Sallie Fiske, 75; Gay Activist, Pioneering Television Journalist
Sallie Maranda Fiske, a pioneering journalist and lesbian activist who was an important advisor in the early days of West Hollywood’s incorporation, died Feb. 19 at her home in that city.
She was 75 and had been in poor health for the last year, said longtime friend Ed Garren.
Fiske was among the first women to work in broadcast journalism in Los Angeles. She was a news editor at KCOP-TV Channel 13 in the late 1950s who worked for newscaster Baxter Ward before he became a Los Angeles County supervisor. She hosted her own daily afternoon talk show until KCOP fired her in 1977 for disclosing her sexual orientation on air.
During the 1970s and 1980s she was centrally involved in several prominent campaigns, including the successful drive to defeat the so-called Briggs Initiative, a 1978 state ballot measure that would have permitted school boards to identify and fire gay teachers. She also managed the campaign of West Hollywood’s first mayor, Valerie Terrigno.
Described by friends as a selfless and intensely private person, she was beloved as a grande dame of the local gay and lesbian community.
“She was just a person to stand up and be counted” on issues of critical importance in the community, said Norman Stanley, another longtime friend.
Born in San Francisco but raised in Southern California, Fiske was the daughter of Frank Fiske, a Los Angeles journalist, and Dorothy Guthrie, an actress. After graduating from Fullerton College in the late 1940s, she worked for the May Co. department store chain as a fashion buyer and in advertising and public relations.
At KCOP, she hosted a talk show called “Strictly for Women,” which debuted in 1956.
She also wrote news for Ward’s evening broadcast until leaving in 1962 to work again in advertising.
She returned to television in the 1970s to host another afternoon talk show on KCOP. In 1977, at the height of conservative crusader Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual “Save Our Children” campaign, Fiske decided to disclose on air that she was a lesbian.
“She had been in the closet her whole life. She just felt, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ ” longtime friend and fellow activist Ivy Bottini recalled about Fiske’s decision.
It was a daring move, coming only a few years after the American Psychiatric Assn.’s decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. Fiske lost her job a few days after the broadcast and never worked in broadcast journalism again.
The year after she came out as a lesbian, Fiske was hired as the publicist for the anti-Briggs campaign. Bottini, who was also involved in the effort to defeat the measure, said Fiske played an indispensable role, helping with fundraising as well as overall strategy.
The measure went down in a resounding loss.
In the 1980s, Fiske began to work for West Hollywood cityhood and was influential behind the scenes in its fledgling government.
“She played a role in developing our nondiscrimination policies and ordinances, in particular our domestic partnership legislation,” said John Heilman, who was the city’s second mayor and has served on its council since 1984.
During her work on the anti-Briggs campaign, Fiske met Terrigno and they become close friends.
Fiske, among others, began to urge Terrigno toward politics.
In 1984, Fiske managed Terrigno’s successful race for a seat on West Hollywood’s first City Council. When the council chose Terrigno as mayor, she became the first acknowledged lesbian leader of an American community.
Terrigno was forced to resign two years later when she was convicted of embezzling funds from a jobs program for the poor.
Fiske went on to launch the West Hollywood Paper, a weekly newspaper, in 1985, but it failed to make money and lasted only two years. After it closed, Fiske focused on freelance projects, including editing “Queer Blood,” a book about the origins of HIV published by Aries Rising Press in 1994.
Fiske, who was briefly married in the 1950s, is survived by a daughter, Deborah, and a granddaughter, Sallie.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. April 18, at ONE International Gay & Lesbian Archives, 909 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90007. Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to the archive in her memory.
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