Why did Capitol Hill become the center of gay life in Seattle?

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By Katherine Banwell

Back before Capitol Hill became the center of gay life in Seattle, most of the American public thought of homosexuality as not only illegal but even dangerous.  

Consequently, gay culture was underground. Gay bars were confined to the red light district and in Seattle, that used to mean Pioneer Square.

But in the cultural shifts of the 1970s, gay people were ready to leave the red light district and Capitol Hill looked like the right place at the right time.

But why Capitol Hill?

 

Better than Pioneer Square

Sea Turtle / FlickrOn Capitol Hill, there was plenty of affordable housing, a gay-friendly nightlife, and it was close to jobs in the downtown core. The availability of social services for gay people was also a draw.

Seattle Counseling Service is the oldest surviving gay organization on the Hill. Ann McGettigan is the executive director.

“Somehow the word was out that this was a place (where) you could feel safe, there was a sense of camaraderie or community slowly developing.”

Compared to other neighborhoods, Capitol Hill felt more secure. Seattle City Council Member Tom Rasmussen says that was one of the main reasons for gays settling there.

“The university was very interesting but the young college crowd was a bit more homophobic. It had the jocks and the frat boys. Queen Anne is a wonderful neighborhood but it was somewhat isolated. Eastlake, OK. But still it didn’t have everything that Capitol Hill had.”

 

A hub of freedom

Photo by Katherine BanwellEven before gays and lesbians arrived, Capitol Hill had a bohemian feel.

The fear of gay bars didn’t go away overnight. But in the 1970s, there were anti-war demonstrations, civil and women’s rights were on everybody’s minds.

One man who lived through the transition is Charlie Brydon. He’s a gay rights activist.

“What I think is most fascinating is that migration to Capitol Hill sort of tracks the process of coming out in the community. As the community gained confidence, they decided it was inconvenient to go to Pioneer Square when you wanted to have a social evening.”

In the mid-1970s, gay people were joining the mainstream, helped by new anti-discrimination laws. Gays and lesbians were coming out.

And Capitol Hill was a gathering place for the counterculture and the politically active. McGettigan says creative expression, gay or straight, is still embraced on the Hill.

“I don’t think twice about seeing people with really elaborate tattoos, really interesting hair styles, really fascinating fashion choices. There’s an artistic and creative spirit and vibe. There’s nightlife, people are connecting with each other and there’s a really strong sense of community.”

 

The draw of community

That sense of community that emerged in Capitol Hill in the 1970s is still so powerful it continues to draw gay people, even those who now live in neighborhoods across the city.

Today on Broadway Avenue, the heart of Capitol Hill, if you stand there long enough someone may ask you for change or you’ll see students from Seattle Central Community College.

And, you may also see someone in drag or same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand, because this neighborhood has remained the hub of gay culture in Seattle.