Q&A with Michael Helquist, author of Stonewall Honor-winning ‘Marie Equi’

Still of Marie Equi’s mug shot from YouTube.

This Friday, historian and activist Michael Helquist will discuss his novel, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, which won the 2016 Stonewall Honor – given to “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience” – for Non-Fiction.

He will also be signing books, which will be for sale in the Knight Library Browsing Room during his visit on March 18 at 3 p.m.

Equi was an activist who became a doctor after graduating from the University of Oregon in the early 1900s. Helquist believes she was the first publicly known lesbian on the West Coast. When he learned that Equi horse-whipped a superintendent whom she believed wasn’t paying her girlfriend fairly, Helquist said he had to learn more.

How do you think Marie Equi’s story is still relevant today? Imagine someone today who fights on the front lines of issues like voting rights, better working conditions, reproductive rights, economic justice, and free speech and antiwar. She did all of that 100 years ago. So what’s discouraging and ironic a bit is that those are the same issues we’re talking about now. And then the other thing on a more personal level that I think is important is she tried to achieve a balance in her life in the way that many of us try to do today. She fought a profession and became a doctor, she tried to maintain a personal relationship, and then she also followed her passion which is mostly in politics.

What motivated you to write about Equi? When I first heard about her I was very captivated by her adventurous and compelling story because she was so bold and so fiercely independent trying to make a life for herself that I found it both inspiring and extra compelling. She ended up facing so many issues to what’s going on today. The other thing is that she spent most of her adult life in Portland and I’m from Portland originally.

What do you want people to learn from Equi’s story? I would like them to get a really good sense of this woman because she’s important not only to Oregon’s history and to Western history, but I think she’s important to her time, for how an individual struggles to find her own way and to create a life that worked for her while she also defended the rights of others. I’d also like for people to see that it’s just a really good story. Although it’s a historical biography, they say it reads like a novel.

How long did it take you to write this novel? And how did you research for it? I’ve been working on it for 10 years. This book was particularly a challenge because there were not very many readily available journals or diaries that Marie Equi kept. What she did have growing up was either thrown away or lost after she died. But she was featured in more than 300 newspaper articles so I was able to get a lot of information and then I also traveled to all the places where she lived.

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