By Agazit Afeworki
With their heads cocked up from their dance floor seats, Seattle’s queer community filled the Wildrose bar to watch a film that profiled one of the great pillars of the 1990s lesbian community in Seattle.
The documentary from filmmaker and journalist Arwen Nicks, called Lesbian Mayor: The Lisa Orth Story, premiered at the bar to a crowd who found seats around aging arcade machines shoved in the corner.
The film was a 40-minute look at how the “Lesbian Mayor” impacted the queer community in Seattle. But the film certainly ended on a somber note as Orth talked about the disappearing landscape in Capitol Hill due to redevelopment and her expected move to Los Angeles.
Orth is a musician, DJ, artist, graphic designer and now sought-after tattoo artist. She was appointed to her figurative municipal-seat for her active role in her community. Mainly, in the grunge Zeitgeist when sub-culture was Seattle’s allure, she existed in all corners of the queer scene. Most notably, she worked for the record label Sub Pop where she designed the cover to Nirvana’s album Bleach.
In the film’s segment “Dance Nights,” Orth described creating graphic “Cherry” advertisements, with real women that people could identify with. She used members of the community as models to say: here’s someone like you, not posters for straight men to drool at.
“Seeing these images of women – very gay, very beautiful women – was like a literal sign telling me where to go to be a part of something amazing,” Nicks said in the film.
For Jenn Ghetto, a musician from the band S, this was a big deal because at that time the queer dance scene was male-dominated. Orth expanded the frame of queer visibility and everything she did laid the foundation for the scene that still exists today, said Ghetto.
Dance nights were unifying for Leigh Riibe, the master facilitator of the film who sourced all the images and news clips showcased on screen.
“At the time, when you’re discovering who you were, she created a safe space,” said Riibe.
Nicks and her film crew let interviewees in the Capitol Hill area film themselves from the comfort of their homes, mainly because there was no budget, but also because it was real punk, she said.
It’s fitting for a film taking its viewers back to punk’s heyday with Orth’s stories narrating it all. The film follows her influential bread crumbs because not soon after filming she left Seattle for Los Angeles.
“I see that Capitol Hill has really lost its soul,” said Orth. “It gives you this other perspective and that’s given to you by the artists, by the musicians, by the queers, by the junkies, all these messy people and when that neighborhood and/or that city changes so much, none of the people that have gotten together to create this amazing vibrant special heart, none of them can afford to live here.”
Nicks was on the same page. She didn’t start with the idea to create a movie on Orth. She knew of her through drummer Stacy Peck, who was given the name “lesbian professor” in the film, since Peck introduced Nicks to the Seattle lesbian scene.
Nicks said her idea came late at night. She’d have these revelations and would send her girlfriend “million dollar idea” texts. They varied in importance but one was timely since “punk” houses, where artists and musicians live collectively, were being demolished all around Capitol Hill.
Nicks claims no intended audience. It’s for someone wants to know about queer history, she said.
She was indifferent to the idea that her film would teach the youth queer community, but if indeed this film captured Orth’s influence on Seattle, then it is fundamentally queer education.
“It’s important to document our history,” said Riibe, “‘cause who the fuck else is going to?”