by Don Schneider
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
One fall day in 1956, I set out to meet Don Slater by going to Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. With fear for my life and a dry throat, I located the old wreck of a building, and with my heart beating hard, climbed the creaking stairs, feeling not courageous but daring. Would someone pounce on me to seduce me? Or were police lying in wait to arrest me without question, and drag me out, proclaiming loudly to the world, “Here’s another faggot!”
All I wanted, all I aimed to do, was get acquainted with the thoughtful, stern souls who were truly courageous, daring enough to publish openly for the first time a modest little magazine called ONE. No, it had no dirty pictures, no suggestive stories, it was about as sexy as the Wall Street Journal. Instead it carried news reports and commentary about the shenanegans [sic] going on in the world against anyone considered homosexual. I say “considered” because, as I came to find out, there’s no way to tell whether someone is homosexual or not. You don’t know unless you know. That’s how it was forty years ago. Today, a few may openly talk, but they are so very few, even still, compared to those unrecognized, uncommitted to public exposure, in fear of, or distaste for clobbering with abuse, discrimination, and emotional torture.
The magazine was about the law, the injustice, the inhumanity.
The magazine clamored for change. Not in people, mind you—in the law.
On the third, the top, floor, I faced a long, bare hallway with a worn wooden floor. I walked along, wondering who could be the neighbors of ONE, America’s only homosexual magazine. Could they be friendly neighbors? Surely not. Not if they knew. They all seemed to be garment workshops, from the whirring of sewing machines I heard through their closed doors.
The only open doors I found were in an alcove, two doors standing wide open, side by side. Their numbers told me I had found ONE. People inside the two doors were busy typing and phoning and whomping labels on envelopes. I stepped inside. I was greeted by Dorr Legg, just as he laid down the phone. I sat down and we chatted for a few minutes, then he had me take three steps into the next room to meet Don Slater—at the typewriter, where else?—and Billy Glover, whomping stamps on envelopes.
Nobody pounced on me, or offered to. They treated me as if dealing with a shy, curious cat—they let me come to them. And friendship began, based on mutual respect. I knew it was special at the time, but I didn’t know how special and long-lasting. I didn’t know I was meeting lifetime friends. Actually, I didn’t know much of anything. An education began that afternoon, an education I couldn’t get in any college anywhere.
Years afterward, Don Slater told me, “Your scared-to-death approach was no different from anyone else’s, in that police-state time. You were just one of hundreds who went up and down that hall, checking us out before coming in. We deliberately left the doors open. We had nothing to hide. No one could ever say our office was a rampaging orgy. Nobody was ever going to set us up, then accuse us of that. It was common sense—we were protecting our mission.
“The neighboring tenants were mostly Mexican, lovely people. They knew our mission. They may not have agreed, but they watched out for us, protected us, were friendly. What was our mission? To change the laws. We didn’t exactly try to guess how long that would take. We didn’t know if that was possible in our very short lifetime.
“In order to change a law already on the books, generally a majority of the people have to think that it should be done. Politicians want to know what people think, because they’re after votes. They tend to vote the way they think most people think. A leader is not self-made. A leader actually is doing what the majority at the time wants.
“So, I never expect to go down in history as a leader. Instead, I’m a pioneer. People like me, Dorr, Billy, others, get the ball rolling…making it easier for the next fellow. Exactly what was going to happen as a result, we never knew. What we did know was, it was high time somebody tried. And since there was nobody else damned fool enough to do it, that meant we were elected—without even being nominated.”
Don Slater always spoke crisply, revealing his absolute conviction that what he was trying to do was the right, honorable, imperative thing, that must be done, whether we saw the result in our lifetime or not. Don never expected to be honored for his work, but he was honored by those around him.
On the day I met him, and for the next decade, I never dreamed I’d ever see much of any change. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think it would come. Maybe decades after I was gone. It didn’t really discourage me. I sensed it was a long, tough battle, so it meant you had to have patience, steady faith, and stick to it, stick it out. Keep plugging away. Battles would be won, battles would be lost. No matter. Carry on.
The day came in 1965 when the two generals in this particular battle I had joined no longer agreed on strategy. I felt bad about that break. In Don’s headquarters, on Cahuenga, I heard someone bad-mouth Dorr Legg. Don listened, then put it to him: “Now that’s off your chest. I never want to hear it again. Dorr Legg is to be treated with honor and respect. He is a warrior. We are in the same war. I’m simply going around the other flank, now, to see what can be done.”
Years later, it just happened, casually, that I talked to Don about my cowardice. I said, “I can’t speak out in public. We need you, Don. Someone willing to be a spokesperson, out in front. In print, on the radio. I can’t do that. All I can do is work behind the scenes. Be anonymous. I wish I could do what you do, but it would throw me into turmoil that would last the rest of my life.”
“People are different,” Don said gently. “Dorr and Billy and I can afford to speak out. Very few people can. I don’t believe that everyone should come out of the closet. There are ten thousand factors to consider. For one thing, you are the best judge of what would happen in your life. Knowing that I’m one of the few who can speak out in public, I take that as a grave responsibility.”
“It makes you a leader, like it or not,” I said
“Maybe,” he said, “but nobody can be a leader unless he has
troops behind him.”
Another time, I was fussing, “All this ignorant talk—that Stonewall was the beginning of the gay movement. That’s ridiculous. You and others have been at it for decades in the open. People should get their facts straight. They just don’t know their history.”
“That’s all right,” Don said quietly, “history will catch up with us, and frankly that doesn’t matter right now. What Stonewall has done is give people a picture, something they can see. Their eyes tell them it happened. So they believe.” He smiled. “But we know, and someday perhaps they will too—we built the road for them to march on. We prepared the way. Those of us who dared to speak and write and put the word out however we could. Hundreds of us.
“Making ready for Stonewall to happen. Stonewall caught the nation’s attention. When rage breaks out it helps people focus. And this was pure rage, rage against ancient injustice, ancient lies, ancient cruelty. Those bar queens, once and for all, had had enough.
“Stonewall fired the shot that was heard, yes, literally, around the world. It made the press everywhere. It caused people who had never given our mission a moment’s thought in a lifetime to think.
“A war was already on the move, had been for a long time, a social war. If the uninformed and uncaring public thought that was the beginning, something brand new out of a clear blue sky, let them be surprised. Stonewall was an alarm-clock, ringing to wake them up.”
That’s not everything about Don Slater. A eulogy is not a life history. Rather it is a few chosen bits, selected out of vast detail, meant to summarize a life. If that life and its values of fairness and freedom, justice and kindness, serve to bring us to our feet in homage, then now and so long as we live, we’re on our feet to Don Slater.
©1997, 2017 by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.
The HIC is grateful to Stephen Brzoska for his help in digitizing this text.