Pioneers on pioneers: Five local luminaries on the people who inspired them

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By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
  In its first half a century, the modern LGBTQ community has made astounding inroads for itself in many different areas of society. In politics, media, the arts, and numerous other disciplines, queer individuals have made significant impressions that will inspire the next generation to go even farther along the trails that they blazed. However, even pioneers need their inspiration. PQ invited five individuals who have overcome the force of history and stasis to serve as leaders and innovators in their fields to talk about the people that they view as pioneers. Their inspirations range from the well-known and nationally famous to the private and domestic; however, each of the respondents agreed that they — and as a result our community — wouldn’t be where they are without the inspiration and guidance that their pioneers showed all of us.

Sam Adams, first gay mayor of the city of Portland

“Keeston Lowery was the first openly gay City Council staffer and longtime aide to Portland City Commissioner Mike Lindberg. Keeston died from AIDS in 1993. I met Keeston when I was Vera Katz’s campaign manager and he was incredibly kind to me. At the time, I was in the closet, but Keeston showed me that you could be gay and live a life just like everyone else. He made people feel comfortable with his sexual orientation. Keeston helped build the civic institutions that have been important in protecting all people from discrimination: he developed Portland's civil rights ordinance, which bans discrimination based on things such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. He was instrumental in the founding of the Right to Privacy PAC, an important formative Oregon LGB political organization. And his civic reach extended beyond the bounds of civil rights; he worked on intergovernmental relations, water bureau issues, and in the formulation of film production policies for the City of Portland. He is missed.â€

Renee LaChance, founder of Portland’s first LGBTQ publication

“Harvey Milk was my role model. When he was elected into office, he represented all the people in the city of San Francisco, not just gay people. He really spoke for people of color, the elderly community, all folks, rather than being just a one-platform candidate. I was in my early 20s when he was elected as the first gay public official in the United States. Then, of course, when he was assassinated I became even more aware of him and his impact. What I saw in him, and what he represented, was an acceptance of gay people alongside a barometer of the threat level that people who came out at the time faced. At that time, it was a really revolutionary thing to come out and be gay in public. However, in reading about his life and talking with people who worked with him, I was struck that, despite this threat, he was always adamant that coming out was the best way to educate the general populace that gay people were everywhere and deserved the same rights. This influenced me greatly when I started Just Out; this idea, that coming out was revolutionary and critically important, was exactly why we founded the paper.â€

Simone Neall, first transgender member of the State Construction Contractors Board

“It was my father. He taught me some really valuable lessons in life: every problem has a solution, and if you don’t have a solution you just need to step back and wait for the solution to come. ... My father gave me a sense of work ethic, being busy and doing things that you need to do when you need to do them. … I have so many friends who didn’t know their dads, or whose dads just weren’t around, but in my family it was always mom, dad, and kids — always together. Dad was the one who meted out punishment, certainly, but he was also the one who taught us how to tie knots, to build skateboards by screwing wheels onto 2-by-4s, did Boy Scouts with us. He was the guy we went to, the guy that could solve the problems that needed solving. I grew up as a young man, and late into adulthood it came time for me to look at who I am and what I had been trying to hide for most of my life, and come out to my family. Of my family — my mom, dad, and brothers — my dad was the most accepting, when I thought he would be the least. It was really surprising, but it just reinforced to me that he was my mentor and hero. My dad passed away in 2009. I was out of town at the time; I was admonished by some (now former) friends for traveling while my father was sick. I realized that it was okay, because I didn’t have any baggage with him. We were up-front with one another, and he didn’t pull any punches — he was old and infirm, but god, if you tried to help him, he’d get pissed at you. ‘I can do this!’ he’d say. He was as independent as he could be, had the independent spirit that made him self-sufficient. He was just such a neat man, and I was so fortunate to have him as a father.â€

Maria Peters Lake, first woman Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court

“As far as who I am as a person, Audria M. Edwards, who was instrumental in starting the PFLAG chapter in Portland, was a hero of mine. She was someone that I could go to — a mother to the lost people, the people who didn’t have accepting families. She was a mother figure to all of us. Her belief in the power of education, which she demonstrated by going back to school when she was 40 years old, inspired me. When you think of a pioneer, you think of someone who took that step first — and back when she did it, 40 year olds didn’t start college! She instilled in me how important it was to have an education, to be your best at everything you do, and to be a woman of color who is proud of who you are. I learned these things from her, and her children, and her family — the understanding and peace that comes from being who you are, and having people accept you as you are.â€

Gary Coleman, founding member of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus

“In this whole gay movement, I think that the pioneers are not so much the people that are named, but the people who step up. I consider Matthew Shepherd a pioneer, for example, because he was out and gay and paid a price for it that has turned into lots of other positive things. … It isn’t one individual, or people of name or fame, that inspires me. Instead, I am consistently inspired by people’s innate impulse to make a difference in their communities and their world, and the willingness that comes with this impulse to step up to the plate for this cause — no matter what the consequences may be.â€