Linda Lawyer has, as she reports in a fit of modesty which may or may not be characteristic, “a lot of stories.” A lifetime’s worth, in fact, although speaking with her even briefly makes clear that the denouement of this vital community activist’s lifetime remains well beyond the horizon.
Lawyer’s quest to support struggling members of the still-underground queer community began more than 40 years ago in her native Pittsburgh, Pa. and continued in Charlotte, N.C., her adopted home. With half a decade as a contributor to this very newspaper — during the apotheosis of the United States’ HIV/AIDS crisis, no less — under her belt, Lawyer drops the nom de plume to give qnotes readers a glimpse of a life devoted to helping others find families of choice and embrace their authentic selves.
How did you become involved in community organizing, first in Pittsburgh and later in Charlotte?
In Pittsburgh, my partner and I went to the Persad Center (around 1975) for counseling to help each of us deal with being gay. Along with counseling it was a quasi- community center. They had a program called “Persad Friends” — where a couple would meet a same-sex person who was either new to [Pittsburgh] or just coming out. My partner and I would meet the woman for dinner and/or then take them to a women’s bar so they weren’t walking in by themselves for the first time. We were asked about a year later to join the Persad Board, which in those days meant helping with fundraising. The event I remember most was a kind of flea market called Bizarre Bazaar, that was held in a church activities hall. Along with secondhand merchandise, we also sold food, like falafel sandwiches. It was a huge event. We spent several years on the board and, in some cases, we never learned members’ last names, because it was risky to give out your full name. When I came to Charlotte I wanted to continue my community involvement. I contacted Don King through the Friends of Dorothy bookstore and he told me about the [Gay & Lesbian] Switchboard. I joined in the Fall of 1982, which later led to starting [Queen City Friends] (QCF) in 1986.
In your view, how has queer life in Charlotte changed since you came here in the early ‘80s?
In the early ‘80s most gays and lesbians were very secretive about their sexuality. The bar was the only place we could be ourselves, unless we were out among our friends. There were few social outlets — [successor to gay Catholic group Dignity] Acceptance comes to mind, but that was mostly attended by men. The location of the G&L Switchboard was known only to those who were part of the organization, for fear of being beaten by homophobic individuals as we left at 11p.m. Today LGBT individuals can be out at work in many places without fear of being fired. We have many organizations and their existence is publicized on social media, and celebrated during Charlotte Pride.
When did you join qnotes’ staff, and how would you describe the work you did?
I joined the qnotes staff at the beginning of 1988, and stayed on for five years. At the time, there were no women writing for the paper. So with “The Soft Spot” I tried to put a lesbian perspective on what was happening in our community. I didn’t feel comfortable using my real name, so I came up with the name Ann (my middle name) Michele (pronounced Michael) after the last name of a good friend of mine in Washington, D.C.
What are your strongest memories of your tenure on the paper?
Sitting at the dining room table intensely writing the column just before it was due, then racing over to the Varnadore Building to drop it off to the qnotes office. Seriously, I tried each month to provide a column for the lesbian community that was informative/helpful to them as email and websites weren’t popular yet. But, there wasn’t always a lot to talk about — we had four organizations for women — QCF, [lesbian political activist collective] WOW, the Women’s Center, and Wonderful Women. Sometimes I had to really stretch to come up with subject matter. Because most lesbians were closeted, I was hesitant to include others or interview others for my column, so sometimes I wrote about my own struggles.
Compared to when you started, how would you do the job differently now?
Because the LGBT community is so much more open than it was 30 years ago, it would be easier to write about individuals, maybe spotlighting careers, or their contribution to our community, or their families. I think “The Soft Spot” in 2018 would encompass diversity in our community and the pride we have in each other, rather than just provide information. I would also use my real name.
What advice would you give to current and future contributors?
I would encourage contributors to “find the gap” in our reporting and fill that need.
When did you leave, and what have you been up to since?
I left at the end of 1992. In September of 1992, I joined One Voice Chorus, which is one of the best things I ever did. I was there for about 12 years, as a singer and board member. One Voice was the catalyst that helped me come out at work and thus, to the rest of the world. I was on the Board of Advisors of the Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund for six years, and also participated in the “Sing for the Cure” and Tyler Clementi summer concerts put on by Kathryn Mahan and Ann Hooper. Currently I’m involved in the Charlotte Queer Oral History Project.
A few years back, speaking with another qnotes writer, you described your longtime former employer, Duke Energy, as having been “extremely conservative.” According to that interview, you spent about 17 years in the closet at work, then another 14 living openly at the same company. If you had it to do over again, is that the timeline you’d follow?
Under the same circumstances, I would. While I had become an activist, I was pretty much undercover. I really wasn’t willing to risk my career. In a previous answer, I stated that being in One Voice helped me come out at work. Actually, I was outed in the Observer in a column about One Voice. I think that was about 1998 or 1999 and probably since I was just over 50 and not married but living with a “roommate,” most people had put two and two together. And the climate for LGBT was starting to change for the better. When I didn’t get fired or demoted that next week, I took it as a sign that it was okay to gradually become more open.
If you were looking for work as an out young person today and could afford to do so, might you disclose your sexual orientation to potential employers in order to avoid taking a job where you could encounter hostility from colleagues?
I would definitely disclose my sexual orientation to a potential employer. I might still encounter hostility from a colleague, but I could be myself at work. I would also look at the potential job and try to determine if I was walking into a hostile situation, and if I was, maybe I didn’t need to be there.
Do you consider yourself an activist today? What about a pioneer?
I still consider myself an activist, although I don’t have nearly the energy that I did 20 or 30 years ago, so my activities are fewer. I don’t consider myself a pioneer, but someone who in several instances was in the right place at the right time and hopefully was able to do some good in the community.
Have you taken part in any initiatives related to the upcoming mid-term elections?
Other than contributing to various candidates, no. I will be working at the polls for our precinct, as I do most years.
Last but not least, what do you hope to do next?
As I mentioned above, I’m involved with the Charlotte Queer Oral History Project. Our first effort is to capture the history of senior LGBT members so that we don’t lose their valuable history. Some of their stories are pretty unbelievable, and it would be a real loss if they weren’t recorded. All of the information is being stored at UNCC [the University of North Carolina at Charlotte] in Special Collections at Atkins Library and will be available to the public.
By the way, I’m looking for old intake logs from the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard. If anyone has them in their basement or attic, please contact me or Special Collections at the UNCC Atkins Library.
I’m also encouraged by Stonewall Sports, which is looking into starting activities for LGBT seniors. They cover the gamut from sports to meetups that serve others so there’s a lot of potential for the “gay and gray” community. I can see my future involvement with this organization.