely is where the marginalized gathered, whether you’re a drug addict, a sex worker, an alcoholic, a gambler, a queer person.”
After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay and lesbian activists in the Pacific Northwest pushed to bring the community out of the shadows, organizing Seattle’s first Pride picnic in Occidental Park in 1974.
Johnson’s own office on Cherry Street once housed the Gay Community Center, founded in 1971 to become one of the first queer spaces that wasn’t a bar or bathhouse. Seattle’s lesbians and gays were also instrumental to police reform, overthrowing the infamous payoff system in which cops would allow bars to operate in exchange for bribes and bouncer gigs.
But even as queer Pioneer Square was getting more visible, it was starting to disappear.
A number of push and pull factors sparked a general relocation to Capitol Hill starting in the 1970s. Rising rents catalyzed an exodus from Pioneer Square, which saw a renewed emphasis as a tourist-friendly historic district, leading to many bars and organizations shuttering their doors. Yet even as gays and lesbians were being gentrified out of Pioneer Square, they started their own gentrification project on the Hill, establishing the early roots of Seattle’s modern “gayborhood.”
In the 1980s, Pioneer Square suffered another setback: the devastating HIV/AIDs pandemic, which led to the closing of most of the gay bathhouses. By the end of the millennium, the gentrification and displacement of Pioneer Square’s gay community was largely complete.
Reflecting on the queer history of Pioneer Square reveals many of the same discourses that remain consistent within Seattle’s queer community today, including questions of respectability, desirability, gentrification, economic inequality and oppression. But one thing that has definitively changed is the city’s queer geography.
No longer forced to be discreet, the queer community is now very present and visible all over Seattle. While Capitol Hill remains a nexus of queer culture, one is bound to find a drag show or queer social space in many of the city’s neighborhoods.
However, this change was only achieved after decades of painstaking struggle and movement building. Johnson hopes young people will look back at Seattle’s queer history with an eye to learn from the past and also continue the struggle for a better world for the future.
“I want young people to, you know, go back and look at things 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and also know that not all of our brothers and sisters — our community — is safe,” Johnson said.
“I love meeting young queer people who care about the history, want to know more, so the mistakes that were made in the past aren’t repeated, of course. I stand on the shoulders of the people who came before me, and I hope that I’m actually supporting a couple of people,” Johnson said.
Read more of the May 31-June 6, 2023 issue.