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caption: Storme Webber's  'I Cover the Waterfront', a 1950s photograph of the artist's grandmother, 2016. Digital prints modified from original.
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Storme Webber's 'I Cover the Waterfront', a 1950s photograph of the artist's grandmother, 2016. Digital prints modified from original.
Credit: Courtesy of Frye Art Museum/Storme Webber

Seattle's LGBTQ history that isn't all white, all middle class, all male

For much of the 20th century, Pioneer Square was the heart of Seattle’s gay community.

Artist Storme Webber grew up lesbian in Seattle and often went to Pioneer Square with her mother – who was also gay.

Webber's new exhibit at the Frye Art Museum, "Casino: A Palimpsest," focuses on her black and indigenous family – and the community they found in Pioneer Square – in the days before the Stonewall riots in 1969.

Webber’s ancestors were black and Choctaw on her father’s side, from the South, and on her mother’s side, Sugpiaq from Seldovia, Alaska.

"Casino" honors the women in her family and her black, Native, and gay family’s life in a hostile place and time.

"There’s a proverb I heard years ago: ‘Until lions learn to write, tales of the hunt will always be told by the hunter.’ And I feel what we are reaching to do is to tell the indigenous story of Seattle again. Because it’s a story that needs retelling," Webber said as she walked through her exhibit recently.

Webber and Frye curator Miranda Belarde-Lewis tell that story through family photos, historical documents, Native stories and Webber’s poetry, which plays in one room as well as being interspersed throughout the exhibit.

There are archival photos of the gay bars and restaurants where Webber often went with her mother growing up, like the Busy Bee.

Webber said it used to be a 24-hour diner for Boeing workers."By the time I spent time there, and this was the 1960s, it was a bar and grill, and it was a gay bar. I think of being in these spaces as a child was somewhat like a child artist’s residency," Webber said.

"I learned about how people made community when they were considered outsiders. I learned how people could love one another and care for one another, even under oppressive situations. I learned how delicious Filipino food is," Webber laughed. "I learned about the ways in which people are soulful that help them to survive."

Walls of portraits and self-portraits feature Webber’s mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Many are from photobooths, some glamorous, some solemn.

"This speaks to their self-determination and their self-identity, because they were creating their own image in a world that didn’t welcome them or honor them. But they went into this little booth and made these photographs. And you can see the pride in them. The beauty in them. You can see the fierceness of them," Webber said.

"Native women still face tremendous amounts of abuse and are missing at horrific rates and murdered, and these are Native women in the '50s and '60s presenting themselves," Webber said.

One wall of photos features Webber’s family in their daily lives — like a school for Alaska Native children in the early 1900s run by imperious-looking white teachers or Webber’s father in drag.

Webber pointed to one picture she’s titled “Our American Dream,” from 1963 or 1964: "My lesbian mother, her butch girlfriend, my newborn baby sister and me," sitting on a bed. Her mother's girlfriend is feeding Webber's sister a bottle. They look happy, and relaxed.

"This is a family portrait," Webber said. "Our country is in a moment of great challenge and great opportunity. [This photo] holds hope for us. I would hope that that would be something that would be useful about images like this, because it's a very uncommon image and also sometimes when LGBTQ history is presented it's presented to us all white, and often all middle-class, and often all-male.

"So I also felt that these family histories also counter that. Because a lot of people had to hide. There's not a lot of documentation. So it's very special that they're here to share themselves with us, in a way."

“Casino: A Palimpsest” is on display at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle until October 29. Admission is free.