In 1967, Peter Wichern made a bold move: He posed for the cover of a magazine in Seattle.
This is Peter Wichern.
He is a local businessman.
He is a homosexual.
Wichern was a member of Seattle’s Dorian Society, which emerged in 1966 along with other groups across the U.S. to counteract common stereotypes attributed to gays and lesbians – drag queens, butch dykes, pedophiles and barflies.
Their aim was to promote socially acceptable images of homosexuality. At a time when most gay people lived closeted double lives and most straight people didn’t know that “respectable” gays existed, the message was a radical one.
The Dorian Society hosted drag balls and helped to establish the Seattle Counseling Services for Sexual Minorities. Members appeared on radio programs and led tours of gay bars. When reporter Ruth Wolf asked to interview members, they agreed – but only Wichern agreed to use his real name.
Wichern was born in Havre, Montana, in 1946, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He moved to Seattle after being outed and expelled from Whitman College in the 1960s.
In April 2002, the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project interviewed Louis Giguere, Peter’s partner for the last 13 years of his life. Giguere said that Peter was pleased with how he was portrayed, but that his life wasn’t quite as stable as the article made it seem.
In the article, Peter said that when he first came to Seattle he wasn't doing any kind of permanent work.
Louis Giguere: Basically, he was doing anything he could do, bagging groceries, working as a waiter.
They were odds and end jobs, until he got into a position where he was able to open his own business. It would have been--from what he described it--like a Radio Shack-type store.
Did he think that the Seattle Magazine people had gotten it right? Did he feel he'd been quoted right?
Louis: He did. He liked the story. He thought it was a good story, and – from what he told me – very accurate.
How was he contacted for this story?
Louis: He was part of the Dorian Society here in Seattle, and its membership was still very small. They were all using aliases, and Peter was the only one in the group willing to use his real name.
Peter really didn't have a lot to lose [chuckles]. I think that made it a little easier for him. So anyway, this reporter on the magazine decided to do an article on this group, met with the entire group, and the story ended up revolving around Peter because he was willing to talk in more detail and he was using his real name. So it was natural for that reporter to focus on Peter.
As far as the picture goes, he said that they brought him into their offices and did several different poses. He had no idea what picture they were going to use, and they chose this one, which he absolutely hated [laughs].
Why did he think that?
Louis: He thought he looked like a nerd in the picture. The big glasses, this suit, and the brief case –he thought that he looked like a total jerk! That was not him. This picture, I think, was taken to try to say: "This is a normal person; this is a local business man, and guess what: He's gay."
Well, the reality is, Peter was struggling with the business that was floundering off and on. He was out drinking in the evenings and partying. This picture, while it looks nice for the cover – it wasn't him.
It looks like a really neat, button-down, middle class –
Louis: Yeah, that certainly was not Peter. He was a rabble-rouser, without a doubt [laughs].
[In 1973, Peter moved to California.]
Louis: Peter just flipped over the openness in San Francisco, and he really loved California.
He went through several different jobs. All of them were in electronics. He was working in Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley was really Silicon Valley. He didn't like large corporations; he thought they were too dictatorial, and he liked the small startup atmospheres. … Eventually he ended up working for Oracle.
I met Peter on Jan. 30, 1983. And after a week – Peter knew the situation I was in – he asked if I wanted to move in with him.
I said, "So are you proposing to me?" His comment was, "You can take that any way that you want," so I took that as a proposal.
I tell my mother I met him at a party. The truth is, I met him the first time I ever went to a bath house. ... Our eyes met and it was like an electric shock. I had never felt anything like that before. The image of his eyes at that moment are still burned into my memory: incredibly deep, the most brilliant blue eyes I have ever seen.
He was more radical than I was. Matter of fact, we had a couple of disagreements about that. I believed more along the lines of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.... [the task force] wasn't quite radical enough for him, so he decided to get involved in Queer Nation, and started going to a number of protests, which he loved. I think it took him back to the sixties [laughs].
By the time he went to Oracle, he got on to their employee benefits committee, and he started Oracle's domestic partner program.
He started their gay employees' union, which blossomed pretty quick. …
He had always been the radical, outsider – you know, shake things up. He finally came to the conclusion that you don't change the world by screaming and yelling and throwing red paint at people. You change the world by going into the corporate dragon's den and changing the way money is spent, because money is what makes the world go 'round.
You said that he'd influenced you to go back to school.
Louis: Well, he demanded I go back to school! [laughs] ... I was basically starving to death, when I met him. Had it not been for Peter, I probably would have ended up on the streets of San Francisco hustling; that's typically what happens to a lot of people that were in the situation I was in. I honestly believe, with every fiber of my body, that he saved my life. ...
We were together about three years, and I was working odd jobs. ... He got tired of supporting me. It came down to, "You need to do something with your life. ... You either need to get a real job; you need to go to college; or you need to get out. The choice is yours."
I remember my graduation day. Peter just beamed--he was so incredibly proud--and I graduated with a 3.5 GPA in History.
In December of '89 we decided to get tested, and both of our tests came back positive. ... In January we started up in support groups in San Mateo County, an organization called Ellipse, and Peter started doing a lot of volunteer work with them. ... Then he then got involved in Act Up. ...
About '92, Peter went on full-term disability, stopped working, and we moved to the Russian River and lived in Guerneville for two and a half years.
We loved living there; it was like a rural Castro. Since Peter and I were both rural people, in a way it was getting back to our roots. Despite the fact that he was on disability and his health was declining, those were probably the best years of our relationship....
I always loved the Northwest. We'd been up here on several camping trips, because it was where he was from. I said, "Let's move to Seattle," and so we moved up here in June of '95. ...
Peter was not one to take well to medical care. He wanted to take care of himself. Staunchly independent – he had been through years of AZT and he was getting tired of it. After an ear surgery he decided, that's it. He swore he would not go back to the doctor for anything else, and he made me promise that I would not put him in the hospital for any reason. ...
The doctor told me they would give him two months to six months to live, without any medical treatment, and he lived for three months. I took care of him during those three months and he died at home, in our bed, with the dogs – the way he wanted to, and it was just me and him. That's the way he wanted it. Of course I had some really wonderful help from people at Providence Home Health Care.
His eyes, toward those last few years, turned gray. He had been almost comatose the last three days that he was alive, he was on so much morphine.
But about a minute before he died, somehow he shook off the drugs and he came to, and he couldn't talk but he opened his eyes and looked right at me. Then he closed his eyes and stopped breathing. I remember looking into his eyes the moment he died.
The two most vivid images in my mind are his eyes when we met, and his eyes when he departed. ... He died April 4, 1996.
I honored his wishes and there was no funeral. He didn't want a funeral. There was an obituary I put in the Seattle Gay News. Like he wanted, I took the ashes out to the Washington coast and I scattered them on the beach out there.
This interview was recorded on April 1, 2002 and was originally published at the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story – or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-616-2035.