Flag atop the Space Needle

Travel Guide: Experiencing Queer Culture in Seattle

The Emerald City is more than just the “coffee capital of America,” though PNW baristas do make a mean cup of joe; Seattle is also home to one of the biggest LGBTQ+ populations in the U.S. I moved here in 2017 and am constantly in awe of the city’s warm attitude toward all. “Bested” only by San Francisco, this gem of the Pacific North West has a gay community strong-in-numbers and a queer culture evolution that spans centuries. So, if you’re considering a move or just passing through, brush up on your queer Seattle history and get ready to drop a pin in some of the rainy city’s most iconic queer culture landmarks. 

A Brief History of Queer Culture in Seattle 

Flag atop the Space Needle
LGBTQ+ Pride Flag atop the space needle. uw.edu

 

In the late 1800s, Seattle was full of ‘transient’ folk. Timber workers, fishermen and migrant professionals moved in and out of the area post-haste; each bound to need a place to rest their heads and wet their whistles for a night or two. The area we now call Pioneer Square was then made up of halfway houses, brothels, gambling joints, and pubs where wayward men and women found comfort in each others’ company and lying with your fellow man, woman, or non-binary traveler was seen as the norm for those in the know. Many say this is when Seattle’s underground queer culture was born.

Greater visibility, and the crystallization of the queer community in Seattle, came with the onset of WWII. The close quarters of service for men, and the intimacy of war factory work for women, made it easier for queer folk to find one another. And as a port city, Seattle welcomed hundreds of navy men a week and participated actively in the industrialization of war. The LGBTQ+ population grew in the Emerald city. And the number of queer venues grew along with it. 

The transcontinental rail line and subsequent dissemination of Christo-centric values muddied public perception of same sex relationships. The word ‘sodomy’ became common rhetoric and from the 1890s well into 1900s, being a sexually active LGBTQ+ person was punishable in most courts of law and, unfortunately, the Emerald City was no exception. But still, LGBTQ+ folk found a way to create spaces to call their own…

Turn of the 20th Century 

Owned by Joseph Berllotti, the Casino Pool Room was one of the first gay-friendly businesses in the U.S.

Safe under a blanket of “protection money,” Joseph Bellotti’s Casino Pool Room on Washington St. was one of the first establishments on the West Coast to cater almost exclusively to gay men. Here, same-sex couples could dance in the open. On First Street, a post WWII cabaret called The Garden of Allah was a haven for transgender folk. And The Tenderloin district (now, Pioneer Square) offered many lesbian friendly haunts. In spaces like these, LGBTQ+ culture was alive and well, but still kept behind closed doors. 

On the 28th of June, 1969 patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City rose up against police brutality and the singling out of queer owned and frequented establishments. What is now know as the Stonewall Riots marked day one of the Gay Liberation Movement.

A hard-won battle (fought up hill), the movement found the most momentum in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The Riots became an anniversary and catalyst for change. In the 70’s, the city outlawed orientation-based bias in jobs and housing. 1981 brought the Greater Seattle Business Association. The GSBA’s mission, promote queer-owned business in the city and turn Capitol Hill into a paradigm of LGBTQ+ culture. 1979 saw the opening of the United States’ first transgender center, the Ingersoll Gender Center, by Seattle local Marsha Botzer. In 1987 Cal Anderson, an openly gay man, was elected to WA State Legislature.

 

Queer Culture Hotspots and Events 

Capitol Hill 

Seattle’s gay epicenter, rainbow crosswalks guide you from street to street in this neighborhood just east of down town. Pony is a fantastic queer-inclusive bar and lounge with a long history and magnetic atmosphere; stop by during the day for a cool drink and chats on the patio, or at night for karaoke and cocktails. If in the mood for a more active adventure, the Hill is also home to fantastic queer owned establishments like Hallie Kuperman’s Century Ballroom where guests can take single, partner, or group ballroom classes. As a paragon for inclusion, Hallie started the Ballroom to serve all members of the Cap. Hill community and beyond, for instance holding memorials, blood drives, and craft nights beyond a lively swing class, a visit here is bound to be a good time for body and soul.

 Couples dancing at Century Ballroom in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. centuryballroom.com

 

‘Round the corner from Century Ballroom, travelers will find The Tin Table bar and lounge, also owned by Hallie Kuperman. Quench your thirst and chat with fellow dancers; Tin Table offers great food (friendly to most food plans), fantastic conversation, and excellent atmosphere. If you’re looking for even more queer-owned eateries and drink joints in the Gayborhood, Marination Station on Harvard Ave is an excellent place to pick up some Hawaiian-Korean fusion and Julia’s on Broadway is the chosen one for many who are after light eats and a soft, themed atmosphere. And coffee, oh coffee, how could we forget her? Cap. Hill. also has the ultimate draw of holding nearly a third of the city’s most highly rated coffee shops and roasteries, read on for just a few, in the Gayborhood and beyond.

Coffee

At the best of times and at the worst of times, she is every Seattleites closest friend and confidant. Le café. Analog Coffee has one of the best cold brews between here and Boston. And just down the street, Espresso Vivace has a great latte and offers the quintessential modern-industrial feel Settle’s roasteries are known for. And on that note, Capitol Hill is also home to a Starbucks Reserve Roastery. I always plan on

Pride Flag and Starbuck Mermaid
Pride Flag atop Starbucks clock tower uw.edu / queer culture 

staying here for at least an hour or two to grab a coffee flight and chat with the baristas about the specialty roasts and equipment they have on hand.

 

Pride Parade 

Like most other big cities in the U.S., Seattle holds an annual Pride Parade to celebrate the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. Something very special about Seattle Pride; its been held on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots every year since 1974. The very first Seattle Pride Parade fell between the 25th and 30th of June, kicked off with an open dialogue event sponsored by the Stonewall Recovery Center. This, followed by many more queer-centric events and a march down Main. The nurturing content and joyful spirit of the original pride still stands today! The weekend always opens with nonprofit and advocacy organized events, middled by Cap. Hill focused parties and always capped off by city-wide pride. 

 

Seattle's First Pride Parade (1974) queer culture Seattle
Seattle’s First Pride Parade (1974) uw.edu

This year, things look a little different and the parade is ‘going virtual’. The city’s small loss is everyone else’s enormous gain because anyone, in Seattle and beyond, can join in on the fun via the Hopin platform. So, log on in your PJs and bop to Mary Lambert while browsing digital donation ‘tables,’ its a judgement free zone. All are welcome and “digital doesn’t mean ‘boring'” so come ready for a wonderful time.

Seattle’s Pride Fest is another big draw for the area’s queer community. This event is a little big different from the longer-held parade in that it doesn’t travel along a parade route (though part of the Fest is what’s been affectionately dubbed ‘The Dyke March,’) but instead acts as a space for queer artists to perform, sell art pieces, and gather with fellow members of the community in the Seattle Center. As well as being an event, PrideFest is a verified 501c3 nonprofit organization that lifts LGBTQ+ creators up year round by holding in-person and online rallies and fundraisers.

Seattle’s Queer Arts 

The Factory is a small Cap. Hill exhibit space, aptly named after Andy Warhol’s studio. The intimate display area is on the top floor of Pound Arts at  1216 10th Ave. and frequently showcases LGBTQ+ artists. I’ve been lucky enough to stop by The Factory a few times for events but the gallery is almost always open for walk-ins too.  

One of my favorite art spaces sits comfortably atop a hill in Seattle’s Freemont neighborhood. Lilith Tattoo is a parlor and exhibit space owned and operated by LGBTQ+ business folk and artists. And, Lilith’s proprietor, Jude, is just as culturally sensitive as they are talented. When you walk into the studio or browse the website, you’ll see signage acknowledging the business location: “Unceded Coast Salish Territories of the Duwamish People.” All of the studio’s artists are also LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals that will do whatever they can to make their clients feel comfortable, and in the studio’s front gallery, you’ll find art pieces by local BIPOC queer artists.  

Gay City, Seattle’s LGBTQ+ Center, is another frequent gathering place for queer arts and artists. The center was founded in 1995 with the

Photo of leader Tiare Feterika Chanel
 Gallery, Gay City  https://www.gaycity.org/gender-gems/   

goal of building a community that was “stronger than HIV.” As they come up on their 25th year, Gay City is formatting their efforts to cater to BIPOIC people and the other highly marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community. Right now, their main gallery space on East Pike St. is showcasing the stories and works of trans elders. Highlighted this month is the life of Tiare Feterika Chanel. 

Volunteer 

Truly getting to know a new community is made even more rich by diving in and offering your time to a meaningful cause. Seattle has no shortage of LGBTQ+ youth centers, homes for displaced queer people, and nonprofit human rights organizations. All of these places will be welcoming volunteers again when its safe to do so. 

Lambert House is a LGBTQ+ youth and queer culture center that offers services to queer and questioning folk ages 11-22. If you want to volunteer here, you can apply on their website. Their vetting process is kept quite extensive to keep their members safe and comfortable and they like volunteers to commit to a year of service. Lambert House’s work is important and so fulfilling; very much worth any extra time committed. Gay City: Seattle’s LGBTQ+ Center also has spaces for volunteers in their Wellness Center, Library, and office spaces. Here, they ask that volunteers move through their interview and vetting process before getting to work. After approval you’ll choose a role that suits your skills and schedule or Gay City will assign you to an area that needs the extra hands. 

Most LGBTQ+ centers will ask that you get in touch well in advance of the time you’d like to volunteer. For that reason, short term visitors might not have the space in their trip to donate time which is absolutely fine. Many centers have galleries you can visit to experience queer art or offer walkthroughs and tours of facilities for those who are curious about where their help might be most needed in the future. 

Volunteering lets you experience the soft underbelly of spaces and cultures traditional tourism may not involve. Making a habit of offering aid in the places you visit can add a totally new dynamic to every trip. 

Significance of Queer Spaces and Events to LGBTQ+ History and Culture

Navy men, couple photo, queer culture in Seattle
Navy couple. From ‘Loving’ available at Seattle’s Elliot Bay book company.

In Seattle and beyond, queer-centric areas and events act, for many, as a refuge. In the 1930s it was Bellotti’s Casino Pool Room or First Street’s Garden of Allah. Queer folk in the Seattle of today look to Hallie Kuperman’s Century Ballroom or Gay City on Pike. Though names and faces change, the importance of community remains steadfast. Places where LGBTQ+ folk can come together safely offer an incredible opportunity for learning more about those that are different from you while settling into the comfort borne from knowing you will not be judged. The continued flourishing of queer-owned businesses, pride parades, and queer-inclusive art spaces means the continued exposure of queer culture to those outside of the community. And exposure garners acceptance. By maintaining these spaces we also acknowledge the all-important work done by those that came before. 

The most brilliant dance, music, physical arts, speech and politics are often ‘forged in fire,’ but it is also true that they blossom and grow in safety. Spaces and events like those listed above cultivate comfortability and safeguard the culture of vulnerable, often marginalized, groups. I highly encourage all, passers by and “mossbacks” alike, to make experiencing Seattle’s LGBTQ+ hot spots a priority. Past offering fantastic company, enriching activities, and incredible works of art, visiting any one of these spaces will often give you the opportunity to directly impact the quality of life for many LGBTQ+ folk through self-education, artistic enrichment, and spreading the word about queer-founded events. 

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