Occidental Square

S Washington St and Occidental Ave S

Photo courtesy of Titania DeBell
Photo courtesy Titania DeBell
Occidental Park parking lot, August 1974
Bathhouse Theater performance in Occidental Park, July 1979
Occidental Park in autumn, October 1979
Lee Kelly sculpture in Occidental Park, June 6, 1972

A park can be a nice place for a picnic, and in 1974, Occidental Park hosted its first LGBTQ+ picnic. To begin with, 1974 marked a significant anniversary for LGBTQ+ people. In 1969, in New York City, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by LGBTQ+ customers. Bar patrons refused to leave the area after being kicked out of the bar, and when police struck an attending lesbian over the head as she was being dragged into a police van, she yelled at fellow community members to act. They did: People, sometimes in groups of more than a thousand, protested for days, with trans people and people of color playing visible roles. The Stonewall Riots are cited as the start of the gay liberation movement.

The 1974 picnic in Occidental Park marked the five-year anniversary of Stonewall, and approximately 200 people showed up. Fluttering in the wind above them, banners proclaimed, “Proud to be lesbian, proud to be gay.” Breads and cakes were on hand (it was a picnic, after all), and so were a harp and piano. Pedestrians pulled out cameras, as did a Seattle police officer. Thankfully, there were no reports of harassment. That picnic began at 11 a.m., and for folks more inclined to gather during the evening hours, the park was also the site of a street dance that night, which kicked off at 9 p.m. But the park’s role in the community also took a political bent, and in 1978, Occidental Park was the center of protests against Initiative 13.

Over the years, as Seattle’s LGBTQ+ community became more visible, its contributions became harder to deny. One person who acknowledged that community members had responded to discrimination by “asserting their humanity and their right to equality” was Mayor Wes Uhlman. Uhlman proclaimed June 25 – July 1, 1977, the city’s first officially sanctioned Gay Pride Week. A parade to mark this historic event began at noon on June 25 in Occidental Park. From there, the route headed north on First Avenue to Pike Place Market, then east on Pike Street to Fourth Avenue, where it turned left and continued north to Westlake Mall. Some 2,000 people participated.

Since then, Pride parades, in numerous forms and recognizing various LGBTQ+ communities, have occurred in Seattle as well as neighboring cities and towns. And while the picnic and parade have moved on from Pioneer Square, Occidental Park still waves its own version of a Pride flag: One day in late July 2022, audio speakers housed in the park’s glass-and-timber pavilion blared the music of Whitney Houston, an LGBTQ+ icon, who, before she became famous, had a romantic same-sex relationship with her best friend. As Houston sang, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” a shirtless man gyrated in the sunshine, much like, decades earlier, dancers had shaken their groove things in Shelly’s Leg.

Proceed west on S Main Street, crossing 1st Avenue to our next stop.

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