A Pioneer Passes
by Jim Kepner
a gay rights pioneer remembered by his friends
©1997 by Homosexual Information Center, Inc.
Jim Schneider, Chairman
Second Printing, revised
Assembled, edited, and composed by Joseph Hansen
Laguna Beach, CA
Movements forget most pioneers. Donald Rutherford Slater 1 proudly marched out of step and acidly criticized those who ignored his ideals.
Don died in Los Angeles on February 14, 1997, from an infected heart-valve implant. Survived by Tony Reyes, his partner of 51 years, by many friends and Homosexual Information Center board members, Don pioneered on many fronts.
Impatient with Mattachine discussion groups in 1951–53, he insisted we needed to get our message out. In November, 1952, Don helped found ONE, America’s first openly distributed homosexual magazine. When the editor, Ann Carll Reid, resigned in poor health in 1957, Don took over as editor. 2
A USC graduate in Library Science 3, Don had helped many skid row Gays, and [delighted in] ignoring traffic tickets, spending time in jail for this. He denied the government’s right to regulate his life, or that of ONE, Incorporated, and sued the postmaster who held up ONE Magazine’s October 1954 issue as obscene. His victory in the Supreme Court cleared the way for today’s Gay and Lesbian press.
By Spring of 1965, Dorr Legg had gained control of ONE, Inc. To break that stifling control, Don, on an attorney’s advice…cleaned out ONE’s offices, and moved them to new quarters. Said the attorney, this would put the burden of proof on Dorr, who had just forced ONE’s editors to resign. Most of these editors joined Don.
Rival issues of ONE Magazine appeared on news stands for several months. Don’s were bright and creative, Dorr’s dull. Suits and counter-suits followed; Don, adroit and flexible in court, came out [keeping] much of the original collection [library and archives], but had to change the name of his magazine to Tangents, and incorporate as the Homosexual Information Center. Tangents carried exciting news of the late 1960s, while Dorr’s ONE carped at new trends. Don’s HIC newsletters in later years took up that carping.
Don helped launch the National Conference of Homophile Organizations and the Western Regional Conferences 1966. He worked to reverse the anti-Gay bias of the American Civil Liberties Union. That same year he led a motorcade through the streets of Los Angeles, protesting exclusion of Gays from the armed forces. One of our first skilled draft counsellors, he pushed a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, which backfired when [inductees opposed to the Vietnam war] claimed to be Gay to avoid the service.
He considered the word “gay” a cop-out, insisted we protect our right to privacy at all costs, and jokingly called “coming out” simply “parading our perversion before the public.” To those who considered homosexuality a perversion, Don pointed out that Kinsey had shown that most men engaged in our kind of “perverted” sex at some point in their lives, and we had a right to express our preference, if we drew our blinds.
He picketed the Los Angeles Times, when they refused to run ads for the early 1969 play Geese, and organized after-the-play discussions with the audience. 4 He encouraged politicians to seek our [the Gay] vote, and picketed a meeting of ONE that supported a homophobic councilman. He hosted the first Gay Liberation Front meetings in L.A. at Tangents offices in Cahuenga Pass.
When we picketed Barney’s Beanery to protest its notorious “Fagots Keep Out” sign, 5 Don supported the owner’s right to choose his customers. …Don defined movement goals narrowly, and when the movement changed, his criticism was relentless, in testy pieces written for the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. After Health Department epidemiologists used police to trace VD contacts, Don chastised [Gay] groups who worked with the Health Department, denying that any ailments could affect only Gays.
Don was mugged and badly beaten leaving the Hollywood Boulevard offices of HIC one night. Heart implant surgery in 1979 brought him a brush with death. He scorned films and computers, shared a Victorian house with Tony and pets, tended his tree-shaded garden, went up to Colorado to ski, and despite his heart, climbed to his steep rooftop to make repairs. His trailblazing should be honored, though the movement has downgraded the principles he valued. Don was knowledgeable, charming, and fun, one of the last of our true pioneers.
©1997, 2017 by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.
The HIC is grateful to Stephen Brzoska for his help in digitizing this text.
- Slater did not have a middle name, but he once told Dorr Legg that it was Rutherford. The name stuck, though it was a joke. It is interesting that Joe Hansen knew this yet allowed Kepner’s error to go uncorrected—also the fact that Slater’s first name was Don and not Donald. CTW ↩
- In his obituary, the Los Angeles Times called him a ‘’journalist,’’ and he was a good one. JH. ↩
- Actually English. CTW ↩
- The play dealt with the conflict between two gay male lovers and their parents, and often the young men were naked on stage. JH. ↩
- Under the leadership of Morris Kight and Troy Perry. JH ↩