“I believe that if we can look for a moment past gender and sexuality, we can see… nothing more or less than our own families… not shadows lurking in closets or the stereotypes of what was once believed; rather, we see families committed to the common purpose of love, devotion, and service to the greater community.”U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, 2014 ruling in Geiger v. Kitzhaber
In 1970 when Susie Shepherd came out to her parents, never could she or they have imagined such a ruling. Or that landmark rulings would be issued by an openly gay judge – a judge who was befriended early in his legal career by Susie’s own parents, Bill and Ann Shepherd.
Of all the straight folks who spoke out against Measure 9, among the most poignant and powerful were the parents of gay people. “The Initiative Years” from 1988-2004, as they’re called in Portland PFLAG history, were a boom time for Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (PFLAG).
As more and more queer Oregonians came out in response to Measure 9, PFLAG offered a supportive sanctuary for those whose own families rejected them, for parents struggling to understand, and for family members wanting to take action in defense of their gay kids.
In Oregon, a few pioneering parents had already made their mark as activists in the 1970s. To honor the role of PFLAG during the Measure 9 campaign and today, during a new generation of attacks on trans youth and the LGBTQ community, we revisit the story of the Shepherds.
A Daughter Comes Out
“Reminiscing about my parents always brightens my day!” says Susie Shepherd. Sharing the groundbreaking front-page Oregon Journal article that featured her prominent, church-leader Republican family, she offers her standard quip in this era of mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ people: “Since when has having gay kids been headline news? – Oh, since about 1977!!”
But in 1970, when Susie had her fateful “coming out” conversation with her parents, their support was far from assured. “I had tried to come out to Mother in seventh grade. I told her I had a crush on our assistant choir director at church, and she said, ‘Oh no dear, it’s not that. At your age, girls just want to have role models of the same sex. And I can’t think of a finer role model for you to have!’ I thought, Wow – this is the first thing in my whole life I haven’t been able to talk to my mom about.”
Once she was at University of Oregon and very clear she was a lesbian, Susie decided to try again. “It was a year after Stonewall,” she says. “There was no gay positive literature out; there was absolutely nothing. But I knew I couldn’t be living a lie with Mom and Dad. They were too wonderful people not to be honest with, and I knew that they would be able to come around.”
Put on notice by Susie that she had something to tell them, her mother said, “Well, I don’t know if you’re going to tell us that you’re lesbian, or that you’re pregnant, or dropping out of school!” So Ann was not shocked. Bill, however, was surprised – “I hadn’t noticed anything to suggest she was gay,” he later said. They reacted as supportively as they could, while assuming and hoping it was something that “would pass when the right man came along” or could be “fixed.” “I didn’t like the idea,” Ann remembered later. “I told her not to bring any lovers home.”
After about a year of study – “I started reading about homosexuality” – and soul-searching, Ann made her peace with it, and Bill did too.
Having come out to her parents, Susie threw herself full-force into her life as a change agent, while working as a legal secretary for her father, who became a go-to attorney for gay men who had been entrapped by the Portland Police.
As her friend and fellow activist Jerry Weller wrote in a piece on early gay rights organizing, “Susie Shepherd was one of the first Oregon lesbians to fully embrace mainstream legislative politics as a means to achieve equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In 1975 she joined the board of Portland Town Council (PTC) the first LGBT umbrella group in Oregon dedicated to civil rights for lesbians and gay men. [That year] she spearheaded the writing of a [76-page] booklet entitled ‘A Legislative Guide to Gay Rights’ aimed at educating policy makers on the gay issue… [which] won rave reviews in the national gay press. It was sold in LGBT bookstores across the US and from England to Australia.
“By 1977 she was Oregon’s first paid female LGBT civil rights worker accepting the second position created at Portland Town Council,” the profile continues. “From this position Susie not only organized Oregonians for legislative hearings but also provided assistance to the No on 51 Campaign which was fighting a gay rights ballot measure in Eugene in 1978…. Susie [also] joined the board of the newly organized PTC Political Action Committee, the first LGBT political action committee in Oregon and only the second in the nation. Susie was also the first openly gay member of the board of the Oregon Council for Women’s Equality and the Oregon Women’s Political Caucus.”
Later Susie would raise awareness and funds for LGBTQ causes through her leadership in the leather community (she won International Ms. Leather in 1989) and a range of other organizations.
In all of this activism, Susie was matched by her mother, Ann, with the support of her father, Bill.
Governor’s Task Force on Sexual Preference
It turned out Susie was a pathbreaker not only politically. Of Susie’s three sisters, one came out as bisexual; another first came out as a lesbian, then later came out as trans and transitioned.
Ann responded to her daughters not only with personal support but by forging her own path as an activist. She was appointed in 1976 by Governor Bob Straub to the state’s first-ever Task Force on Sexual Preference. She described herself as the “token mother” amidst other experts from various professions. The Task Force held hearings around the state to investigate the prevalence of anti-gay discrimination, reporting its findings – yes, discrimination against gays and lesbians existed in housing, employment and public accommodation – to the legislature at its 1977 session.
Serving on the Task Force was one catalyst for the formation of a support group for other parents. The hostility and homophobic fanaticism they encountered in their hearings underscored the need for such a group, which became one of the Task Force’s recommendations. It also reflected one of the hardest aspects of Ann’s early experience.
One of the biggest dilemmas Ann faced after Susie’s revelation: “I couldn’t talk to anybody about it.”
Ann and Bill first broke their silence about Susie with their minister, Paul Wright. While the Presbyterian Church would not embrace LGBTQ clergy until 2011 and same-gender marriage until 2014, Rev. Wright offered this assurance: “Where there is love, there is God.” Ann also told her sister. But that was it, initially.
Then in 1973, a gay rights bill was heard in the Oregon Legislature (see our Timeline). A woman named Rita Knapp, a member of their same church, testified. Susie learned years later that after this made the news, Ann wrote a note and put it under the windshield wiper of Chuck and Rita’s car after church one Sunday. “It said, ‘Rita, I think we have to talk. I believe we have something in common,’” Susie remembers. “Rita said, ‘I read that, and I thought, well, Ann Shepherd, what is it that you can’t just come up and talk to me about at coffee hour?’ But this wasn’t Coffee Hour conversation back in the early ‘70s! So they had a long talk and realized that they both had these lesbian daughters” – Kristan (Knapp) Aspen, like Susie, is a longtime community activist. “All of a sudden there was someone they could talk about it with.”
By the time the Governor’s Task Force had finished its work, Chuck and Rita had already reached out to Ann and Bill, saying “We must do something.” They all agreed; being charged by the Task Force to make it happen moved Ann to action. Together the two couples formed Parents of Gays (POG), which began meeting monthly in the Shepherd’s living room. (Four years later, POG renamed itself Portland PFLAG after the founding meeting of the National PFLAG Network in Los Angeles.)
What Broke Things Open
Ann was well-suited to spread the word once the group had formed. She had a degree in journalism, having worked as a newspaper reporter during World War II, and was acquainted with a number of political and media figures. But she ran into trouble with something as basic as placing a classified ad. In the years before social media and the internet, classified ads were the primary way you would reach others who shared your interests.
“She was talking about taking out a little one-inch by half-an-inch ad saying, ‘Do you have a gay child? We can give you support’ and the phone number,” Susie remembers. “She knew all the people at both the Oregonian and the Journal, but they all said to her, ‘Ann, we can’t print that kind of an ad. This is a family paper!’ Mother replied, ‘Pardon me, it’s going to be buried in there. People are really going to have to look to find this.’ But she just kept getting turned down, time after time after time.”
Then two things happened that spring and summer “that really broke things open for the gay rights movement,” Susie says. The first was a “Gay Equality” episode of a popular local public affairs television show called “Town Hall.” The second was a front-page article on their family in the daily afternoon Portland paper, the Oregon Journal, which had refused to run Ann’s classified ad.
The “Town Hall” episode coincided with Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in Florida, the repeal campaign against Eugene’s anti-discrimination ordinance, and the legislature’s consideration of the Task Force findings and the perennially-reintroduced statewide anti-discrimination bill.
Introduced by the moderator as “a lady in the audience who’s a parent of a homosexual child,” the “Town Hall” camera zeroes in on Ann and Bill, with Susie sitting in between them. Ann says, “We love Susie, we accept her totally. We also recognize that many of our friends, and hers, have an orientation different from our heterosexual one, which really doesn’t matter. Because they’re wonderful people. We speak, both of us, as Christians and as parents.” (Watch this Town Hall excerpt in the 20-minute 1997 tribute video, Bill & Ann Shepherd: A Life’s Work.)
How would she advise other parents to handle their children coming out? the moderator asked. “With a great deal of love,” Ann says. “And no guilt. Because you don’t do it to your children. It’s something that’s just there. So love them and accept them, and – for heaven’s sake, don’t say, ‘Be gone from my doorstep,’ or anything like that!”
“The tension in that room was palpable. It was unbelievably tense,” Susie told Portland State University Capstone oral history interviewer in 2000. “That particular show won the Oregon Broadcasters Award in its category that year…. That show changed people’s lives.”
One impact of the show was in Susie’s own relationship. Her partner at the time wasn’t comfortable with the level of public exposure. As Susie recalled in her oral history interview, she walked into a Portland Town Council meeting the night after the show and told her fellow gay rights activists, “Well, I’m a single woman now. But I’m so relieved, because Mom and Dad and I all spoke, and it was an unbelievably liberating thing.”
Not only was this unprecedented in local television, but the station also ran Bill and Ann’s phone number for other parents to call. They were flooded with calls. The deluge only increased when the Oregon Journal article came out and again printed the number.
“They’ve come out,” the photo caption reads, of the daughter and her parents posed in front of legal tomes. “Parents admit their views have changed, now support gay rights.” It’s thought to be the first print media coverage in the state addressing gays and lesbians as somebody’s children. “It could happen to you,” the piece begins. The other two parents profiled in the piece chose to be anonymous.
“Those are the biggest media there were at that time,” Susie says. “The newspaper and a regular television show. Back then there were three channels and they ended with an American flag after the national news at 11 o’clock at night, and that was about it.”
“That was what broke it open. All of a sudden people started coming to PFLAG meetings,” remembers Susie. Pretty soon they had outgrown their living room and started meeting at Augusta Lutheran Church in northeast Portland.
The No on 9 Balloon Effect
Fast-forward a decade to what the Portland PFLAG timeline calls “The Initiative Years.” Susie says, “Ballot Measure 9 absolutely ballooned the PFLAG numbers. All of a sudden, parents who had been indifferent to their gay kids realized they had to get out there and advocate because terrible things could happen to their kids. They started coming and getting involved. It was really the boom time for PFLAG here; the formation of solid friendships, that for those still alive, still exist to this day.”
Eventually the burgeoning membership outgrew all the usual meeting places, which is when PFLAG parent Tom Potter, then Chief of Portland Police, offered their community meeting room. “So for a long time PFLAG met in the Portland Police station, because we had such a great chief of police, who, of course, would go on to be a great mayor,” says Susie, “so open and welcoming to everybody.”
Another place Ann and Bill Shepherd did what they would later call “their life’s work” was within the religious community. Bill led an effort to reach out to the Portland Foursquare Church, an OCA stronghold. The First Presbyterian Church proposed an exchange of delegations, a dialogue – “Maybe we can all learn something, find some common ground,” he said. They received no response to their proposal.
Ann remembered with pride the “very impressive parade” in 1992, organized by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. “We wanted to show that mainline Christian churches with Christian families in them, did not approve Mr. Mabon’s put down of gay rights,” she told an interviewer. “It was important that church people march with their banners.”
“Daddy had his official First Presbyterian Church photo with mother taken wearing his pin that said, ‘The OCA is abnormal and perverse.’ That year for Halloween he carved our jack-o’-lantern into a No on 9 sign.”Susie Shepherd
A Mom & Dad for Everyone Who Needed One
When they first started “coming out” in support of their lesbian daughter, Ann had warned Bill that his legal practice could suffer. “If you get so involved in gay rights, you may lose some clients,” she recalled telling him. “He just grinned and said, ‘If I lose any clients, they don’t deserve me.’”
Susie remembers a man approaching Bill to ask, “’May I call you father?’ And Daddy said, ‘Well, yes, of course, but isn’t your father still alive?’ And the man said, ‘Yes, but my father says I’m dead to him.’ And Daddy just embraced him.” It was said of Ann, if you haven’t been hugged by Ann Shepherd, you haven’t really been hugged.
“Ann spent a lot of time helping kids who were not accepted by their parents,” notes a GLAPN profile. “In one case, a young man came to her after he heard his parents planning to get him a lobotomy because they thought that would ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. By working with him, Ann was able to talk the young man out of suicide.”
Towards the end of her life, Ann called up Susie and said, “’I have to tell you this story. I just got a call from a young man named Scott in Eastern Canada.’ Her number had been passed to him from person to person to person. He was lonely. He was gay. He didn’t know where to turn, but he thought she – in Portland, Oregon – might know where he – in Eastern Canada – might find support. And, of course, she was able to get him connected with PFLAG.”
Bill Shepherd died in 1995 and Ann, in 2003. After suffering a massive stroke in 2000, Ann (“stubborn woman that she was,” Susie says) recovered enough to walk with assistance and preside as Grand Marshal of the Portland Pride parade.
One of the ways Ann and Bill’s legacy is honored is through the Bill and Ann Shepherd Legal Scholarship Fund, currently administered by OGALLA: The LGBT Bar Association of Oregon, which supports law students committed to advancing LGBT rights and justice.
In the video tribute commissioned by Metropolitan Community Church two years after Bill’s death, Ann recounts much of the story shared here, joined by friends from her years of activism. In one scene she is outside Darcelle’s sharing her thoughts about the importance of the nightclub and all who performed there before going in to chat with Walter Cole (aka Darcelle).
“The Imperial Sovereign Rose Court plays a very important part, not only for the gay community and those of us who are supporters, but also for the whole city of Portland,” Ann says. “They provide many services for people who need it, people with AIDS. They also provide a marvelous leavening and spice to a city that can be more like a bowl of vanilla pudding.”
Ann tells the video interviewers that all that she did, she did in partnership with Bill. “The more deeply involved we became in gay rights, we realized, this is our purpose.”
“Several times when they were getting ready to go to some gay event Daddy would say, ‘I just feel so sorry for anyone who doesn’t know anybody gay! Their parties are the most fun!’ Mother used to refer to Daddy as a ‘rather stuffy Republican.’ To go from that to embracing all that he did…!”Susie Shepherd
“This is my life’s work,” Ann said simply, of her activism in support of LGBTQ families and their right to live free from discrimination.
- Bill & Ann Shepherd: A Life’s Work (1997, 20 minute video)
- Susie Shepherd Oral History at Oregon Historical Society
- GLAPN tribute to Ann & Bill Shepherd
- GLAPN tribute to Susie Shepherd & other early gay rights organizers
- Changing with the Times: Portland PFLAG’s Timeline
- NPR story on PFLAG’s 50th Anniversary: What PFLAG is Like in 2022
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.