How a few courageous students led a Tacoma Pride movement on campus that spread across the city
Late into the night of July 11, 1997, Jenn (DeLury) Ciplet ’98 and a group of friends were dipping Styrofoam cups into bright colors of paint. They were members of the student club United Methodists (UMeth), and they had a mission.
The following day, the group brought the cups to the fence surrounding the track outside Memorial Fieldhouse on the University of Puget Sound campus, and stuck them through the chain link in a large arc: first red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. The Styrofoam rainbow signaled the location of the Tacoma Pride Festival, the first to be held in the city in 12 years.
“It gave great visibility to it,” Jenn says of the rainbow. “People could see exactly where they were going.”
Hosting a celebration of LGBTQ identity was a bold move for the college in the ’90s, and it took a monumental effort by several committed students. Steve Gillis-Moore ’97 was one of the instigators. A week before the event, he’d sent out an invitation via email to a large group of allies. “Plan to attend the historic rebirth of Gay Pride in the Tacoma/Pierce County area,” he wrote. “There is a large community of gay folks in Tacoma, and this event will provide the visibility our growing community needs.”
Visibility, in terms of being out and proud, was something that Steve had thought a lot about during his time at Puget Sound. As a first-year student, he started attending the now-defunct “As Is” Coming Out Support Group, which gave him confidence and community. “I was very slow to come out,” he says. “It took me two solid years to finally not beat around the bush about it.”
Steve also joined the student club for LGBTQ students and allies, then called Understanding Sexuality (US), and got involved in the Greater Tacoma LGBTQ community. He volunteered for the Pierce County AIDS Foundation (PCAF), which held an AIDS walk every year. That’s where he met James Spencer, then a recent graduate of The Evergreen State College who worked at PCAF, and the two friends started talking about organizing a Pride festival in Tacoma.
“I don’t remember if the idea came to us from Steve and his folks at UPS or if Steve and I dreamed it up over coffee,” James says. “Wherever the idea generated, someone said it should happen, and we formed an ad hoc Pride committee and brought in different constituents.”
PCAF agreed to put its name on the event if Steve and James took the lead to find funding. They did—much of it from the Imperial Court of Tacoma, which also provided entertainment. (“Our community would be nothing without our ferociously proud and daring drag queens,” Steve says.) Suddenly their dream started to feel like a realistic plan.
The first challenge that Steve and James faced was deciding where Tacoma Pride would be held. James thought Wright Park was the spot. “I figured it would be nice to do it in a public space, but I remember the city was resistant to it,” he says. “You got the feeling they just didn’t want us there.”
Members of the LGBTQ community in Tacoma were uneasy about the park location too. Steve was told that the last time the city had attempted a similar event, in the mid-’80s, protesters made people feel unsafe and unwelcome. “We heard over and over again that people were very nervous and scared to have a publicly visible event like that,” Steve says. “Many in the community thought the AIDS walk was enough.”
The ’90s was an era in which every step forward for LGBTQ rights seemed to be followed by two steps back. The World Health Organization declared that it would no longer classify homosexuality itself as an “illness”—but AIDS remained a highly stigmatized disease that continued decimating the LGBTQ community. Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV—and Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. President Clinton established the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that prevented the military from discriminating against or harassing closeted queer service members—but barred openly gay people from serving.
“We had nothing in the way of equality,” James recalls. “Marital rights were a far-fetched dream we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.”
Regionally, the conservative activist group Oregon Citizens Alliance had led successful initiatives to repeal local LGBTQ rights ordinances, and a similar campaign had just come to Washington. “That had people’s emotions pretty high,” James says.
But Steve was undeterred by the community’s fears. With a city venue off the table, he suggested one that raised some eyebrows: the new track by the field house on the Puget Sound campus. “It was unique because it was outdoors but contained by the fence, with only one access point from the street,” he says. “But I think people were a little incredulous. They didn’t really believe that a stodgy old school would allow this or be supportive.”
Puget Sound would prove the skeptics wrong. That year’s academic theme was “gender, sexuality, and identity,” and Steve remembers that several high-profile LGBTQ personalities—including Sandra Bernhard, Mel White, and Dan Savage—had visited campus. “That calendar of events was something I could point to and say, ‘This is not some kind of trap. They are genuinely supportive of us as we are,’” he says.
In some ways, Steve felt that planning a Pride event on campus helped him understand just how supportive Puget Sound was, and just how visible he wanted to be about his own identity there. “We had to approach everyone and explain what the event might be like,” he remembers. “It was scary for me to call, for instance, the guy who managed the field house space, leaving messages and attaching my name to gay anything. But overall it was a really good experience.”
A long evolution
One major reason that Steve felt safe coming out and organizing a Pride event on campus was that he had Donn Marshall on his side. Donn, who retired this year after 31 years on staff, was the university’s director of Counseling, Health, and Wellness Services, and the staff facilitator of the LGBTQ support group. “Donn Marshall would always tell us, ‘The school loves you as you are and wants to make space for you,’” Steve recalls.
Donn agreed to be the staff sponsor of the Pride event. “I was very supportive of signing on—and truthfully it was the easiest gig I ever had,” Donn says. “Steve [and James] did all of the work getting the word out to the community [and booking] the vendors and the performers.”
Since he had arrived at Puget Sound in 1987, Donn had been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ student community, and he’d been proud to see them take small steps toward greater visibility. “In those early days, it was very unusual for students to arrive at Puget Sound having been out in high school,” he says. “Students coming to college back then might have thought the only safe people to come out to were people in a support group environment.”
That was exactly the experience of Jason Zenobia ’93. “One of the reasons I chose to apply to University of Puget Sound was that in the pamphlet I got in the mail from them, there was a list of groups on campus, and they included an LGBTQ support group. That got my attention, because there was nothing like that in high school,” he says.
Even so, he says it took him a few months to find that group. “There was nothing printed on campus,” he says. “No signs. It was very secret and private. Finally, I figured it out and went to the counseling center.”
Jason was grateful for the support he eventually found on campus, but he thought the group should bring its private discussions into the mainstream campus community in order to influence the culture. “It was hard to figure out how we could do that while still respecting the privacy of those who weren’t ready to declare themselves publicly,” he says.
That’s why, Jason says, some students from the LGBTQ support group started Understanding Sexuality (US), a club that was open to anyone on campus, including straight allies. He recalls that in September of 1990, they had a table at LogJam!, an annual festival to kick off the new academic year, where student clubs find new participants. They started sending representatives to join panel discussions about diversity on campus.
“The group really metamorphosed into an organization that participated in campus life in a way that it just hadn’t before,” Jason says. “Part of what was so great about that was the internal transformation that takes place when you see other people stand up and be open about who they are, without apologizing or asking permission.”
Thanks to the outreach of US, Puget Sound was developing a reputation for being a welcoming, open place for LGBTQ students. “It felt really nice to be part of that transition,” Jason says.
It’s amazing to see today. This little UPS field house gathering with a few hundred people has turned into a weeklong festival attracting 10,000 people a year.”
– Lori Bundrock
Dave Wright ’96, now Puget Sound’s director of spiritual and civic engagement and the university chaplain, remembers feeling the impact. “As a student, I was a religion major and had joined UMeth on campus,” he says. “There was a lot of discussion at that time about ‘homosexuality and religion,’ to use the language of the day. In UMeth, we often partnered with US to talk about being inclusive and religious—in that era there was not much religious inclusivity of LGBTQ folks.”
Through UMeth, Dave met Jenn Ciplet, a likeminded ally. “As a cisgender, straight person, I learned a lot from the queer friends I met in UMeth,” Jenn says. “It was a community that was very open to people of different sexualities and gender identities at a time when it was, frankly, not something other Christian groups were doing.”
Jenn’s experience with UMeth was a major reason that she got involved in helping to organize the ’97 Pride event. “It was so important to me to be an ally,” she says, adding that she’d realized it was safer for her to help organize the event than it was for her queer friends on campus. “Why should LGBTQ folks have to do all the work and throw their own party?” she says.
When Dave returned to Puget Sound as a staff member in 2006, a decade after his graduation, he was glad to find even more acceptance of the LGBTQ community on campus. “It was great to come back and see not only that US had become B-GLAD [Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians, and Allies for Diversity], a much more clearly named organization that was even more public, but that there was also such academic engagement with LGBTQ issues. That year we were ranked as one of the most inclusive colleges in the nation by The Advocate.”
Throughout his long tenure, Donn Marshall saw that progress firsthand. “The support group continues unabated, and the club has continued as well, though it has changed names probably five or six times as the cultural climate has changed.”
Today, the club is known as Queer Alliance. About 80 students attend its first meeting of the year, and it hosts a Queer Prom every spring.
“There never would have been something like a Queer Prom event on campus in the mid-’90s,” Donn says. “Today there are not only out students and out student leaders, but out faculty and staff. There’s even a Gender and Queer Studies Program now,” he says. “Really, the students today are absolutely able to do what they do because the students in the ’80s and ’90s were so brave.”
A real celebration
July 12, 1997, was a bright, sunny day, and Jenn remembers looking around the track outside the field house and feeling satisfied. “I remember wearing terribly fitting jean shorts and a UMeth T-shirt and being so proud that there was a big crowd, including about 20 people from UMeth. It just felt like a real celebration,” she says.
Steve remembers the day well, too. “A dirt track, grass field, sunshine, and drag queens: These things generally don’t go together,” he says, laughing. “I remember seeing a girl’s heel sink into the lawn multiple times—but everyone just seemed really glad to be there.”
Along with tables providing educational information and performances by local musical acts, the event hosted speakers, including former Gov. Mike Lowry, who spoke about Initiative 677, the statewide effort to ban workplace discrimination against anyone for their sexual orientation. Though the initiative received enough signatures to make the ballot that November, voters turned it down. Washington wouldn’t legally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression until 2006, nine years later.
Even with politics in the air, the organizers’ concerns about security went mostly unfounded. “I remember we spent the majority of our budget on a Tacoma police officer,” Steve says. “And we did have a couple of protesters—maybe three people with signs, shouting—but the officer kept them off the sidewalk, and they weren’t a real problem at all.”
Steve, Jenn, and James were also pleased by the ultimate turnout at the event they had worked so hard on pulling together. The News Tribune ran a story the following day headlined: “Several hundred herald the return of gay pride event to Tacoma area.”
This was of particular relief to James, whose role at PCAF had been working to educate young gay men on HIV/AIDS prevention, doing outreach at bars and student groups. He had experienced the difficulty of even finding the LGBTQ community in Tacoma at times.
“To see the community reflected there that day out in the open was definitely very cool,” he says. “I don’t want to make it sound like the community needed rescuing, just that it was difficult for some to live openly, because of the politics of the time. If even 10 people went to that event and decided to come out after, I think we achieved something pretty important.”
Later that evening, a dance party was held in Rasmussen Rotunda. “I think it was the first time many of us had ever been to an event that was all queer,” Steve says. “To be 22 years old and have someone tap me on the shoulder and ask if I wanted to dance—and I didn’t have to explain to them that I didn’t date girls—that was the best feeling.”
The impact of the 1997 Tacoma Pride Festival was felt well beyond campus. Lori Bundrock, the current deputy director of PCAF, who worked with James Spencer at the time of the event, remembers it well. “I thought that was really bold,” she says of the college’s decision to host the event. “That was just a really strong stamp of approval.”
Lori says that day set a strong tradition of Tacoma Pride in motion. “It went off without a hitch and was pretty well organized,” she says. “That set a good precedent for what Pride could look like in this community—and we’re really fortunate it did—so it had a chance to thrive in the future.”
The following year, Tacoma Pride was held in Wright Park. PCAF played a large role in hosting and growing the festival for several years until handing over the organizing to a community group called Out in the Park. In more recent years, Tacoma’s Rainbow Center has officially become the festival’s producer, supported by funding from the city. “It’s amazing to see today,” Lori says. “This little UPS field house gathering with a few hundred people has turned into a weeklong festival attracting 10,000 people a year.”
Twenty years later, in July 2017, Dave Wright was holding down the table that Puget Sound sponsored at the Tacoma Pride Festival, along with other staff members and students from the Center for Intercultural and Civic Engagement (CICE), when an alumnus came up and introduced himself. It was Steve Gillis-Moore. After graduation, he’d moved to Seattle, then to Vancouver, B.C., and he had lost track of what had happened to the festival he’d helped start. Then last summer, he happened to be in Tacoma for an a cappella competition with his husband, and noticed that four blocks downtown were closed off for Pride. “It totally blew my mind,” he says.
When he found the Puget Sound table, Steve shared the story of that 1997 event with Dave. “I was so proud that my university had played a pivotal role in this event and was still engaged now,” he says.
He was also pleased to see just how far acceptance of LGBTQ people and culture has come in Tacoma. “That first event was very closed off and insular,” he says. “It hadn’t been held in more than a decade because of protests, so we did it while looking over our shoulders.”
Now, Tacoma Pride felt totally different. “Nobody was holding back,” Steve says. “Everyone was looking forward. And that’s what Pride should be about: being joyful and finding community without having to look over your shoulder.”
By Maggie Mertens Published July 31, 2018 Illustrations by MAX-O-MATIC