35 Years Later
Local leader recalls the early days of Pride in Phoenix
By Art Martori - April 9, 2015
The IHOP on 19th and Northern avenues in Phoenix isn’t quite the gayborood hotspot, but longtime LGBT activist Donna Taylor seems to like it fine as she deliberately picks her way though a Belgian waffle.
Joined by Jean Simeone, her partner of more than 30 years, Taylor is telling a story about one of the first marches in Phoenix that bore the Pride moniker. Well, she’s trying at least.
Taylor sighs as her partner interrupts for like the umpteenth time. It’s part of their dynamic; Taylor, 65, is more reserved while Simeone, also 65, often lets her New Yorker’s outspokenness derail conversations. Taylor begins again. It was in the summer of 1981. At the time, it seemed just like another day.
“It was just one of those days, clear blue skies, all of that. I remember Shamoo from Shamoo’s bar, which was way back in history,” she continues. “He had gotten a flatbed truck, and he’d put all his dancers from his bar up there. We had all these dancers up on a flatbed truck and music just blaring. It was funnier than heck.
“They were seeing us go by but they weren’t saying much. They were just kind of surprised. They were half ignoring it. It wasn’t like the modern-day Prides, when you have people in different costumes and different types of hair.”
The event she’s describing is the genesis of Phoenix Pride. Although LGBT advocacy in Arizona had been around for a while by then, the 1981 parade represented the beginning of a sustained effort that would eventually become the Phoenix Pride of today.
Taylor has been a tireless fighter for equality since the early days, but hers is far from a household name. She represents the obscure early history of the Phoenix LGBT community, whose members have since dipped back into anonymity or passed away. And for Taylor, the lack of recognition is just fine.
“It’s OK. It’s absolutely fine, because I know what I did,” she says. “I will go to my grave with that. If it made it so that just one person was not committing suicide in our community, then that’s fine with me.”
Again, Simeone cuts in.
“I’m the one that’s mad. I see what she did. I was by her side,” Simeone says. “Donna was part of this way back when. I’ve been mad ever since.”
Indeed, it was anger, in fact, that motivated Taylor in those early years. Rather than a sense of duty or vision toward the future, Taylor describes it as simply having enough, a human reaction to some intolerable thing like pain or sorrow, or oppression.
“I wasn’t scared,” she says. “I was plain mad most of the time.”
By the late 1970s Taylor was out of the closet after ending a marriage that had been forced upon her, despite her obvious sexual orientation, by a domineering mother. It produced a son with severe emotional issues. She was a single mother struggling to begin a career and raise a child, and at the same time grow into her new identity.
Taylor says her station as a single mother also put her in a difficult position among lesbians, who tended to avoid her. Meanwhile, the LGBT community as a whole was splintered. As early as 1979, Taylor remembers, she was attending marches that had appropriated the name Pride, yet no group had emerged as a single representative organization.
“At that time it was a separatist community. The lesbians didn’t like me because I had a son. And I’m like, I can’t control that,’ she says. “The guys were saying the lesbians were taking over, and the lesbians were saying the guys were taking over.
“That’s how we identified each other, ‘What bar do you go to?’ That was the code word.”
Simeone chimes in: “We were blowing each other up because we were all on power trips over who was doing what.”
With the 1981 Phoenix Pride march, though, something stuck. The LGBT community had a rallying point. Phoenix Pride parades and festivals continued year after year. Key individuals emerged as leaders. One of them, Linda Hoffman, now 65, has been involved in some way for more than two decades.
Hoffman remembers the early years when Phoenix Pride was a less-organized version of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit that today garners support from local businesses, networks with other LGBT advocacy groups and draws thousands of people to the annual Phoenix Pride festival.
Each year, Phoenix Pride names a recipient of the Linda Hoffman Spirit Award for their contribution to the LGBT community.
“The name wasn’t so imperative back then, it was the event. It didn’t matter who put it on,” Hoffman says. “People burned out, and then somebody else would show up. But it wasn’t really a group. It just kind of happened.”
While Phoenix Pride slowly coalesced, Taylor had returned to school and before long started to organize the LGBT community at Arizona State University. Taylor describes struggling to gain cooperation with student organizations, which seemed to resist legitimizing her work. Eventually, she took matters into her own hands.
“I went around to every one of the professors I could find and I introduced myself,” Taylor remembers, describing her one-woman campaign. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Donna and I’m a lesbian. I just want to let you know this. If you have any gay or lesbian people in your classes who seem uncomfortable, they can always come and talk to me.’”
Taylor and Hoffman would eventually work together in the early and mid 2000s, when they both served on the board of directors for Phoenix Pride. By then, Hoffman remembers, Taylor had come to be known as part of the old guard.
“She’s a hard worker. A very hard worker,” Hoffman says. “Her heart is in the right place. I’d ask her to do anything, and she had ideas to do things. A lot of people have been on the board over the years, and I would have to instruct them what I wanted to do. She had the initiative.”
Taylor remains humble. Tonight she’s sitting with her partner at a table toward the edge of the dining room at Harley’s Italian Bistro.
“Wherever I felt that I could be of service,” she says. “It was very loose and very low key, people just tapping people on the shoulder and saying hey this is what we’re going to do. It was a rumor thing.”
It’s about 6 p.m. on a Friday, and the Melrose neighborhood destination is quickly filling up with fabulous, beautiful people. But rather than eying the social scene, the couple remains fascinated by their menus, with pages tucked inside the covers of vintage cookbooks.
“Welcome to Harley’s!” The server seems to sense there’s significance to Taylor and Simeone’s visit.
Taylor offers a brief sideways glance followed by, “Glad to be here.”
As the discussion turns to the old days, Simeone starts getting animated. “Let me talk, please, Jean?” Taylor offers gently. “Eat.”
Not long after Taylor came out and started crusading for gay rights, she met a woman at a New Year’s Eve party. It was 1983. The woman who initially annoyed Donna Taylor with her habit of leaning in close to hear people speak was Jean Simeone.
“I went home with her,” Taylor admits. “And we’ve had a one-night stand that lasted 32 years.”
Their fling, as it were, came to an end on Oct. 17, 2014, as Taylor heard the news she’d awaited for more than three decades. Seconds after the ruling, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage in Arizona, Taylor left work for the day. She needed to pick up her partner. She needed to find their pastor.
“When they made the decision around 9:15, I stood up,” Taylor remembers. “I told my boss, ‘I’m outta here.’ They all stood up and applauded me as I walked out the door. We put on a slam-bang wedding.”