SALEM HISTORY: How Salem went from a nine person Pride march to an annual celebration

A June 21, 1972 letter to the editor in the Capital Journal about Salem Area Gay Activists.

Salem’s Capital Pride in the Park festival was held Aug. 21 at Riverfront Park. This year, activities celebrated and affirmed our LGBTQ community and included a run/walk and live entertainment. Zachery Cardoso is the president of the executive board of Salem Capital Pride, the nonprofit organization that hosts the festival, and also helps manage our historic preservation program here in Salem.

There has been a long history of discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Oregon. However, in the late 1960s in Portland, female impersonators began to organize and start providing social support and cultural activities through the Portland Forum.

By 1970 two other organizations, the Portland Gay Liberation Front and the Second Foundation, were formed in Portland and the Gay People’s Alliance was formed in Eugene. In 1972, Oregon became the fourth state to repeal its sodomy laws which had been enacted in 1853. By 1977, Oregon enacted a domestic violence law that covered all cohabiters, regardless of gender and that same year Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt issued a proclamation for Gay Pride Day.

The Capitol Forum, a non-profit organization formed in 1976 serving about 200 people in the Salem area, opened the Valley’s first Gay Community Center in Salem on December 16, 1977. According to the Statesman Journal, Salem’s first documented march for gay rights was in June of 1978 and attended by nine people. The march in June of 1979 was attended by just twelve gay rights supporters who marched from Marion Square Park to the Capitol. While organizers expected several hundred marchers in addition to speakers addressing a rally on the Capitol steps to support three bills dealing with non-discrimination, this did not transpire. The Statesman Journal reported that the low turnout was attributed to people’s fear of being recognized and losing their jobs.

A June 9, 1979 Statesman Journal article detailed an early Gay Pride march in Salem.

In March 1982, the Statesman Journal provided a comprehensive overview of support groups for Salem’s gay community, giving historians a brief window into the history of our LGBTQ community. There was the Salem Gay Activists, a political group dedicating to representing the interests of the estimated 8,000-12,000 members of the gay community living in the Salem area at that time. Additional support groups were identified including Lambda Horizons, a 200-member group that operated a gay hotline and a youth support group. Lambda Horizons also distributed a newsletter that had a circulation of about 5,000 households in the Salem area. 

The Capitol Forum was a social group based initially just in Salem, but later expanded to Portland. The Capitol Youth Alliance was formed in 1977, dedicated to members under the age of 21, and at one time was part of the Capitol Forum in Salem. The Imperial Court of the Willamette Empire, a theater group putting on drag performances, was formed in 1978. This group focused on raising money for nonprofits like the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation by performing before gay audiences. Just last weekend, performers from this Imperial Court performed at Salem’s Capital Pride event.

When he became Governor in 1988, Goldschmidt issued an executive order banning discrimination based upon sexual orientation in the executive department of state employment. In 2007 the Oregon Legislature passed two LGBTQ related statutes: the Oregon Equality Act and the Oregon Family Fairness Act. These laws created a domestic partner registration system here in Oregon that provides many (but not all) of the same rights afforded to married couples.

Salem’s first documented event celebrating Pride was in June of 1995. The Salem-based Coalition to End Bigotry hosted a celebration at the Capitol Mall. In the Statesman Journal’s June 3, 1995 Lifestyle section, three different stories of what being gay or lesbian in Salem was like were shared. It’s moving to read now about the experience of Tod Amidon and Gary Smith, a loving gay couple whose love had spanned a decade already by 1995, and David Ruks, a McKay High School senior who dropped out due to bullying. The next year, the first organized Gay Pride Parade drew about 200 people downtown to march on behalf of gay rights.

Through Salem’s history of celebrating Pride, different groups have put on different ways of celebrating and advocating for the LGBTQ community in Salem. The current organization, Salem Capital Pride, began in 2001 as an informal group then known as Capitol Pride. In August 2001 a three-day event was held at Change of Seasons restaurant, Mill Race Park, and the Capitol lawn where Mayor Mike Swaim spoke to a crowd of about 150 people and six couples took their vows. In 2004 Capitol Pride became a registered non-profit organization, the event migrated between parks from Pringle Park Plaza to Cascade Gateway Park before settling at Riverfront Park in 2008, where the event has been hosted annually since.

Selina Kyle performs at Capital Pride on Aug. 21, 2021. (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

Our Historic Landmark Commission is interested in ensuring that our program does a better job telling the story of underrepresented communities in Salem. The Oregon Heritage Commission has also recently taken a special interest in honoring projects and organizations that celebrate the history of our underrepresented communities. 

It is exciting that this year the Oregon Heritage Commission recognized Bobbie Dolp for her work in establishing the Lord & Schryver Conservancy. Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver are key examples of significant women in Salem’s history who ran the first women owned landscape firm in the Northwest right here in Salem. However, the video the HLC and the Salem Culture & Heritage Forum produced about their professional life: ’The Women of Mission’ never clearly explores the story of their personal commitment to each other. We don’t know for certain whether or not there is a beautiful love story here that hasn’t been fully told yet. 

The Heritage Commission also recognized the Darcelle Project in Portland for their work in honoring the story of Darcelle (Walter Cole) and his work as an activist for the LGTBQ community as well as honoring the University of Oregon’s Eugene Lesbian Oral History Project. Our hope is that in the next few years, Salem can embark upon similar projects to help us better understand and learn about the histories of our LGTBQ community. In the meantime, if you have questions or want to share any cool and interesting history you might have about Salem’s LGTBQ history feel free to reach out to Zachery Cardoso at [email protected].

You can also reach out the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (glapn.org). They’ve been working to discover and publicize the history of sexual minorities in the Pacific Northwest since 1994.

Editor’s note: This column is part of a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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