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Roger Winters, who gave keynote at first Seattle Pride, remembered for lifetime of LGBTQIA civil rights work

By Renee Raketty

Seattle mourned the passing of Roger Winters, an early pioneer in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. He passed away this week in his Shoreline home after suffering a recent bout of pneumonia. The former Capitol Hill resident and property owner was 75 years old.

“The Seattle community — and the world at large — lost a true champion for gay rights with his passing,” said Krystal Marx, Executive Director of Seattle Pride. “Roger’s decades of advocacy and political savvy helped to propel LGBTQIA+ rights forward in a way we would not have had without his involvement.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed. In a written statement to CHS, she spoke of his relentless efforts to obtain equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. “Roger Winters worked for decades to ensure the dignity, rights and true equality for LGBTQ individuals. His voice and personal courage were unflagging over the almost 30 years that it took for LGBTQ people to get civil rights legislation,” said Durkan. “In the last four years, we have seen that these rights are far from guaranteed. This administration has directly targeted the transgender community and critical LGBTQ protections. In just the last few weeks, a U. S. Supreme Court Justice stated that hard fought wins for LGBTQ equality should be rolled back, and that some discrimination against LGBTQ individuals is a constitutional right. To honor the memory of Roger Winters and all of the other LGBTQ leaders we have lost this year, we must continue to fight.”

Susan Priebe, who met Winters in 2002 and became close friends, spoke with me to discuss Winters’ passing. She has agreed to handle his affairs on behalf of his family.

“Roger was deeply intellectual and also a fun-loving character — going from a profound philosophical statement one minute, to singing a ditty from a 50’s sitcom the next. He was a very loving and caring person, spending hours upon hours of personal time on issues and projects to improve everyone’s lives,” she said. “Roger was an insanely involved person, politically astute, a creative soul, and a very devout atheist… In the LGBT arena alone, Roger was involved with many groups from 1977 through the rest of his life.”

“Roger was a go-to leader and pioneer who helped pave the way for LGBTQ equality,” former Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said.

Winters grew up in a conservative Christian household in Indianapolis and spent time on farms during his youth. He attended Indiana University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government. He went on to attend Harvard University on a fellowship where he became a Senior Tutor at Dudley House on campus and, later, graduated with honors in Political Science. He became an intern for Senator Birch E. Bayh, Jr., a Democrat from Indiana. In 1972, he joined the faculty of Central Washington University, where he was a Assistant Professor of Political Science. It was here, when he became involved in Seattle politics. He traveled from Kittitas County, where CWU is located, to attend board meetings of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in Seattle.

“We white boys started out conservative because we were invisible enough to pass in a gay-unfriendly world,” Winters wrote to me in a text on March 23, 2019, while discussing his upbringing and personal growth. “Those of us who got active recognized that other people who couldn’t or wouldn’t pass were really needing the legal protection and anti-discrimination [law] we were after but we didn’t understand their point of view. We embraced diversity and sought to be inclusive.”

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I first met Winters at a rally for marriage equality that had been organized by the Legal Marriage Alliance on Valentine’s Day in 1997. However, it wouldn’t be until several years later when the two of us became reacquainted. As a young reporter for the Seattle Gay Standard and, later, the Seattle Gay News, I got to know Winters personally. Over the years, he became a valuable source for historical information for my stories and a close personal friend. I will cite his text messages and some unpublished work he shared with me over the last two decades.

Winters wrote to me in an email on July 7, 2020, that he wanted to share pages of his autobiography that he was working on to be “sure you have access to what I have pulled together” because “you never know” what can happen. He described his autobiography as a “combination of recollections and copies of speeches, articles, and memos of note.” He added that he was “not sure what it’s value will be but it’s feeling good to put it together.” On April 22, 2019, he confided he was at 100 pages. On May 28, 2019, he said he had reached 300 pages. On July 11, 2020, he was at 500 pages.

In 1977, Winters traveled to Olympia to testify in support of what became known as the Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill, which extended legal protections to members of the state’s LGBTQIA+ community. The measure was finally passed in 2006. That same year, he joined The Dorian Group, a statewide LGBTQIA+ rights organization, as their Office Manager.

“I had friends who remembered him from the Dorian Group, who talked about his early work there as inspiring,” said Dave Kaplan, a political consultant and former mayor of the City of Des Moines. “He provided thoughtful leadership to so many of our organizations over the years.

“While his passing is yet another huge loss for our community in the span of the past year, it is his life’s work that will be remembered in the history of queer Seattle.”

Winters also co-chaired the first candidate evaluation committee for the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee (SEAMEC), when it was formed in 1977. The organization rates a candidate’s knowledge, actions and understanding of the concerns of the LGBTQIA+ community. After a couple of years as the Steering Committee Co-chair, he took a break before returning again this year to evaluate candidates ahead of the 2020 elections. In a text on July 23, 2019, Winters confided that SEAMEC was “[m]y favorite child.”

Winters went on to help form what became called Citizens to Retain Fair Employment. The group and a loose coalition of like-minded organizations and allied politicians defeated Initiative 13, which would have eliminated new employment and housing protections for the LGBTQIA+ community in Seattle. The initiative was defeated by a notable 63.5% “No” vote.

He gave the keynote speech at the first Seattle Pride Parade and Rally in 1980, which was held on Capitol Hill and was principally staged along Broadway and Volunteer Park. Winters later wrote an article about the historic event for the Seattle Gay News’ 2020 Pride special edition.

Winters had a column in the SGN during the 1980’s called “Winters’ Watch.” Here he discussed issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community. On July 11, 2020, as events were unfolding between police and Black Lives Matter protesters outside the East Precinct in Seattle, Winters noted that he had written about the planning of the precinct, which now resides at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street. He sent copies of a Winters’ Watch column he wrote and also a clipping in the SGN of a letter to the editor he wrote, date unknown. It appears he initially opposed placing the precinct on Capitol Hill but changed his opinion after working with police and offering to give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Winters was living at 1221 East Olive Street at the time, just a block away from the proposed site for the police precinct. In this excerpt of Winter’s Watch, published in the SGN on March 12, 1982, he discussed the proposed police precinct: “There would really be no problem about locating a police precinct station at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street were it not for history and a failure to act decisively based on knowledge of that history,” he wrote.

Winters went on to help form the “Police-gays Task Force,” in the 80’s. The effort aimed to reduce police violence against gays in Seattle and to improve relations with the police. He wrote in a text while discussing unrest on Capitol Hill on July 7, 2020, that it wasn’t exactly “a gay Lives Matter movement” but “it was motivated by concern over gay lives and violence against them and it was work that involved confronting issues we had vs. the police.”

In his unpublished autobiography, Winters explained what had led up to the establishment of the Task Force. He said that the bouncer at the Brass Door was murdered outside the bar during the summer of 1980. Likewise, Lowell Barger, a friendly local who published a regular bar-based newsletter, had been beaten by a gang that he encountered in Kinnear Park in the Queen Anne neighborhood earlier that summer.

“I do not recall exactly the year, but a dear man, the Lady Greytop, was found murdered in his Capitol Hill apartment,” Winters wrote. “There was also awareness and fear of police behavior toward openly gay people.

“Around this same time, as I recall, some friends were pressing for more police work around a murder of a young gay man who had taken someone home with him from a bar and was later found murdered in his apartment. They were concerned that the police did not seem to take the matter too seriously.

“In the context of all this dramatic violence against gays, Mayor Charles Royer directed Chief of Police Patrick Fitzsimons to convene a group to focus attention on safety for the LGBT community in Seattle. This was the order which gave rise to a four-year commitment I made to be part of the “Police-gays Task Force.”

The Task Force began meeting in the fall of 1980 and met monthly until 1984. An official brochure and a list of Lesbian and Gay community organizations involved with “Stop Assaults on Gay People: A Crime Prevention Drive” would be produced. On Sunday, February 24, 1985, the first sensitivity training for police about the LGBTQIA+ community was held.

“The meetings of the Task Force were always interesting, frequently difficult, and we persisted for a long time because, all other things aside, we all cared about what we were doing and we wanted to help real people in practical ways to go about their lives and be safer and less likely to be a victim of crime,” Winters had written. “After this crime prevention brochure was published, I had occasion to be assaulted on my way home from The Axel Rock.”

Winters joined the Board of the Pride Foundation in 1985. He sought to grow the organization’s capacity to improve the lives of the LGBTQIA+ community in the Pacific Northwest. Today, the Foundation continues to provide scholarships to LGBTQIA+ students and awards grants to LGBTQIA+ organizations and projects, among other initiatives.

“Roger’s dedication and determination laid the foundation for most of the legal protections we have today and his efforts with the Pride Foundation ensured that LGBTQ folk across the region, in towns large and small, were supported and didn’t feel isolated and alone,” said Kaplan.

A decade later, Winters co-founded the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington in 1995 to further the cause of marriage equality for LGBTQIA+ Washingtonians. State Senator Jamie Pedersen says he “worked closely” with him in the mid-90s while serving on the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington’s Board of Directors.

“He was way ahead of the times — a visionary — who had been through the wars on LGBTQ civil rights from Dorian Society times onward. I will miss him,” he said.

Dave Horn, an attorney who once chaired the Legal Committee for the Legal Marriage Alliance and held the position of President of The Privacy Fund, shared his reflections about Winters.

“I got to know Roger 25 years ago when we were both active in the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington. He was one of the founders, along with John Wilkinson, Jamie Pedersen and others,” he recalled. “Roger was wicked smart and held strong opinions but was always kind, gentle and soft-spoken in manner. I’m sure he felt the same anger the rest of us did at discrimination against LGBTQ people, but Roger fought fire with logic and could remain calm and cool in any discussion. He also exuded a warmth that always made me feel welcome.”

According to Priebe, who has been going through his extensive personal collection of local LGBT historical memorabilia and copies of his written accounts of local LGBTQIA+ history, he also took part in many other efforts.

He had been appointed by Seattle Mayor Charles Royer as a Commissioner of the Seattle Women’s Commission. In 1988, he co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Association of King County Employees. In 1990, he was the treasurer of Seattle Gay Democrats. He served as a volunteer coordinator for the Tacky Tourist Club’s “Queen City Cruise” — where Roger was the only paying attendee who had been a participant of the Cruise every year since the beginning in 1981. Roger also assisted the Northwest Lesbian/Gay History and Museum Project in conducting interviews with longtime LGBTQIA+ community members. More recently, he assisted in the development of a board structure for the Lavender Rights Project.

His accomplishments extend beyond the LGBTQ community. Winters was the Electronic Court Records Manager for the King County Department of Judicial Administration (Superior Court Clerk) in Seattle. Before his retirement in 2008, he was instrumental in the implementation and development of techniques and standards for court filing and storage. He was involved in several work related organizations and had previously served as President of the American Records and Management Association. In 2007, he was among a group at King County that was awarded the “Innovation in American Government” award from Harvard University. Winters recently took a job as a supervisor in the 2020 U.S. Census but expressed concern to me as COVID-19 complicated his efforts.

Earlier this month, Winters was admitted into Swedish Edmonds for treatment of pneumonia. He was released after a short stay and returned to his home. Police conducted a welfare check after he missed his weekly online bridge game with a friend.

Winters is preceded in death by his father Donald E. Winters; his biological mother Edna Pauline Winters; his step-mother Halcyon Eileen Winters; and his older brother Larry D. Winters. He is survived by his sister Deborah Eileen Winters and several cousins.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made in his honor to the Pride Foundation.

Winters was a popular guest during efforts to record the oral history of the LGBTQIA+ people in Washington. In 1997, he was interviewed by the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History and Museum Project. In 2014, he was again interviewed by the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington. The Legacy Project uploaded their interview with Winters to YouTube just six months ago.

“Roger seemed to possess a vast store of documents and photos from the [LGBTQIA+] civil rights movement and often posted excerpts on Facebook,” said Horn. “He made history and kept track of it at the same time.”

“I gained my understanding of how politics works from the activists who fought for the state gay rights bill; built ways to learn about candidates and office holders; developed an effective non-profit foundation to turn our community’s resources into grants and scholarships; and did the hard work of learning, educating, and achieving real benefits for people through domestic partnerships and, ultimately, marriage equality,” Winters wrote in a message to me last month.

“As we said in The Dorian Group in the 1970s, ‘Together, we get results!’ As I like to say today, together, we make shit happen!”

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5 months ago

Thank you for being a part of remembering Roger.

Bruce Portwood
Bruce Portwood
5 months ago

I met Roger when I first moved to Seattle in 2000 and became friends almost instantly. He then became someone I looked up to like a father. I found myself going to him for advice and sometimes would give it even when I didn’t think I needed it, but I always listened. He was extremely giving, loving and generally cared for everyone he knew and didn’t know. My life here in Seattle and in general is a much brighter one for knowing him . Not long ago but a few months ago I was able to tell him this in one of our little pow-wow’s and thank him for everything he’s done for me and has helped me get through. He told me that there was no thanks needed and that he was happy he could help. He’s has helped me become a better person and I believe he knows it to. Thank you Roger for being my friend. Sadly you will be missed but remembered fondly. R.I.P.