A foremother of the LGBTQ movement, Tamara Turner graduated from the anti-gay 1950s school of hard knocks. She played a crucial role in shaping the Freedom Socialist Party’s (FSP) groundbreaking program for queer liberation. She was a historian of the gay movement, an ardent bibliophile, and a brilliant satirist who filled her 77 years with commitment, generosity, and humor. Turner died March 22 in Seattle after a long battle with leukemia.
Playwright and director Drew Emery says of her, “She had a quick wit, an undying passion for social and economic justice, and she was flat-out one of the best storytellers I ever knew. I learned a lot from her and have long considered her one of my heroes.”
Merging gay liberation with Marxist feminism. Tamara was the first open lesbian to join Radical Women, FSP’s sister organization, in 1972. Her loyalty was won after extensive discussions of lesbian oppression led her to the conclusion that Radical Women (RW) was serious about gay liberation.
Tamara shared her knowledge of history with the organization, from the influence of early lesbian and gay writers to the origins of the homosexual movement. She particularly brought to life the period of the anti-communist McCarthy witch hunt. She explained how the taint of being queer was used to get rid of radicals, and vice versa. She told her own story of being forced into counseling at the University of Washington for her supposed “mental illness” of lesbianism and of freeing herself from this requirement by declaring herself “cured.”
Raised on her mother’s single income, Turner had a deep knowledge of the centrality of class exploitation and its interconnection with gender and sexuality oppression. So it was logical that she soon joined FSP as well. As she later became fond of saying, “Capitalism can’t have its cake without eating ours too!”
Her influence led to socialist feminist theory embracing the understanding that the oppression of sexual minorities, like sexism and racism, is rooted in the private property system, and dependent on the nuclear family. And she mentored a flood of new lesbian and gay members who joined the party and RW.
But as this multi-issue, class-based analysis gained traction in the gay community, fireworks erupted. In 1973, lesbian separatists spray-painted the RW and FSP meeting hall with slogans like “Straights out of lesbian politics.” Tamara participated in the stinging defense of the right to be radical that followed.
Organizing, writing, spinning ideas. While working for the Pierce County Library system in the mid-1970s, Turner was elected to the union’s contract bargaining team and initiated the selection of FSP founder Clara Fraser as chief negotiator. The resulting landmark contract won a substantial wage and benefit increase, plus a guarantee of constitutional rights on the job, a model grievance procedure, extended seniority rights with separate affirmative action lists, and a broad nondiscrimination clause.
Later in her professional life, she was Director of Medical Library Services at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital for 17 years.
Tamara helped produce the Freedom Socialist in its early years and wrote prolifically for the paper, including the satirical column Malice Aforethought under the byline Ms. Tami. (Her articles are available at socialism.com.) She wrote and performed in innumerable comedy sketches and roasts over the years, with her Elvis Presley impersonation a fan favorite.
With Sam Deaderick, Turner co-authored Gay Resistance, the Hidden History. This exceptional work focuses on the radical roots of the struggle for queer rights from antiquity to the present. She drew colorful descriptions of the 1950s scene for Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging, by Gary Atkins.
Her extensive book collection included many rare volumes, especially of lesbian fiction. Her presentations on lesbians in literature were a hit at events and meetings, including gatherings of the Stonewall Committee for Lesbian/Gay Rights, which FSP and RW were active in during the 1980s and ’90s.
Tamara was generous financially as well as with her knowledge and skills, and left the party a substantial bequest. She also encouraged the donations of others with often riotous fundraising pitches.
A Renaissance woman. Turner appeared in a 1992 play by Drew Emery, Hidden History: True Stories from Seattle’s Gay and Lesbian Elders, which engaged sold-out Seattle audiences before touring in Washington state and Portland, Ore. She called the theater piece “an important antidote” to that period’s right-wing initiative campaign to smash civil rights protections for LGBT people in Washington. She was active in the mobilization against those initiatives and represented FSP in Pride organizing in the early 2000s.
Turner proudly caused a dust-up in the Seattle chapter of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) just last year. A national debate had arisen over whether trans women could belong. She and a couple other Seattleites launched a fiery defense of trans women, as OLOC members elsewhere were doing, and proposed that the group’s statement of purpose welcome them. Anti-trans leaders wouldn’t budge, however, and the controversy continues.
Tamara’s bright mind and warrior spirit will be deeply missed by her comrades, family, and friends. But her legacy is indelible. FSP, RW, and the Seattle-area LGBTQ community and its friends are wiser and better for her influence.