Hello from the History Department –
At Tacoma’s Elks Temple, there is a guest room named for John Reed (left) and Kenny Olsen (right), longtime friends who became leaders within Tacoma’s gay community. They were instrumental in the establishment of the Imperial Sovereign Court, an organization that endeavors to create a safe, supportive, and social environment for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, transgender and questioning community.
Read more about their friendship and the annual Barony Ball, an event they pioneered that quickly became one of the Tacoma gay community’s most important gatherings, initially held at what is today our Elks Temple.
“We were very close friends,” John recalls, “and I considered him my mentor. Kenny and I were not involved romantically… [but] the Court of Tacoma has always considered us ‘a couple’ since, together, we were the first elected monarchs of the court.”
The pair’s friendship hadn’t begun with a lofty coronation or reign of royalty, but rather with a simple act of kindness. In the summer of 1958, four-year-old John spent a good deal of time at his godparent’s house in South Tacoma. One day, the young boy headed out to play, with the usual warnings from his protective godmother: Don’t wander far, don’t get dirty, and don’t play around with the ruffians.
But as fate would have it, the ruffians spotted John that day. As he recalls, “They approached me with great curiosity and anticipation of ‘roughing’ me up. After pushes, shoves, and attempts to take my doll, I had had enough! I let forth my only weapon: I screamed, loud and long! All of a sudden, an older boy appeared, sending the [ruffians] running … Now guess who that older boy was? You got it! Kenny! How can you not love someone like that?”
This beautiful friendship was cut short, though, when Kenny’s family moved to the opposite end of Tacoma. Nearly two decades passed before their paths crossed again. It was 1973, when John attended Kenny’s famous Christmas party, that the two reconnected. There was a natural rapport between them, and soon they were inseparable. The friends shared a passion for creating costumes and decorations. Kenny, with his abundance of pizzazz and glamour, was happy to teach John, who was eager to learn.
Just a little over a year later, John and Kenny embarked on their first major creative project together. In 1975, John was serving as vice president of the Tacoma Committee, the sole LGBTQ association in town at that time, when Kenny petitioned the organization to undertake establishing the First Barony Ball and the “Court of Tacoma.”
To that point, there hadn’t been much glamour in Tacoma LGBTQ’s community, and certainly no public events. Into the 1970s, gay men still endured intimidation, harassment, unnecessary arrests and physical attacks. There were a few gay-friendly bars, but they were all on the seedier side of town, surrounded by peep shows and tattoo parlors. Religious groups picketed their hangouts. Some hospitals refused to treat them. Police officers would stop them on the streets, as directed by a city ordinance, and make them show they had three pieces of male clothing on; those that did not were arrested.
As John recalls, “Kenny and I wanted to get Tacoma noticed in the gay communities of the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest. Tacoma was usually ignored or made fun of; we were out to change that.” The Tacoma Committee, seeing the value of the event, agreed to fund and facilitate the effort. So, with the consult of the Seattle Barony and the voluntary help of fellow committee members, John and Kenny set about planning the grand, gay affair right here, at this old Elks lodge-turned-event-space, known at the time as the 565 Broadway.
Their first Barony Ball on November 8, 1975, was a blend of theatrics, opulence and social significance. John still feels immense pride when talking about it. It was the first time in Tacoma history that gay men had assembled in one place.
Admission for the Barony was $5. Ticket sales covered the cost of the grand-scale production – decorations, stage sets, props and, of course, crowns. The theme was “Great Scenes from the Silver Screen.” More than 300 people attended, from all over the northwest. As one might expect, the party was legendary.
Along with gambling and dancing, the Barony Ball featured a variety show called “That’s Entertainment?” and the first coronation of a Tacoma Baroness and Baron. It was nothing like anything the local LGBTQ community had experienced. Decked out in outrageous couture costumes, performers and guests packed the ballroom dance floor until the wee hours. And of course, every queen and her escort had a picture taken on the Spanish Steps. The 1975 Barony Ball was the first of many a majestic evening at 565.
The Tacoma Barony and the Courts that emerged afterwards were the first uniquely gay social events held in public in the city. Tacoma LGBTQ community historian Doug Gonzales states, “What happened at the 565 Broadway [today’s McMenamins Elks Temple] all those years ago is important … it was kind of an oasis for the gay community at that time. It was the one place we could do what we wanted to do on our terms, our way. From ’75 to ’85, for those ten years, the 565 was a pretty significant hub for the gay community. It was the one place where it was just ours, at least for a night.”
Flash forward to 2013: The Advocate magazine named Tacoma as the “Gayest City in America.” What a long journey it has been. Much of the city’s progress on the road from gaining acceptance to celebrating gayness is thanks to the actions of John Reed and Kenny Olsen. From enduring harassment in the 1960s and ’70s to the joyful cultural celebrations of 565 Broadway, they created a cohesive LQBTQ community where before there had been none.
Written by assistant historian Emlyn Stenger