History and the people who make it: Fred Pratt

This is the 22nd in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. This is Part 1 of 2.

Fred Pratt was interviewed by Jessica Clawson [C] in 2012.

P: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1956.

C: When did you move to Florida?

P: 1967 or ’68. I have a disability, and there was no education for children with disabilities in Pennsylvania at that time, at least our part of Pennsylvania. And there was in St. Pete, where my grandparents were, so we moved down there so I could have an education. Stayed for college, stayed for the whole thing.

I’m a gay man. I’ve been gay, I’ve always known it, felt since I was little, for as long as I could remember, that I’ve been attracted to guys.

C: You went to undergrad at USF, University of South Florida?

P: Yes. From ’77-’80. It was closest, and I was living with my grandmother and she wasn’t doing very well, and I didn’t want to move her anywhere. And they had a political science program, which I was interested in.

I worked for 16 years as a public assistance specialist for the state of Florida, including food stamps, Medicaid, food, AFDC. I do a lot of phone banking for local candidates. Some state and national candidates, too.

Now I’m on disability retirement, and have been for the last 11-12 years.

C: Did you identify openly [as gay at USF]?

P: No. I didn’t do that because of fear – like I said, I’m in a wheelchair — and I just didn’t feel comfortable, because there was all that homophobia going on. People that were out were getting threatened, beaten up, and things left on their cars. It was just not a good atmosphere.

There was a gay student organization on campus. Between the last part of my junior year and the first part of my senior year, I was ready to come out, and I went looking for the organization. I found their information. Heard nothing from anybody once I called the phone number. I then went to where they said their meeting was going to be, it wasn’t there. They moved to another building. I went to go to another meeting, once I found their new listing. And nothing. They weren’t there. They had moved off-campus, to a restaurant/bar. And then, they moved to a couple of private houses, and after that, I have no idea. The organization just disappeared, I think because of this fear, that these two fraternities were making a lot of noise about having queers on campus by that time.

C: I found when reading through student newspapers, that the USF gay group on campus started much later than at UF or at FSU. They both had things going in like 1970 but nothing I could find related to any gay people on campus there until 1974.

P: That doesn’t surprise me one bit.

When I came up here I felt the culture was different. It was more of an intellectual, affirming, open group. There were still your pockets of homophobia at the University of Florida. But in South Florida, it was really oppressive. I mean, you could really feel it.

C: Do you remember the whole Anita Bryant thing in 1977? Do you think that contributed to the environment?

P: Yes. It encouraged the element that wanted to get rid of the LGBT students that were there. And there was nobody speaking up for the LGBT community.

C: Do you get involved with LGBT-related activism now?

P: I’ve been on the board of the Pride Community Center, I’ve been on the board of the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida, I’ve been on the board when I was going to Metropolitan Community Church, from ’88 to about ’92, ’93.

It was something I needed at the time. It was a place mainly for me to connect with other LGBT people, because I didn’t know anybody. And then I left because I found I wasn’t Christian. I had problems with their Christian ideas, you know?

C: Going back to USF — do you remember anyone who was advocating for LGBT people?

P: In the political science department there were a couple professors that were.  Harry Vanden and Janice Snook. I found out, years later, that Janice Snook was the legal advisor for Tampa NOW. She had a lot of clout in the department.

Harry Vanden was a devout socialist. He just didn’t care. His idea was, “I’m a socialist, it’s a socialist idea that everybody is included.” That was what I got from him.

C: What about your own political orientation?

P: I belong to the Democratic Party, but I belong to the far left of it, far far left. I’ve gone from center to far left in the last 35 years.

It started when I was 18, doing disabled rights, and getting education, jobs, housing for people with disabilities. Then when I came out I immediately jumped into LGBT rights.

I did that because I needed to come out. And because I couldn’t see the difference between disabled rights and LGBT rights. There are differences, I’m not saying there aren’t. But there were a lot of similarities. The right to have a job, the right to have a family.

I have been denied a job as a disabled person. In St. Pete, I went to apply for a dispatcher’s job. And the human resources person, says, “If you want the job you’ve got it. But let me call the person who will be your supervisor to see if this building’s acceptable.” This is 1980. Buildings were just becoming accessible. He gets the guy on the speaker phone. And he says, “One thing, Mr. Pratt’s in a wheelchair.” The guy says, “I don’t want no cripples working for me.”

There’s this long pause, and the human resources guy says, “Mr. Pratt’s in my office and you’re on speakerphone.” I turned around and say, “That’s fine, I don’t want to work for the bigot.”

C: That must be so painful.

P: It was, but I use it as a lesson, I laugh at it.

C: Well, you’re resilient.

P: It’s 35 years of the struggle.

C: Are you involved in any other non-LGBT organizations, activism, now?

P: I was on the board of the Center for Independent Living. We do basic services for people with disabilities. I do a lot of Democratic Party stuff, I’m on their executive committee. I’m on a number of their other committees besides that.

My ideology is let’s get along. I mean, we’re all one people, I’m not talking about New Age, I’m not talking about one government, but I’m talking about we’re all one people. We’re not a group of nations.

One of the astronauts went up and said, “You can look out at the Earth from the space craft and not see any borders.” I like that. I’d really like to get people together and it’s been tough.

C: Gainesville: would you describe it as friendly to LGBT people?

P: Yes. It is, it’s moving a little bit away politically, and I’d like to pull it back.  There’s a strong right movement now to get certain people elected that want to take our rights away.

C: Because we have a non-discrimination ordinance in our city charter?

P: Yes. They tried to repeal it.

C: It was three or four years ago now? Were you involved in that struggle?

P: I was involved in the 1990s when we got sexual orientation added to the county’s anti-discrimination ordinance, which was overturned by the court. Then I was involved in when we got sexual orientation added to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, then gender identity.

C: Which protects trans people.

P: Trans people, yes. And I saw the same faces in the city battle that I saw in the county battle, that were against us. They claimed to be religious. Some of them were, some of them I don’t really believe were. I think they just kind of used that.

C: People on street corners would tell me, “This [is] about keeping men out of women’s bathrooms.” Which is, you know, crazy.

P: It’s stupid. Let’s say it.

My feeling is that they knew that there was a pretty large LGBT group here, and they didn’t know that the trans group was as big as it is. And that the lesbian/gay community would come to their aid.

They also underestimated our organization skills. Between when we got  protections in the county, and when we tried to get protections in the city, we had ten years to organize and strategize.

C: The gay community came to support the trans community in town. It doesn’t always go that way.

P: I’ve heard the stories, yeah. I saw the stories down in Tampa. The gay and lesbian community did not talk to the trans community, for the longest time.

C: Why?

P: I have my suspicions but I don’t know. I think the leaders of the LGBT community said, look, they’re going to come after us next. We need to work with the trans people.

C: The community in Gainesville is pretty tight-knit.

P: Yeah. I think we became tight knit, for our own survival. During the county’s fight, there was a lot of hard feelings and words said between the lesbian community and the gay men. When it went to court and got repealed, we suddenly realized, hey, we’ve got to stop this. We need to fight for each other.

More excerpts from Fred Pratt’s story will run in the July-August Iguana. Search for “Fred Pratt” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations.

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