In the early 1980s, when a terrifying new disease began striking down gay men, information was hard to come by. The Centers for Disease Control didn’t hold televised briefings, mainstream media paid scant attention — and the internet didn’t exist.
So members of Seattle’s tight-knit gay community would snap up the weekly editions of the Seattle Gay News. Editor George Bakan made it his mission to provide as much detail as he and his staff could gather about the rapidly spreading scourge called AIDS. Later, as the toll began to mount, they were the first to honor the lives of the victims with page after page of free obituaries.
But Mr. Bakan, 78, who died June 7 at his desk in the paper’s Capitol Hill office, had an impact that extended far beyond the newspaper’s circulation.
“He may have been the most influential advocate for LGBTQ rights in Seattle’s history,” said Tom Rasmussen, the first openly gay man elected to the City Council. “He spanned decades, and generations, in this community.”
From marching on Washington, D.C., to demand funding for AIDS research, to rallying in Seattle a quarter-century later in support of marriage equality, Mr. Bakan was a driving force behind many of the reforms that helped move the gay community out of the margins. He exerted his charm and oratorical prowess to woo friendly candidates and press legislators for anti-discrimination laws and workplace protections, said longtime SGN colleague Rick McKinnon. The two of them made countless trips to Olympia over the years — a few of which were confrontational.
“He could be pretty blunt, and sometimes he rubbed people the wrong way,” McKinnon said. “But it was never to be malicious. If he felt strongly about something, he didn’t back down.”
Nate Gowdy, who got his start as a professional photographer at SGN, often described his former boss as “grumpy Santa” — a nod to Mr. Bakan’s white mane and beard, rosy cheeks and gruff, but big-hearted, personality.
“You could be in a full-on argument with him, then two minutes later be cracking jokes together,” Gowdy said.
To drag queen and gender-queer activist Aleksa Manila, Mr. Bakan was “the governor of Capitol Hill” — the traditional heart of Seattle’s gay community. The lives of LGBTQ people are better today thanks to the battles Mr. Bakan fought on their behalf, she said.
“He wanted to make sure we are safe and that we are happy,” Manila said. “And that we should never close our eyes because the fight is not over.”
During a 2013 tribute to Mr. Bakan, Manila performed one his favorite numbers — a medley of Whitney Houston power ballads with a Filipino flair.
Born in Seattle two months before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Bakan grew up mostly in Bellevue — then a rural paradise for a boy who loved nature. His family later bought a farm in the Tri-Cities area where they grew alfalfa and other crops and raised livestock.
Mr. Bakan served as a Mormon missionary in France and was drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam War. He graduated from the University of Washington when there were no gay role models and being outed could have disastrous consequences. “It was kind of a secretive society,” he said in an oral history recorded as part of the Legacy Project. “People could lose their jobs, could be kicked out of their homes, churches would shun you.”
Mr. Bakan, who yearned for a family of his own, married and settled in the Tri-Cities, where he continued to farm and bought and sold real estate.
He was a loving father who never did anything in a small way, said his daughter, Angela Cragin. “He really had a humongous presence. He was a fearless man.”
It was difficult when Mr. Bakan split with her mother and moved to Seattle, Cragin said, but they kept in touch. A few days before he died, Mr. Bakan virtually attended his granddaughter’s online high school graduation.
“You do something”
From the moment he relocated to Seattle, Mr. Bakan immersed himself in the life of an activist.
He took over the editorship of SGN in 1982, foreseeing its importance as the “gay plague” spread through cities like New York and San Francisco.
“We knew we weren’t going to be spared,” he said, in an interview last year with The Seattle Times. “When you know a disaster is brewing, you do something about it.”
As Seattle’s gay community mobilized to support each other, Mr. Bakan used the pages of the newspaper to not only share information but to urge his readers to be cautious.
“He wanted to break through that sense of denial, to make sure they were taking care of themselves, not putting themselves at risk,” McKinnon said.
With the stigma attached to the disease, even some in the gay community were shocked when Mr. Bakan began memorializing the dead with photographs and stories of their lives. Soon, the paper was filled with obituaries every week.
“It’s a cliché to say someone paved the way — but he did,” Rasmussen said. “He made it possible for other publications to talk about and write about LGBTQ issues.”
Mr. Bakan founded a group called the Seattle AIDS Action Committee, which provided seed money to distribute condoms in bars, paid to send people with AIDS to the marches in Washington, D.C., and helped orchestrate candlelight vigils and fundraisers. Mr. Bakan was also a key organizer of many of the early Pride parades, McKinnon said. He backed the city’s first needle-exchange program and helped with myriad other efforts that sprang up to provide food and hands-on care for people sick with the disease.
After new drugs transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable infection, Mr. Bakan and SGN continued to push for progressive causes including racial equality, transgender rights and affordable housing.
The weekly print newspaper — one of the nation’s oldest gay periodicals — survived into the digital era thanks to loyal advertisers and Mr. Bakan’s relentless efforts to keep it afloat.
“It is really a labor of love and passion,” Rasmussen said. “That he was at his desk when he died is just an incredibly poetic end to an incredibly productive life.”
“He built community”
In recent weeks, Mr. Bakan was working on the paper’s annual Pride edition. Like many newspapers, SGN lost revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Mr. Bakan was delighted when most of the advertisers signed on to support the special edition, McKinnon said.
He was also closely tracking the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and would doubtless have been in the streets himself had his health not been so frail, Manila said.
A cause of death has not been determined, but Mr. Bakan suffered from diabetes and heart problems.
“I am so grateful to George for everything he did throughout his life to pass on our history to the younger generation,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “He built community and worked tirelessly to make our entire city more just, fair and equitable.”
In addition to his daughter, her husband, Daniel, and their daughters Julia, Molly and Lucy, Mr. Bakan is survived by his sister, Nancy Schoeller, also of the Tri-Cities area. A virtual celebration of his life is being planned.