This page is devoted to the LGBTQ history of the University of Idaho and Moscow, Idaho. This page is especially focused on the 1970s, but there is much more history to be told. Those who want to learn more about Idaho queer history in general can go to https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/queered/. Many of the interviews you find linked here were created by Denise Bennett and hosted by the Center for Digitial Inquiry and Learning at the University of Idaho.
Those interested in learning about LGBTQ history through oral histories of Boise can access them at https://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/idlgbtq_oral_histories/
Located in the small town of Moscow, Idaho, the University of Idaho has for a long time stood out as a pocket of liberalism in a generally conservative state. Unlike their counterparts at Washington State University eight miles to the west, who spent much of the 1970s waging battles over whether to recognize the organization Gay Awareness as an official student committee, University of Idaho students did not fight the battles for gay equality against the official UI student body. Instead, students at the University of Idaho helped form one of the first gay rights organizations in the state of Idaho: Northwest Gay People’s Alliance (NWGPA).
It took a long time for the NWGPA to get off the ground. In 1973, queer people in Moscow still attended Gay Awareness meetings at Washington State University in nearby Pullman, Washington because there was no formal organization in the city. NWGPA also started from humble origins. Don Sinclair, Gib Preston, Vicki Rishling, and Jennifer Nielsen were a group of gays and lesbians who often met for dinner and discussed politics, but they did not initially have the idea to form a gay rights organization. Don and Vicki give much of the credit for starting this organization to Preston. It was Preston who had connections with the Seattle Gay Alliance, who in turn had connections with the New York Gay Alliance. Through these other organizations’ newsletters and publications, Preston kept himself informed about the gay politics in the United States and the activities of various gay rights groups. All members, however, soon decided they wanted to make waves in Idaho because legislators refused to extend legal protections to gays and lesbians. Some members of NWGPA were also looking to engage in more political activism, something that not high on the list of goals for the WSU Gay Awareness organization. Eventually, in the fall of 1974, Preston raised enough money to hire lawyers who could file the paperwork to incorporate the organization in Idaho. There was some debate about whether to call the organization the Gay People’s Alliance or Gay and Lesbian People’s Alliance, but Sinclair argued that lesbians were gay too, and the organization stuck with the simpler, but not explicitly inclusive name, Northwest Gay People’s Alliance.
Despite some gay rights lobbying in Boise, the possibility of the state decriminalizing homosexuality or extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians when it came to housing, employment, or public accommodations, as other cities and states in the Pacific Northwest had done, seemed highly unlikely. At the same time, Moscow remained a fairly liberal city within a conservative state. Gay students at WSU in Pullman, Washington often voiced the difficulties of being gay in a conservative rural area. Gays and lesbians in Moscow on the other hand continually spoke about their lives as gays and lesbians in terms of living in a progressive rural area. In 1973, one student pointed to the Spruce Tavern as a place in town viewed as inclusive of gays and lesbians. Most people went to Spokane for gay bars, but Moscow did have inclusive places. The WSU Gay Alliance still needed to write in to the UI student paper The Argonaut to challenge a Health Center official who equated transgender people and gay people, but the UI Health Center still sold itself as progressive for not trying to change the orientation of gay people who came to them for help, but instead choosing to help those people live a well-adjusted life as a gay person.
This is an interview with Don Sinclair, one of the founding members of the Northwest Gay People's Alliance. Don talks about the founding of the organization and his life growing up, leaving, and then coming back to Moscow, Idaho. Sinclair is currently on the board of Inland Oasis. Preferred Citation: "Don Sinclair, March 15, 2017.", Idaho Queered, University of Idaho Library.
NWGPA had an active first few years. They brought in a national gay rights organization and held a weekend conference in 1976. NWGPA members were even able, through a quiet campaign, to briefly convince Moscow Fair Housing Commission members to add “sexual affection” to the city’s housing nondiscrimination code. Unfortunately, continual public readings on the changes only increased public opposition to the measure and the language was dropped from the code. For a couple years NWGPA also had an active Speakers Bureau. One of these speakers, Vicki Rishling, recalls that the organization often spoke to University of Idaho students because doing so offered encouragement to people who were coming out away from home and gave people a support group when they might otherwise not know where to turn. NWGPA meetings were often held in the Women’s Center on the UI campus, further demonstrating the close link between the university and the organization. NWGPA was not a student organization on the UI campus, and thus was not subject to the whims of the UI student body like the Gay Alliance was at WSU, but because this organization existed in a college town it was impossible to draw clear divisions between the two.
One of the most important things to come out of the early NWGPA was a local documentary titled Sweet Land of Liberty: Moscow/Pullman Gay Community which aired in April 1976 on KUID-TV. The documentary was a hit, winning Best Documentary awards from the Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Network and Idaho Press Club, and ending up a finalist for Best Documentary from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It was created and narrated by recent UI graduate Michael Kirk, who later went on to co-create the popular PBS program Frontline. The half-hour program focused around the lives of several gays and lesbians in Moscow and Pullman and featured interviews with Preson, Rishling, Nielsen, WSU student David Bliss, and many others.
Sweet Land of Liberty is a masterful insight into the experiences of rural queer people in the 1970s. In the film, gays and lesbians laid out the many struggles they faced in the area, from Moscow landlords who refused to renew the leases of couples after finding out they were gay, to the basic concerns about taxes, health care, marriage, and employment inequities that gay people faced all around the country. The climax of this anti-gay campaign was when someone fired a shotgun at the doors of the Moscow Grace Baptist Church, whose Reverend Melvin Frank was an outspoken opponent of gay equality. Frank appears in the documentary and does not blame gay people for the attack which injured nobody but did cause property damage, noting that it could have been done by someone trying to rile up anti-gay sentiment. Similarly, Preston denied NWGPA involvement in the shooting. Other interviews were less political but no less important. Nielsen discussed the difficulties of coming out as a lesbian while in a marriage, and how she had to explain this to her husband, family, and children. One interviewee, whose voice and image were anonymized, discussed his fears about being fired from his job and ostracized from his friends and family for coming out. Preston said that the public outcry over whether to add “sexual affection” to the local housing code made him realize how the Christians felt when they were being thrown to the lions in Rome. In one voiceover, Kirk reads out negative quotes from some letters to the editor from the local newspaper, the Daily Idahoan, including one that called on gay people to be kept in government camps.
All the negativity which gays and lesbians express in the film make the public critiques of the movie all the more confusing from a modern perspective. Many in the public complained that Sweet Land of Liberty had made the region appear open and tolerant of homosexuality. Part of this was because many gays and lesbians in the film did talk about finding some happiness in the region. Kirk also consistently portrays Pullman and Moscow as tolerant areas. Buying into narratives about coming out, Kirk openly questions whether the residents of the Palouse would be react with tolerance if some of the successful gay people in town finally came out of the closet. Apparently, the insinuation that Moscow and Pullman might, possibly, tolerate some gay people, was too much for those residents who expressed fears that gays would now see the city as friendly and want to move to the region en masse. The most public reaction to Sweet Land of Liberty came from the Moscow Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. Shortly after the filmed aired the Chamber drafted a memo to the University of Idaho Board of Regents to ask how the Board could have allowed for the funding and airing of a film which they believed to be detrimental to the image of the city and university. They also wanted the film to be pulled out of circulation. In May 1976 the Chamber decided only to ask the Board of Regents to account for the funding and production of the film, throwing away their call for censorship. In response, KUID-TV decided to re-air Sweet Land of Liberty later that week and then follow it with a live call-in session where the audience could ask questions of a panel moderate by Kirk.
This is an interview with Vicki Rishling, one of the founding members of the Northwest Gay People's Alliance. Rishling talks about growing up in the Inland Northwest, her early political activism, her coming out process, and the early activities of the NWPGA. Rishling currently works at the University of Idaho. Preferred Citation: "Vicki Rishling, April 05, 2017.", Idaho Queered, University of Idaho Library.
Despite threats of censorship and the homophobia which seemed to respond to all public acts for gay equality during the 1970s, Sweet Land of Liberty remained an educational tool and a testament to rural gay experience in Moscow Idaho. Palouse LGBTQ organizations continue to show the documentary in the present. Indicative of this success was a December 1976 Argonaut multi-page feature titled “The Gay Lifestyle.” It described the current legal difficulties regarding non-discrimination and sodomy laws both in Idaho and throughout the nation. The paper also published the deeply moving letter that Bliss wrote to his family when he came out. Bliss wrote an accompanying article that explained why he felt gays and lesbians experience prejudice. Lastly, the paper included a statement from NWGPA that explained the history of the group and its goals of helping gay people, educating society, and organizing politically. The organization provided a list of books that people could consult to learn about homosexuality, including Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and Marcuse’s Eros & Civilization.
By 1979, the organization was still going strong. NWGPA and WSU’s Gay People’s Alliance published a monthly newsletter called Update for Action, late titled, Palouse Gay News. It could be picked up at the UI Women’s Center or Bookpeople. NWGPA meetings were attended by 40-45 people and organizers did their best to balance the organization’s political activities with the social needs of rural lesbian and gay people. Unfortunately, the organization still had a long way to go to achieve its ends. NWGPA, and its later iteration the Inland Northwest Gay People’s Alliance which lasted into the 1990s, never succeeded in getting the state to add non-discrimination ordinances. The first non-discrimination in the state of Idaho was not passed until 2012, when it was passed in Sandpoint. Sodomy remained illegal in Idaho until the United State’s Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas which ruled all prohibitions on consensual adult same-sex sex to be unconstitutional. Yet NWGPA did bring about important change. The roots of NWGPA are still in the region with Don Sinclair, who is currently a board member for Inland Oasis, the Palouse’s current local LGBTQ+ organization. Vicki Rishling currently works at the University of Idaho. Equally important, however, was the dialogue and activism that NWGPA promoted during its existence. By making gay and lesbian issues public—whether through letters to the paper or local TV documentaries—NWGPA made it clear that queer people exist in rural areas. This was perhaps best summed in a 1977 letter to the Argonaut by Liz Olds titled “Gay…and Proud of It.” Olds wrote: I stand with all gay people everywhere, and we stand together because we have a right to. Print my name. Print my name in the biggest boldest type you’ve got. I am a homosexual. I AM A HUMAN BEING.
You can see if a copy of Sweet Land of Liberty is available near you by going to https://www.worldcat.org/title/sweet-land-of-liberty-the-moscowpullman-gay-community/oclc/44552740.