Don King, early Charlotte LGBT community pioneer, dies at 72

[Ed. Note — This article was originally published on Oct. 30, 2014. It has been republished with our Nov. 7-20, 2014 print edition.]

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Donaldson Wells King, known to his many friends and community as Don and considered among the most visionary of Charlotte’s early LGBT community pioneers, died on Thursday, Oct. 30, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.

As an early leader in Charlotte’s LGBT community, King played a pivotal role in shaping community priorities, needs and goals.

Beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s, King helped to organize and lead organizations like Dignity and Acceptance, early LGBT support and social groups.

Don King in 1979 sitting on the floor of the space in his East Blvd. apartment that was to become his Friends of Dorothy Bookstore. Photo Credit: Samis Rose

Don King in 1979 sitting on the floor of the space in his East Blvd. apartment that was to become his Friends of Dorothy Bookstore. Photo Credit: Samis Rose.

In 1981, he and the late Billie Rose founded Queen City Quordinators (QCQ), a joint fundraising umbrella group for organizations like Acceptance, the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard, Lambda Political Caucus and the Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte. King was also a charter member of the church.

In 1983, King assisted with the early “Q-Notes” newsletter for QCQ. In June 1986, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, the newsletter was re-established as a monthly print newspaper. King was hired as the publication’s first editor serving through September 1987.

All the while, King worked as a longtime journalist, first at a paper in Durham in the late 1960s. He moved to Charlotte in the early 1970s where he began working at The Charlotte Observer. While a mainstream journalist, King helped to guide the community and his colleagues in positive media portrayals of the LGBT community.

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In 1986, King’s Closet Buster Productions produced the “Gay/Lesbian Forum,” the first local cable show on gay and lesbian issues. King also founded and operated the Friends of Dorothy Bookstore.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, King took an outspoken role challenging the local police harassment and entrapment of gay men. His efforts eventually led to significant changes in the way local law enforcement treated gay men.

In 1993, Don King was awarded the inaugural Community Service Award in Charlotte. The awards were later renamed in his honor as the Don King Community Service Awards and continue today as the Charlotte Business Guild Awards.

During some of the most early and formative times of Charlotte’s LGBT community, King led with passion, intellect and strategy, working to create a community which could stand on its own and push for future changes in the legal, social, religious and political equality of LGBT citizens.

King had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago. He was under hospice care at his home in recent weeks. Friends said he passed away at his home at noon on Oct. 30.

King was born in 1942 in Wilmington, N.C.

Arrangements had yet to be announced at press time. Please follow news on memorial and other plans and take a look back in King’s life and work in some of our retrospective features at goqnotes.com/kingtribute/. : :


Don King: early gay rights ‘warrior’ dies of cancer

By David Perlmutt, dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com
Originally published by
The Charlotte Observer and reprinted by qnotes, a member of The Observer‘s Charlotte News Alliance.

Don King arrived in Charlotte in the 1970s and became one of the region’s early and most outspoken activists for the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

King was passionate and firm. But always, whether standing up for gay men being entrapped by police or playing competitive bridge, King did it with a gentle, articulate Southern zeal.

Thursday, King, a retired Observer employee who worked several jobs including promotions, copy editing and calling out words at the annual spelling bee, died after a long illness. He was 72.

Arrangements were incomplete Thursday.

Friends say he was raised in Eastern North Carolina. In 1967, he was married and a sports writer for a Durham newspaper, but four years later, at 29, he and his wife were separated. He gradually began to “come out,” according to a story in QNotes, the newspaper/website focusing on Charlotte gays and lesbians, where King was the first editor in 1986 while he worked for the Observer.

King arrived in Charlotte in the late 1970s openly gay and found a more embracing gay community, the QNotes story said. He quickly became one of the city’s gay rights leaders, a dangerous move then.

“Before any gay professionals were out in the community, Don was out and he was speaking up for gays,” said Tom Warshauer, community and commerce manager in the city’s Neighborhood & Business Services Department. “It could cost you your job back then.”

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Rolfe Neill, the Observer’s publisher then, said he heard concerns from managers in the newspaper’s advertising department, but Neill said he never heard complaints from readers or advertisers. He supported King.

“It was his business,” he said. “He provided a very strong and visionary leadership for the gay community at a time when gays didn’t have nearly the acceptance and understanding that we do today.

“He set a good example in advancing the cause that needed to be advanced.”

King’s gentle voice continues to greet callers to the Observer’s main number – 704-358-5000.

Over the years, he helped start the Gay Pride Parade in Charlotte and drew attention to gay men getting entrapped and arrested by police in parks. Even after leaving as QNotes editor in 1987, King continued to write stories warning gay men about undercover police officers targeting gay men. In the 1980s, King ran a gay and lesbian bookstore in his apartment on East Boulevard, said Jim Yarbrough, QNotes’ publisher.

“He did an awful lot of work on the entrapment issue,” said QNotes current editor Matt Comer. “I can’t emphasize enough how important Don King was to the early gay community in Charlotte. He was a real warrior.”

For many years, the Charlotte Business Guild, the LGBT chamber, had a service award named in King’s honor. His name was removed a few years ago at his request because he thought so many others had carried on the fight after him, said Bert Woodard, a past president of the business guild.

“It was never not for him because he was that important to the cause,” Woodard said.

Even during his activist years, King always remained warm and willing to play any role for the newspaper or do whatever he could for a friend or the Charlotte Bridge Club, of which he was a devoted member.

He devoutly played competitive bridge and practiced yoga, particularly after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago.

King remained active to the end, taking a trip to Mexico to practice yoga this summer and another trip to Greece last year.

King was Alice Folger’s favorite bridge partner. For the last two years, they played twice a week at the Charlotte Bridge Club at Latta Park. They last played together 10 days ago.

“I was a very lucky lady to have known Don and play bridge with him,” Folger said. “He always made you feel like you were his best bud. He had this great mind … this keen sense of math. Bridge is a math game.

“He never got upset if you made a stupid move. He was too much a gentleman for that. Always before each game, he’d compliment someone for the new pink blouse they were wearing, or for their new haircut. He exuberantly began each game, even when he wasn’t feeling well, with ‘OK, we’re going to have a great game today.’”

This is a developing story.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.

17 Replies to “Don King, early Charlotte LGBT community pioneer, dies at 72”

  1. Janice Covington October 30, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    We will miss you Don, May God be with you in your journey.

  2. The Charlotte Business Guild is grateful for your vision and work to make organizations like ours possible. You will be truly missed and we thank you for blazing a path for all of us to walk! God speed to a wonderful man!

  3. He was an inspiration to me and so many others. I was proud to have known him, and admired his pioneering activism. He was also just a joy to be around.

  4. May he rest in peace. I’m sure he will, knowing that he made such a difference in the lives of so many. I remember being friends with Don back in the early 1980s – and how amazed I was at his courage and openness at a time when Charlotte was still a very ‘hostile’ community towards LGBT people. He was an icon then, and his legacy is contained in so many organizations in the metro Charlotte area .A heartfelt Thank you, Don, for all that you accomplished on our behalf.- and the positive impact you made for Charlotte’s LGBT community!

  5. I worked with Don for many years at the Observer he was a true friend and colleague. The last time I seen Don was at the musical “Memphis”. Rest in Peace my friend. Denise

  6. Thank you Mr. King for blazing a path for those of us that followed. So many times, the younger LGBT generations forget the sacrifice and immense courage that those like Mr. King showed in the face of a harsh obstacles. His generation paved the way for our growing equality in today’s society. May we always remember and honor his courage.

  7. Rest in Peace Don King.

    I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to meet him many years ago and to be recognized with the Don King Award. I hope my service to the community pays respect to all the sacrifices you made long before being GAY was really ok.

  8. I had the pleasure of manning the store for Don in the front room of his apartment on East Boulevard and in distributing an early version of QNotes to the bars. His influence reached beyond the gay community while he was with Knight-Ridder where he was instrumental in starting the annual Observer Marathon. Don wasn’t raised here but he always loved this town. He will be missed.

  9. I first met Don in 1973 when he asked me for a date. Since then we have been friends until the very end. He was always a joy to be a part of my life, and would often guide me through certain directions in life. I will miss him terribly. God bless his sweet soul.

  10. About 15 years ago the Presbyterian Church was having one of its periodic conniptions about gay issues. My Sunday School class was studying the issue and somehow Don King was invited to speak. He charmed the skeptical, fearful members of the group with his good humor, real-life examples and rational explanations and answers to their questions. He made it much easier for me to come out in that environment a couple years later. I remain grateful for his influence on Charlotte and his good example.

  11. Don was one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. He was a true leader, kind, compassionate, always willing to share, and always willing to lend a hand. Don was a pioneer, a dedicated member of the community and fierce advocate for LGBT rights and social justice for all. He will be missed. I know his legacy will live on.

  12. Don and I went to school together in Tarboro NC. We were friends throughout. He was always friendly and kind. Have seen him since at class reunions and he hadn’t changed. He led a benevolent and rewarding life from what I have heard. May he rest in peace. Some people you never forget.

  13. We are less because Don is gone, but we are collectively so much greater because he was here.
    Our love will travel with you wherever you go, my friend.

  14. I always had a deep respect for Don.and enjoyed a very good working relationship with him going back to them early disco days and helping do public sevice production work with him into the 80s. He was a good hearted and brave man

  15. My spouse Victoria Eves and I met Don King in 2003 when sitting next to him at our very first Charlotte Business Guild dinner. Years later, he and Victoria worked on a Business Guild program showcasing “The History of Gay Charlotte.” In 2012, when the Guild revived the annual gala it had previously ceased to hold, Don delivered a spectacular speech which commemorated the Guild’s 20 year existence. The current Q-Notes photo captures Don giving that CBG speech which is the last time I saw him. Takeaways: For those who worked with Don to build and sustain our wonderful LGBTQ community, thank you. There’s still much to be accomplished, so please jump back in. For anyone who hasn’t joined us, it’s time for you to help keep Don’s legacy alive.

  16. A brave man, an outstanding life.

  17. Wow, I was taking to Tonda Taylor today who was catching me up on the goings on in the Queen City since we last spoke a few years ago including the passing of Don. I remember when my partner, Bill Cooke, and I arrived in Charlotte around 1990 Don, Bob Barret, and I were the only people who were comfortable having their picture in the Charlotte Observer in stories on Gay issues. When we left Charlotte ten years later I was very happy to say there were many GLBT folks who were being pictured in the paper in large part due to the hard work of Don King in making queer folk proud and unafraid to stand up and be counted. As Tonda and I reminisced she marveled at how far the Charlotte community has come since then as demonstrated in the recent Charlotte Pride Parade where there was only one person among a hand full of protesters who loudly proclaimed on his bull horn, “Tonda Taylor you are going to hell!” She waved and smiled thinking thanks to Don King there are only of few of you here today among the thousands of us celebrating our Gay Pride! That sounded like something one of Don’s nemesis the Rev. Joe Chambers would have blurted out.

    Don King was a true champion of the Charlotte GLBT community!

    Oh, and boy did Don cut a gorgeous figure in his pictures in the Observer, Q-Notes and other publications!!

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