Queer Heroes NW

Christine Tanner and Lisa Chickadonz met in 1982 at Oregon Health Sciences University. They started a family in the 1990s. (Our online version has their complete story.)
Christine Tanner and Lisa Chickadonz met in 1982 at Oregon Health Sciences University. They started a family in the 1990s. (Our online version has their complete story.)

By Robin Will, President, Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN)

Queer Heroes Northwest was born four years ago, out of a conference at Portland’s Q Center.

Some Q Center staff and a couple of GLAPN members were looking at a multimedia project from out of state. It was flashy, it looked expensive—and it honored an LGBTQ citizen for every day of their Pride festival.

“Can we do this in Portland?” was the question. Minus the ad-agency glitter and flash, it was completely possible. We came away from the table with a project timeline, a little bit of strategy, no budget whatsoever, and the name Queer Heroes Northwest.

It was a good project for a historical society. GLAPN’s entire reason for existing is to collect, preserve and publicize regional queer history. We knew some of our community’s heroes, and we were certain that crowdsourcing would tell us more.

It was good to team up with Q Center, which was in a position to reach a far larger audience than GLAPN could claim on our own.

And it was good to introduce such a positive project. All LGBTQ folk have been beaten down at least a little bit by prejudice and discrimination, in part because we don’t get much good news about ourselves. It is uplifting to hear stories of courage, persistence and accomplishment, told by those who know us.

So the first year of Queer Heroes NW went remarkably well—and, in fact, four years later we’re still doing approximately the same things, except that Q Center is now in the background, and GLAPN is learning to run Queer Heroes Northwest on our own.

          We opened nominations for Queer Heroes NW on our web page early in March, and a number of friends gave us a boost through social media. We were open to hearing about anybody—living or dead, LGBTQ or straight ally—who had ever made life better for queer people in the Northwest. We added the criteria of risk, sacrifice, service, example and inspiration, recognizing that while legislators and bureaucrats make lasting contributions to our community, so do people who have nothing to give but their volunteer hours, or those who worry about getting beaten up on the way home from school. We intended to recognize everybody.

          We compiled the nominations in April. It was like inviting folks to a party, and waiting to see who showed up. Response was far bigger than we expected, and even in the first year we compiled more than 150 nominations into the mother of all spreadsheets and sat down to figure out what we had.

          We made selections in early May, and started on production. The first selection committee came from community volunteers; in following years, previous Heroes have mostly done the job. We were happy with the racial, ethnic and gender balance among the nominees—our community has consistently given us plenty to work with in that regard. Narrowing the list down to 30 was the hardest part.

          On June 1, we started announcing a Queer Hero per day on GLAPN.org, and the Thursday before Pride, we had all 30 Queer Heroes posters up in the gallery at Q Center. The Queer Heroes posters stay up all year at Q Center; a separate display of the Heroes goes to Pride; and we create a traveling display to other exhibits and celebrations, all year round. The Queer Hero profiles remain on GLAPN’s website forever.

By the time this article is in print, at least some of the 2015 Heroes will have been announced online. All of this year’s Queer Heroes’ posters will be on display at Q Center’s Aaron Hall Gallery, opening Thursday, June 11, from 5-7pm. It’s quite a gathering—all present and previous Queer Heroes are invited, and the event is open to the public. Folks who can’t catch the opening at Q Center can see the entire display at Pride, or follow along day by day on GLAPN.org and Facebook as the rest of the Queer Heroes are revealed.

          It’s impossible to do this work for four years without learning a thing or two.

I found it remarkable how much our movement has depended on drag queens. Who rioted at Stonewall? Who started organizing our community, in Portland’s gay bars? Who stepped up with fundraisers for AIDS victims, when the need was most desperate? Who is still funding and awarding scholarships to LGBTQ students to this very day? These men and women have my utmost respect.

It has been eye-opening to see the influence people of color have had on our movement from the beginning. The mainstream press never told us that.

We can see connections as time goes by. For instance, there’s a line running from Bill and Ann Shepherd (who co-founded PFLAG in 1975), through Jeff Rose, (Mr. Portland Leather in 1993, who created a scholarship fund in the Shepherds’ honor), directly to the Shepherd Scholar who took the State of Oregon to court in 2014, bringing marriage equality to Oregon.

Of course there’s more. Someone with a little patience can get a fairly good picture of Oregon’s LGBTQ history, just by browsing the last three years’ Queer Hero profiles on GLAPN.org—small, tolerable, even interesting doses of history, and it’s about people we know!

We’re sharing one of this year’s Queer Heroes profiles online at PQ Monthly’s website, chosen particularly to illustrate one couple’s tenacity in pursuit of justice.