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a view of their city

Spokane, population 200,000, is Washington's second largest city. Located in the eastern part of the state, it has long been overshadowed by other Northwest cities such as Seattle and Portland. FRONTLINE interviewed local journalists, activists and others about the city -- its past, its attitude toward gays and how it is changing.

David Postman
Political writer, The Seattle Times.

Read the full interview »

... You wrote that Spokane has a little bit of an inferiority complex. Tell me about it.

This is one of the things I didn't really know about Spokane before I went over there. All second and third cities have a little bit of that inferiority complex, but when you go over ... everybody talks about it; some very directly, some just exhibit the behavior. ... It's an isolated city. When you go there everybody tells you, "We're the biggest city between Seattle and Minneapolis." And that may be true, but I'm not sure what it means. ...

How might that have conditioned the [West] story in some way?

There is this sense that Spokane doesn't deserve any better: We get the leaders we deserve. And I'm not an expert on Spokane, ... but again, [when] everybody says the same thing, you start to believe it. People have examples of things that have happened in the past, from the '70s until today, where there were allegations of wrongdoing in these powerful institutions, where not much happened about it. The newspaper didn't go after them; there was no crusading local prosecutor who went after them; there was no citizen uprising to say, "We're not going to take this anymore." ... Somehow, with the West story, it was different. ...

Rob Brewster
Owner of a successful real estate development and construction company. He was a Boy Scout in Spokane around the time that troop leaders were accused of sexual abuse.

I guess it's like they say in the 12-step program: The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. And I think Spokane has an inferiority complex, it certainly does. It's a rather large city in amongst a large agricultural area. A lot of recreational activities around here too, but it's not Seattle, and it's not Portland. And in many ways it's not Boise; Boise's a much smaller city, but if you look at the last 10 years, it's seen a lot of growth and development in ways that Spokane just really missed. ...

In the last few years I think I've seen Spokane change a lot, and for the better. Opening up, being more accepting, shedding the image of the neo-Nazis that were in north Idaho, which had a tendency to make Spokane look redneck, kind of hick-like. ...

I was in Seattle a couple weeks ago and ... there were about five different places that I had to go to, from the place that I ate to a banker to somebody at Nordstrom's, and all five of them were former Spokane people. And it really made me think: Seattle's just built on a lot of people from a lot of different places that come to it and they create a ton of energy, and from that energy you get things like Microsoft. ... There are great examples of where the loss of that brain power has created a city like Seattle or Portland, ... truly to Spokane's detriment. ...

Ted McGregor
Editor and publisher, The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Spokane's alternative weekly newspaper. It covered the West scandal extensively, even writing an article naming a local computer expert as "Moto-Brock."

[At] our paper, we tend to feel like this is a hell of a great place to live. ... And if we're cynical, it's just going to make things worse and make it harder for us to become the kind of city that we want to raise our kids in. That was one of the reasons that we came out to recall the mayor -- there's just too much cynicism, and public officials need to live up to a certain standard. Any time you just push the cynicism like that, people tune out. And you fear for the future of a city when that happens. ...

... [What responsibility do you think Spokane bears for creating Jim West?]

I don't feel like this is an anti-gay town at all. I think we don't really know about it; it's not something that we are tuned into. I didn't know anybody who was gay until I went to college; I may have known gay people but I just had no idea. I was naïve. ... The next generation down the line is going to have a whole different situation. Ryan Oelrich can be open in Spokane; there's gay people in town who are open about it. ... I grew up here. I went to high school here. There was just nothing like that. ... I think then you just repressed the hell out of it.

Peter Perkins
High school teacher, Spokane's Rogers High School.

What do you think the prevailing attitudes were about gay people 20 or 30 years ago?

Twenty, 30 years ago, I think we were still suffering the lingering effects from what happened 50 years ago here in Spokane. … In 1948, the police got a confession from a guy by the name of Donald Brown, [who] was a prominent businessman. ... Brown allegedly confessed to having committed sodomy with a 24-year-old from Portland, Ore. According to the newspaper accounts, there was also a doctor and some other people who were scooped up in this police net. The doctor eventually committed suicide. Newspaper accounts said that he did the right thing.

But it went to trial, and so by 1949, the prosecuting attorney, in his instructions to the jury said, "If you don't convict him, this will become a city of sodomy." And Brown was convicted on two counts; 10 years in the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. This was during the height of the Cold War, and a year before Jim West was born. …

... So put yourself in the place of a young Jim West, who's maybe starting to suspect he has homosexual feelings. Does it make sense to you that he would have suppressed those feelings?

Oh, yeah, because there's no outlet. There was nobody that would have been visible in the community. I mean, this was a community that took somebody who was a prominent businessman and threw him in jail for what is essentially a private act. So there's nobody that's going to risk that. Why would anybody else in the community after that say, "I'm here, I'm queer, got any questions"? There wouldn't be anybody on the horizon for that. There'd be nobody to go to. …

... What about you? When you came to Spokane, you were in the closet. Why didn't you tell your friends and family and associates?

I kept it pent up for a very long time. I feared rejection. I think rejection is the thing that people fear the most. I feared rejection of losing my job. I feared rejection that members of my family would not have anything to do with me, or that they'd tell their children to stop talking to me. I stayed in this area because of family, and yet it was the risk of exposure to family that was causing me a great deal of pain.

David DeWolf
Professor, Gonzaga Law School. He represented a group called Spokane Right to Life on the city school department committee, which sets policy for health education classes.

I think Spokane as a whole tends to pride itself on a kind of congeniality. It's a place where there are nice people. When I came here to interview for a job -- it was about six months after I had left New Haven, Conn., which does not have the same warm, congenial feel -- and I remember ... observing a girl with a pair of skates slung over her shoulder as she was headed toward the ice rink in the middle of Riverfront Park. And she looked at me and we smiled at each other and passed each other. It was striking to me because I had come from New Haven, Conn. where any 12-year-old girl would have learned not to do that. ...

... Is the conservative voice powerful in Spokane?

Yes, I think there is within the Spokane culture a stronger sense of the normalcy of religious belief playing a role in people's everyday lives. I notice this in the public schools that my children attend, that it is not thought to be odd or some sort of private thing that a person has religious belief. This is thought of as being a kind of normal aspect.

For example, my oldest son, when he was in sixth grade, all the sixth graders sang in this winter holiday concert. And the last number that they played, after fun things about Santa and his reindeer or something, there was "Silent Night." And the second verse they did with white gloves with black light, just the music and then they did the words of "Silent Night" with sign language, which I found personally very moving. And I thought, my goodness, can they get away with that here? I mean, it seemed like such an overtly religious expression. But it was thought to be a perfectly appropriate, normal kind of thing. ...

Matt Smith
An openly gay student at Spokane's Rogers High School, Smith is president of his class.

Spokane is known as a very conservative city, but it's becoming more liberal. It wants to be considered more of a beacon. There's been some talk about creating a gay district here, things like that. ... I was with my partner and we were walking through the mall, and we'd have people come up to us [and say], "Good job," you know, "Awesome, that takes a lot of courage to come out there and hold hands with your partner in this town." ... It's not like in other more conservative places where they'll completely damn you. They just won't say anything, and they'll still respect you. ...

Penny Lancaster
Director, Community Impact Spokane. Her group advocates for conservative Christian positions on social issues, including homosexuality.

I do see Spokane as a conservative community, that family is important to this community. ... That Spokane is a place where you can raise your family and that it's safe and that there are fun things to do as families here, and that it's family centered. ... Traditional values are important to many of the people in this community.

We don't want to be Seattle. We want people from Seattle to come to Spokane and go hiking, go skiing, stay in our hotels and walk through River Park Square and see the children playing, and bring their children. But we don't need to be Seattle. ...

[Tell me about your organization.]

I'm the director of Community Impact Spokane, and it is a network of concerned Christians, caring people that recognize the importance of defending the Judeo-Christian ethic in public policies, and especially on moral issues. ...

I believe that that is the greatest concern today, is our school system and the minds and hearts of our youth. That's where the battle is really being fought today. ... And it does feel like you're standing on a train track and there is this big train coming at you and you see the lights and you just want to hold up your hand and say, "Don't do this, don't crash through our city!" And somehow you'd like to put a bubble around Spokane and let Spokane be a safe and healthy place to raise families, like it has been more or less in the past.

Rich Hadley
President of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce. He worked with Mayor West on economic development.

I don't think you can call Spokane conservative when the community has been progressive in passing taxes on themselves for mental health and for child care and for transit and for street construction and a convention center, all within the last two years. Conservative to me means not wanting change, and I think the community is changing. ...

[But what about culture war issues?]

I think we've gone through a lot in this region around appreciating diversity. ... I think generally there's been a great awareness in the last five, six years especially ... around diversification as a community: race, religion, sexuality, the importance of everybody's part in our economy or everybody's part in our community fabric. ...

[What's changed?]

We're growing. We're becoming more global. ... It's because people are coming here from California especially and Seattle, from much more diverse populations than we are, and they're helping us become more diverse and more welcoming of diversity. I think it's a natural progression for the community that historically was fairly isolated. ... We've had a lot of development in that period of time, starting in about 1998 or so, and that development has brought a lot more interest in the community. Our downtown has improved dramatically, and that's brought a lot of people to the region, appreciating that, along with our quality of life.

Is the gay community becoming is more visible here as well?

Yes. I mean I think that's part of that diversity that's occurred. ... I think the gay community has become more active than they have in the past. ...

[Are there some people, though, who feel these changes aren't positive?]

Not really. I mean, are we any different than any other community? ... I'd say that there's more people in this community, at least in the circles of what the chamber [of commerce] works in, that are working to create a great city in Spokane that is welcoming of diversity than there are people standing at the other end of the spectrum and being disgruntled.

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posted nov. 14, 2006

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