LGBT festival grand marshals remember rough times, prejudices

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Kip Dollar and Toby Johnson relax at their home in North Campus. In 1991, Dollar and Johnson were the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in Travis County, where they were subsequently denied.

Even in Austin — a city often characterized as a bubble for its liberal mind-set encompassed in a conservative state — it hasn’t been easy for those in the LGBT community. As hundreds of people sprawled out on the lawn of Fiesta Gardens on Saturday, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Austin Pride, the sunny easiness of the day masked those darker days of the past. But the personal stories of the grand marshals of this festival serve as a reminder and a bridge between yesterday and today.

Kip Dollar, Toby Johnson, Jody Mekkers, Joanna Lawbow and Pat Cramer were the grand marshals for this year’s Austin pride. As public emissaries of the event, they were chosen by the Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation to recognize their significant contributions to the LGBT community in Austin.

Along with his partner Johnson, Dollar helped form the city’s first gay and lesbian business association and ran Liberty Books, a local lesbian and gay bookstore, for seven years. Dollar and Cramer were among the handful of organizers of the first Austin Pride. Cramer also works with the Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus and helped formed the first lobby group in Texas for gay and lesbian rights. Mekkers and Lawbow were among the hundreds who marched in the first pride celebrations in the early ’70s.

As much as their civic contributions exemplify the progress made in gay rights, their personal stories and encounters are reminders of an even more fearful time for homosexuals and transgendered people. The adversity they faced — Cramer was in one of the first lawsuits challenging Law 2106 against sodomy, and Mekkers was court marshaled by the U.S Navy for being a lesbian — are the details of a more complete picture.

Mekkers, a retired minister, said she remembers marching at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Gay-In, San Francisco’s first pride celebration at Golden Gate Park, with her church group on June 28, 1970. Protesters screamed hateful words and threw objects at the participants, she said.

“It wasn’t much fun,” she said. “But in reality, looking back, I was amazed at the courage of the people who marched that day.”

There was a lot to lose, she said. There was little to no legal protection for gays and lesbians against prejudice in the ’70s and ’80s. Participants could have been expelled from college, fired from their jobs and denied from housing if they were outed. Mekkers remembered seeing participants at a demonstration in Boise with paper bags over their heads. They were frightened someone would recognize their faces, she said.

Lawbow, who was among the 6,000 participants of Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York’s first gay march celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, said she too was afraid she would get noticed in the crowd.

“I knew there would be news media there, like TV cameras for all the major stations out of NYC,” she said. “My family did not know I was gay at that point, so that was one of the things that was scary — the possibility of my face showing on the 11 o’clock news.”

Lawbow, who had just graduated from Douglass College — a women’s college about 45 minutes about from New York City — that month and who had turned 20 four days earlier, said the late ’60s was a time of great political activity.

“[It was] a time when we really believed that we could have an impact and make a difference,” she said. And though she had rallied and protested against the Vietnam War, championing gay rights was different — the stakes were higher.

“It was really bold to declare publicly that you were gay back then,” Lawbow said. “We didn’t even have the word gay; it was homosexual and/or lesbian.”

Though the organizers got a permit at the last minute, Lawbow said the experience was still frightening because it was the first march and no one knew what to expect.

The demonstrators marched between traffic, up one lane of Sixth Avenue on June 18, 1970, starting off at Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street and ending at Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. As the participants passed by, several policemen turned their backs on them and faced towards the sidewalk to show their contempt, she said. The experience was scary, yet also exciting for her, she said.

“It was just unheard of to congregate and celebrate and not hide and be secretive and buy into shame,” she said. “My strongest memory is seeing the size of the crowd at Central Park and realizing that my friends and I were not alone, that so many people were willing to take huge risks, and that meant that things were just going to have to change because we weren’t going to go backwards from that liberating moment.”

But while progress has been made since Lawbow walked nearly four miles to Central Park and since Mekkers was condemned for her sexuality by the military, (such as the legalization of gay marriage in New York and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell), Labow said there is still so much that needs to happen.

“The juxtaposition is painful,” she said.

The idea of losing some and gaining a bit is not only a factor of time, but also place.

Dollar and Johnson requested a marriage license in Texas in 1991. The couple, who have been together for 27 years, were the first to apply and get denied. In 1993, however, Travis County approved a plan ensuring same-sex benefits and allowing same-sex couples to register for domestic partnership.

Because of the couple’s prominent role in the LGBT community with their bookstore, they were asked to be the first to register their partnership. Shortly after, however, protesters from religious and family groups and organizations brought a referendum and had the benefits revoked. The registry was not abolished, however, and same sex couples can still apply with the county’s clerk for their domestic partnerships.

As a red, conservative state, it is going to take longer for Texas to pass gay rights, Dollar said, but it will happen.

“I think it’ll happen in Texas because Texas doesn’t lead. Sometime it may seem like that, but [Texas] will have to follow,” he said.

Nearly 20 years after the first marches in San Francisco and New York City, Dollar said Austin hosted its first pride festival in 1991, after organizers thought, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet?’

There was barely any seed money for that first pride festival, Kipp said. The festival didn’t even have a name. He said organizers worried no one was going to show up, but to all of their amazement, more than 2,000 people showed up at Fiesta Gardens. The turnout at Saturday’s festival doubled.

“It feels like an incredible honor to be asked to represent that time and those people and to be here in Austin,” Mekkers said.