“A Stronger Sense of Common Purpose”: George Nicola

Photo of George Nicola by Eric Sellers.
Photo of George Nicola by Eric Sellers.

By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly

Raised in the Midwest in the 1950s, during a time of rigid conformity, George Nicola has a unique perspective on the history of our LGBTQ movement. Then, especially, homosexuality was thoroughly demonized. Young people at the time were alienated from their hometowns because they associated those places with the homophobia they experienced when they grew up; many of Portland’s early activists were transplants from other cities.

Nicola came to Portland in 1968; there were no openly gay organizations, almost no positive literature on homosexuality, no gay support groups. He looked for gay bars but could not find them. As with many other gay people, the fact that gays were demonized made Nicola afraid to talk about to anyone about his feelings. He decided that if he could find a way to come out, he would have to make sure others would never go through what he did.

On February 7, 1970, an alternative newspaper called the Willamette Bridge carried an interesting article. An anonymous young gay man who said he was lonely wanted to find someone like him. The newspaper refused to carry the ad because they thought it was sexual, which it was not. So a 21 year old gay newspaper staff member named John Wilkinson wrote a reply to the anonymous man suggesting that Portlanders organize a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) like what had recently been done in other cities. Eventually the Portland GLF was formed, and I came out through that.  It was the parent of Oregon’s LGBTQ movement. Later, Nicola joined a newer gay group called the Second Foundation. That was the basis of his lobbying for Oregon’s first attempt to ban sexual orientation discrimination.

These days, you’ll see George Nicola supporting a slew of local causes—Queer Intersections, PFLAG, Q Center, and many more. He also works tirelessly to record our state’s queer history—with GLAPN—and has been a regular contributor to PQ Monthly.

PQ Monthly: What has it been like watching equality slowly unfold in a progressive city like ours?
George Nicola: Portland has not always been progressive. By 1970, the city no longer attempted to close all the gay bars, but homophobia was still rampant. Since I came through the birth of Portland’s and Oregon’s LGBTQ movement, I have seen it all. The early gay organizations like the Portland Gay Liberation Front and the Second Foundation of Oregon produced some changes just but by being out. But it was a long time before we made any progress. There was a gradual change in attitude in the 1970s and 1980s. However, between 1988 and 2004, Oregonians endured about 34 anti-gay ballot measures, almost surely more than any other state.
Eventually, all of these plus an earlier anti-gay ballot measure were overturned by legislative action or court order. Overall, there has been a gradual progression toward tolerance and inclusiveness. But it did not just happen. It occurred because we and our allies worked so hard. It was not until 1991 that the City of Portland passed an ordinance banning sexual orientation discrimination. Gender identity was added in 2000.
Our response to the 1988 through 2000 anti-gay ballot measures tended to mute our identity. However, when marriage became the issue, muting our identity was no longer possible. The campaigns had to talk openly about us and our relationships. That began a process of humanization that had not occurred previously, which is why the marriage equality movement has benefited people like me and many of my friends who would never marry.

PQ: Tell me a little about how you define community and what community means to you.
When we say the “LGBTQ community”, we are talking about people who have something in common. Some of these people do not know many others in that group.  But there are organizations and vehicles that have brought LGBTQ people together for a common purpose. Those that are still operating include Pride Northwest, Q Center, Basic Rights Oregon, PFLAG Portland, GLAPN, among others. Facebook and PQ Monthly and your monthly press parties are distinctively helpful in this area.

PQ: What inspires your work for GLAPN? What are your proudest accomplishments with that organization?
We cannot change the past. However, everything today is a result of what happened in the past, so to some extent we need to know history to understand where we are and where we are going. And look at what has happened! A group of people that was criminalized, demonized, and considered mentally ill is now accepted at least nominally and legally. If we are to learn anything about bettering the life of human beings and allowing people to live peacefully together, this is a case we should study. I talk a little bit about our successes in my article at http://glapn.org/6027PersistentOnes.html:
We have battled about 35 anti-gay ballot measures.  We have gone to court numerous times.  This took a good deal of stubbornness, and some of our people have been persistent to the point of appearing quixotic.  When faced at nightfall with a demoralizing defeat that seemed to vanquish all hope, they started planning for a comeback the next morning.  This was often the work of a few people when the vast majority even in the LGBTQ community thought the cause was hopeless.  And for the most part, the optimists’ strategy eventually worked.
My writing for GLAPN has had some unexpected consequences. The article on anti-gay ballot measures was cited by attorney Lake Perriguey in his brief for Geiger v. Kitzhaber, the lead case that overturned Oregon’s ban on same-gender marriage. Though I am not an attorney, I was asked to lead an Oregon State Bar class on the history of Oregon LGBTQ law. I also participated in the development of the Oregon State Bar Diversity Story Wall. But I still think the major outcome of my work has been to help Oregon LGBTQ people and allies gain a stronger sense of common purpose. Community is to some extent established by a common tradition, and our history helps people understand that tradition.

               PQ: Where do you see LGBTQ rights in, say, ten years? Twenty?
GN: In Oregon, we have full LGBTQ civil rights protection. But we still face a huge amount of homophobia and transphobia, even in Portland. It gets much worse outside of Portland metro, even in the suburbs but especially in rural areas and smaller cities. So the change I would want most would be one of attitude. On a federal level, we have no legislative legal protection, and I would hope that comes about soon, especially in employment. I would hope that soon the Supreme Court makes a decision [about marriage] that extends that to all 50 states.

PQ: If you could do one thing to inspire people to do more and give back more, what would it be? Or what would you say to inspire them?
               GN: Beyond good health and financial comfort, what brings human beings the greatest happiness is their relationship to other people. So I think that involvement in the LGBTQ movement and its associated activities will make us happier because it involves LGBTQ people and their allies in a positive way. One of many ways is through the numerous performing arts groups in our community. I tried to summarize that in this article: http://glapn.org/6033PerformingArts.html. A group that has done much to give back is PFLAG Portland, which includes the Black Chapter and East County components.