Olympia LGBTQ+ History: In 1980, Cops Bust Local "Homosexual Ring" (AKA, allegedly gay men being consensually "lewd" with each other in public)

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Welcome to the Trans and Queer Generations blog! Along with providing updates and getting folks (like YOU!) involved in making Olympia’s LGBTQ+ community center happen, we’ll use this blog to highlight events and people in our Northwest queer and trans history.  In this post, we're casting back to the not-to-distant past to a time when three prominent Olympia men were arrested for, well, acting gay in public.  They were charged with misdemeanors, but their arrests led to all three of the men losing their jobs. 

Content Warning: This post contains references to police surveillance, arrests, specific acts of homophobia, and to unspecified "lewd conduct of a homosexual nature."

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Let's set the scene. If you live around Olympia, you can probably picture Capitol Lake. Now let’s go back in time a few decades to February of 1980.  Capitol Lake lake looked different back when you could still swim in the lake (perhaps while Queen, Michael Jackson and Blondie blared on your boom-box on the beach).

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The public bathrooms at the lake were larger to accommodate dressing rooms, and the Washington State Patrol didn’t have a satellite office by the bathrooms like they do now. But that’s hardly relevant for our task of imagining the scene at the lake back in February of 1980. The thing that stretches the imagination – oh, wait, maybe it doesn’t seem unusual at all --is that the Olympia Police Department has been staking out the bathrooms for at least two weeks.

What terrible crime led the OPD to spend so many public resources on this time-consuming surveillance during the coldest and rainiest time of the year?  The OPD received a tip that “homosexual activity” is taking place in the bathrooms at night. In fact, in an interview at the time, Olympia Chief of Police John Wurner said, “the bathhouse facility has attracted a homosexual ring involving a large number of persons.” (How many homosexuals does it take to make a "ring?") 

So for a few weeks, officers have been watching the bathrooms at night, taking notes, conferring with each other about who and what they've seen, and waiting for the right moment to do a bust.  

The OPD made their move late at night on Thursday, February 16. They arrested three men. All three were charged with a misdemeanor for “lewd conduct.”

Note that the charges weren’t specifically related to “homosexual activity,” because it wasn’t against the law to be homosexual, or to engage in “homosexual activity.”  In 1975, five years prior to the bathroom bust at Capitol Lake, Washington state repealed its law against consensual sodomy. (Starting In the mid-1900's, most state Sodomy laws were used to specifically target LGBTQ+ people, primarily gay men.)

From the reports of the time, we don’t really know what the men were doing in the bathroom. We don’t know if the men were gay, or if they identify as gay now, or if they thought of themselves as being gay at the time, or anything about their gender identities.  And really, it’s none of our business, is it?  (Of course, some of you reading this post might know more about the personal lives of these people.)

The OPD, according to interviews at the time, alleged that the men “engaged in lewd conduct of a sexual nature” and that “the activity was of a homosexual nature.” The three men charged with the misdemeanor were released after they each paid a bail of about $250. They were scheduled to appear a few weeks later before the Olympia Police Court, and didn’t have to go to trial.

That could have been it – the men pay bail so they don’t have to spend any time in jail, they pay a misdemeanor fine a few weeks later, and get back to their lives. All three of them were white men who could well afford an attorney. Unlike many more marginalized people targeted by law enforcement, they were able to skip jail-time and had the resources to potentially get through this situation almost unscathed. But because of the rampant state sanctioned homophobia of the time and our culture’s general obsession with sex (even consensual sex between adults), that's not the end of the story.

The bust received a lot of press, the men were publicly outed as being (allegedly) gay.  All three men had high profile public jobs.  All three quickly resigned or were "removed" from their positions.

Let’s step back a moment to think about LGBTQ+ rights in 1980. Across the U.S, it was legal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In Washington state, that type of discrimination wouldn't be banned until 26 years later, in 2006 (just 11 years ago!).  Of course, banning discrimination doesn't make it go away. It doesn't magically change long held hateful beliefs, prejudices, or practices.  Discrimination and hate are alive and well today, in spite of the fact that it's illegal in many cases. But we can safely say that along with being legal, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was more common, acceptable, and more often seen as being the “right” thing to do in 1980 than it is today.

Seattle Pride March (with counter protesters in front), circa 1977.  Capital City Pride in Olympia started in 1991.

Seattle Pride March (with counter protesters in front), circa 1977.  Capital City Pride in Olympia started in 1991.

Around the time of the bathroom bust, there was an small emerging movement attempt to pass non-discrimination laws in some cities (including Seattle) and states. This and many other factors (including the fact that homophobia and transphobia was/is a way of life) created an immense backlash against LGBTQ+ people. The Republican party, the Moral Majority and a slew of other conservative groups, and folks like Anita Bryant were amassing political, financial, and cultural power by loudly trumpeting their version of “family values” and verbally bashing LGBTQ+ folks. Ronald Reagan, elected in November of 1980, benefitted from the "moral panic" stirred up by conservatives. The sentiment of their fear-mongering can be summed up with a few quotes from Anita Bryant: "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children….if gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Barnards and to nail biters." And let's not miss this opportunity to see Anita getting pied by a gay activist while she's spouting hate...

At any rate, 1980 was not an easy time to be “loud and proud” about being anything but heterosexual and cisgender. The type of stakeout that the Olympia Police Department did in order to harass LGBTQ+ people wasn’t uncommon at the time, in Washington and other states. Trans people and people of color were impacted more harshly and at a greater rate. According to the Historic Highlights of Olympia Lesbian and Gay History (which mistakenly states that the bust happened in 1978), the bathroom bust followed a period of harassment and police targeting of gay men in Olympia.

The arrest of three men with high profile positions in the community meant that they were publicly outed as being gay in all of the press that the incident received.  (Even though, as mentioned above, their arrest for “lewd behavior of a homosexual nature” doesn’t necessarily mean they were gay.) In any case, all of the men felt they had to resign and get themselves and their workplaces out of the homophobic public eye as quickly as possible.

One of the men was Joseph Dean Gregorius, the Director of the Bureau of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, which was then a part of the Department of Social and Human Services. Reports from the time differ – some say that Gregorius was “removed” from his post, others say that he resigned. (I'm not naming this person, because his was the least high profile

Another was State Representative Eric Rohrbach, a Republican who represented the legislative district that included Kent, Burien, and Tukwila.  Rohrbach was living in Olympia at the time because the Legislature was in session. According to this bio, Rohrbach became a conservative activist in high school, was active in Young Republicans at Washington State University, and was elected a Reagan delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention. How did he reconcile his investment in the Republican Party with his interest in participating in "lewd conduct" with men in a public bathroom?

Rohrbach resigned a few days after his arrest, under public pressure and pressure from the Republican Caucus. His legislative district had to scramble to replace him so the people who had elected him could continue to have a a vote in the Legislature.  

Rohrbach kept out of the public spotlight for quite a while, and is now active again in Republican politics. His bio (from about 2012) on the website for the Washington Conservative Union (WCU) lists Rohrbach as the Vice Chairman of the WCU, and states that he is “a former Washington State Legislator and past National Treasurer of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms Political Victory Fund. Eric has worked in numerous campaigns and is currently a Campaign Consultant and Vice-chair of the 45th District (King County) Republicans." The Washington Conservative Union states that it supports free markets, limited government, and “traditional moral values.”

Rohrbach was also a delegate to the Republican National Convention for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. 

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Of the three people arrested that night, the one who had the highest profile in our community was Leopold “Rick” Schmidt, who was then the President and CEO of the Olympia Brewing Company.  He was the nephew of Leopold Friederich Schmidt, the German immigrant who founded the company in 1896.  (He was also related to Harriet Speckart, another heir to the Schmidt family fortune, who lived her life as an openly lesbian person in the early 1900's. We celebrate Harriet in this blog post. This isn't to say that "homosexuality" runs in the Schmidt family....if you could really look at any family tree, you're bound to find LGBTQ+ folks throughout the ages!)

Rick Schmidt took over leadership of the Olympia Brewing Company in 1974. The company had a high profile in our community, literally and figuratively.  The factory is huge, and the giant signs on the building advertised the beer, (and the popular daily tours of the factory) to all that passed by on I-5. Billboards and other places were plastered with Olympia beer advertising. There was a lot of community pride about the brewery, and the Schmidt family played a big role in the community. The factory itself employed more than 400 workers, and many other folks from regional barley farmers to truckers and local business owners were dependent on the company’s success and dollars.  

Olympia Beer also had a national profile: after being a NW regional brand for more than a half century, the company expanded in the in the late 60’s and 70’s to become one of the top 10 beers in sales in the U.S. owners were dependent on the company’s success and dollars.  

And of course, local and national TV advertising touted Olympia Beer, as well as celebrating the beauty and general awesomeness of the Northwest.  

Apparently the Schmidt family and Olympia Beer Company’s Board of Directors didn’t think that the public perception of the President being “gay” (and engaging in consensual "lewd" behavior in a nearly deserted public bathroom at night) fit in with their company’s image.  The company was struggling at the time (the family would end up selling it a few years later). From the Company’s advertising of the time, it looks like they were pitching Olympia Beer as being the beer for rugged outdoorsy straight men, men who could “make things with their own two hands,” and sporty heterosexual couples.

Schmidt resigned from his position within days, and lived a low-profile life after that.  His quick resignation didn’t prevent Olympia Beer as being known lovingly (by queers) or hatefully (by homophobes) as “Queer Beer” for a while.

The bathroom bust got a lot of press because of the prominence and privilege of the three men. What didn't get as much press are the countless untold stories of more marginalized LGBTQ+ people who suffered and continue to suffer because of discrimination and persecution. In some ways, this very blog post is a continuation of a white supremacist practice of focusing on the struggles of relatively privileged white people to the exclusion of people of color.  

And so that’s part of the story of how the Olympia Police Department spent at least two weeks surveilling the activity in a public restroom in order to arrest three prominent men allegedly engaging in consensual sexual activity, resulting in the (at least temporary) smashing of those men’s careers, and probably wreaking havoc in their public and personal lives.

The collateral damage is that the press and public consternation about this event undoubtedly gravely harmed other LGBTQ+ people in our community, because it reinforced the dangers of being "out."  However, this incident also galvanized some activists in Olympia to work harder to advance the rights of all LGBTQ+ people.  More on that in future posts!

 

 

Bryn Houghton