Power Lesbians

Queer women on top in the Emerald City.

JENNY DURKAN HAD "a moment of epiphany" as she stood with her partner outside their house waiting to greet Vice President Al Gore's motorcade. Next to the couple stood the mainland U.S.'s first Asian-American governor, Gary Locke, and his wife, Mona Lee Locke. Two lesbians and an Asian-American couple are greeting the vice president, Durkan thought with pride. "I don't think that would happen in many places in the country."

Seattle is famous for walking the talk when it comes to racial diversity and elected officials. Last year, in its exhaustive series on race, The New York Times featured an article on our overwhelmingly white electorate's colorblind voting when it comes to officials like Locke, King County Executive Ron Sims, and former Mayor Norm Rice.

No less striking is our region's shattering of glass ceilings when it comes to lesbians. In recent memory, we have had out lesbians serving as deputy mayors, as City Councillors, in the governor's cabinet, as city librarian, as head of the Utilities and Transportation Commission, on the Washington State Bar Board of Governors, as Superior Court judges, and on the UW's Board of Regents.

How did the highest levels of our public service become so inclusive? Are we different from other places in America? How have lesbian leaders changed our public policy and transformed our institutions?

Before we consider those questions, check out this lineup of power players:

Shelly Yapp: The tough-talking, combative public official has held a variety of posts over the last 30 years, including deputy mayor under Charles Royer and head of the Pike Place Market. In the latter position, she gets both credit and criticism for dragging the Market into the 21st century. She is a member of the UW Board of Regents, the group that governs our most prestigious public university, and works in management at Seattle Center.

Tina Podlodowski: After making her fortune at Microsoft, she stormed on the political scene and won election in 1995 to the Seattle City Council. On council she became known for her frankness, sense of humor, and feuds with other council members. She championed high-tech causes such as modernizing the city's financial systems and innovations in the city's cable franchise, as well as a variety of gay and lesbian causes. In 1999 she decided not to seek re-election in order to spend more time with her two children. She now heads PodVentures, an investment company with holdings in new media and early stage Internet businesses. Yet she acknowledges that her political career is not over, just on hiatus.

Anne Levinson: A soft-spoken neatnik, Levinson loves politics and has a long record of public service and activism. She delights in dropping quiet zingers into conversations, like "We worked on a strategy to bring back downtown"—referring to when, as deputy mayor under Norm Rice, she played a key role in the controversial deal that brought Nordstrom's headquarters and Pacific Place Mall to Pine Street. She served in the Royer administration as the mayor's counsel and as head of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. Today she's a municipal court judge in charge of developing the city's mental health court.

Deborah Jacobs: Every inch of the warm, effusive Jacobs is a librarian (there's a mom in there, too, proud of her son's entrance into Yale). In 1996, as head of the city's libraries, Jacobs led the successful effort to pass the largest library bond in U.S. history, which designated $196 million to renovate and build new libraries in every corner of the city.

Sherry Harris: As the first out African-American lesbian to be elected to public office in the U.S., Harris served four years on the City Council, from 1991 to 1995. She describes her experience as a difficult one, claiming she challenged the status quo and found many people couldn't get past the fact that she was a woman, an African American, and a lesbian. She had fans, who felt she was more responsive to neighborhood needs than many of the downtown development crowd on council, and critics, who labeled her ineffective. She lost her re-election bid in 1995, made a comeback try two years later, but lost the general election. Now she is writing a book, Politics for the New Millennium: Changing the World from the Inside Out.

Jenny Durkan: While politics is in her blood (her dad, state Sen. Martin Durkan, has held various important leadership positions in the Democratic Party) Durkan has made her living primarily in the rough-and-tumble, male-dominated world of litigation, first as a criminal defense attorney and now in the civil area. Along the way, the charismatic redhead has kept her political fires burning by serving as the governor's counsel under Mike Lowry, helping to pick federal judges for former President Bill Clinton, being the first civilian to serve on the Police Firearms Review Board, and hosting numerous fund-raisers. Durkan is unhappy with the leadership of Mayor Paul Schell and strongly considered opposing him this year—until greeted by the happy news of her partner's second pregnancy. The couple now has two sons.


Observers trace the city's gay friendliness to many different roots: the social openness of the West Coast, the individuality of a port city, even the independence of pioneer women. But specific legislation got rolling in 1973, when Seattle passed the first U.S. law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in jobs. Former City Council member Jeanette Williams, who sponsored the legislation, links the legislation to her "dedication to women's issues." Williams was holding a hearing on legislation protecting women from discrimination when a young man stepped to the mike and said, "You have not included the gay communities.'" Williams realized he had a point, and, with the support of Mayor Wes Uhlman and a key member of his staff, Shelly Yapp, the law "sailed right on through." In 1975, Seattle outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing.

Five years later, the first wave of post-Stonewall anti-gay backlash—led by orange juice queen Anita Bryant—swept the county and entered Seattle as Initiative 13, an effort to repeal Williams' anti-discrimination laws. Charlie Brydon, now vice chair of the Washington State Board of Tax Appeals, was a leader in the successful effort to protect Williams' legislation. "After Initiative 13 [was defeated], the message went out. It attracted a lot of people. Seattle became an immensely comfortable place for gays and lesbians to live and work."

Seattle University professor Gary Atkins, who is writing a history of gays and lesbians in Washington state, agrees. "After that, gays and lesbians were part of the Seattle conversation," he says.

As our civic conversation developed, Seattle continued to lead on gay and lesbian issues, according to most observers. Judge Levinson says, "We are viewed nationally as a very tolerant community. We have more people in position of authority who are openly gay." Former City Council member Podlodowski agrees. She gives the example of her kids' grade school, where the head of the parents' association is an out lesbian. "That's very Seattle," she says, laughing. "That kind of change hasn't come to the Midwest." Podlodowski also believes that the fact that she and Harris could win City Council seats as out lesbians encouraged other candidates to run in other cities, including New York, Atlanta, and Houston.


The results of these women's leadership are as broad and varied as the women themselves. But their most obvious collective legacy is the web of civil rights protections enjoyed by Seattle's queer communities—from anti-discrimination measures for transgendered people to domestic partner benefits, not only for city workers, but also for the employees of firms that want to win contracts with city government. Harris observes, "We have every law a local municipality can have in terms of preventing discrimination."

While some of the women—Levinson, Yapp, Podlodowski, and Harris—worked directly on the drafting and passage of these laws, others were "behind the scenes: peddling influence and raising money," quips Podlodowski.

Many of these leaders championed issues that were unique, according to Professor Atkins. They "put different issues on the agenda: gay family issues," he says. Things like domestic partner benefits, rights of survivorship, positive books about gays and lesbians in the public schools, adoption, custody issues, and concerns about gay and lesbian elders, benefited immeasurably from these women's efforts.

At the beginning of the second wave of feminism, activists hypothesized that, as women—and, specifically, lesbians—began to shatter glass ceilings, they would change the way that power was exercised and fundamentally alter our primary institutions in important ways.

People are divided on whether that has happened. "We have adopted the more effective tools of the patriarchy," says Podlodowski. She believes this group of women has operated inside government effectively by mastering the rules of the game and by playing it well—not by trying to change the game. By concentrating on a broad range of areas and realizing that "the more you shut up, the more you actually accomplish something," they have become well known as effective leaders for the entire community, she argues. Her friend Durkan says there have been "more changes effected on the women than on the institutions."

Professor Atkins tentatively agrees: "My gut level response is that power shapes people more than people shape power." He asks rhetorically, "Did [Podlodowski] operate in a different fashion than a male City Council member?"

Librarian Jacobs and Judge Levinson strongly disagree. They do not feel their sexual identity has shaped the way they exercise power but believe their gender is key. Both of them stress the importance of consensus in their management style. "The most important thing [as a manager] is to create an incredibly supportive, nurturing workplace," says Jacobs. She believes this has a radicalizing effect on the values of society, and adds that she has been practicing it since she assumed leadership of her Brownie troop.

Levinson says her goals and style have been consistent over the years: "Everybody gets a seat at the table. Make sure everybody has a voice." She continues, "Try to resolve conflict and fix the problem, rather than engage in the fight."

Professor Christine Di Stefano, director of UW's Center for Women and Democracy, cautiously sides with Levinson and Jacobs. There is "some evidence to suggest when women become a certain proportion, around one-third, of legislative bodies, they do begin to exercise power differently—more collaboratively [and] soliciting a greater variety of viewpoints. Women are more likely to put items on the agenda that have to do with families and children, but also with women-specific issues such as sex discrimination and reproductive freedom." But Di Stefano is quick to remind us, "There is plenty of evidence that women don't agree about anything. [There are] liberals, conservatives, radicals, and reactionaries—and very different leadership styles."

Despite their differences, this group of lesbians has shaped our city in many significant ways. And these women will play very important roles in our city's future. Will Seattle be the first city to elect an out lesbian mayor? It's a powerful possibility.


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