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Early Charlotte gay rights ‘warrior’ Don King dies of cancer

Don King arrived in Charlotte in the 1970s and became one of the region’s early and most outspoken activists for the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

King was passionate and firm. But always, whether standing up for gay men being entrapped by police or playing competitive bridge, King did it with a gentle, articulate Southern zeal.

Thursday, King, a retired Observer employee who worked several jobs including promotions, copy editing and calling out words at the annual spelling bee, died after a long illness. He was 72.

Arrangements were incomplete Thursday.

Friends say he was raised in Eastern North Carolina. In 1967, he was married and a sports writer for a Durham newspaper, but four years later, at 29, he and his wife were separated. He gradually began to “come out,” according to a story in QNotes, the newspaper/website focusing on Charlotte gays and lesbians, where King was the first editor in 1986 while he worked for the Observer.

King arrived in Charlotte in the late 1970s openly gay and found a more embracing gay community, the QNotes story said. He quickly became one of the city’s gay rights leaders, a dangerous move then.

“Before any gay professionals were out in the community, Don was out and he was speaking up for gays,” said Tom Warshauer, community and commerce manager in the city’s Neighborhood & Business Services Department. “It could cost you your job back then.”

Rolfe Neill, the Observer’s publisher then, said he heard concerns from managers in the newspaper’s advertising department, but Neill said he never heard complaints from readers or advertisers. He supported King.

“It was his business,” he said. “He provided a very strong and visionary leadership for the gay community at a time when gays didn’t have nearly the acceptance and understanding that we do today.

“He set a good example in advancing the cause that needed to be advanced.”

King’s gentle voice continues to greet callers to the Observer’s main number – 704-358-5000.

Over the years, he helped start the Gay Pride Parade in Charlotte and drew attention to gay men getting entrapped and arrested by police in parks. Even after leaving as QNotes editor in 1987, King continued to write stories warning gay men about undercover police officers targeting gay men. In the 1980s, King ran a gay and lesbian bookstore in his apartment on East Boulevard, said Jim Yarbrough, QNotes’ publisher.

“He did an awful lot of work on the entrapment issue,” said QNotes current editor Matt Comer. “I can’t emphasize enough how important Don King was to the early gay community in Charlotte. He was a real warrior.”

For many years, the Charlotte Business Guild, the LGBT chamber, had a service award named in King’s honor. His name was removed a few years ago at his request because he thought so many others had carried on the fight after him, said Bert Woodard, a past president of the business guild.

“It was never not for him because he was that important to the cause,” Woodard said.

Even during his activist years, King always remained warm and willing to play any role for the newspaper or do whatever he could for a friend or the Charlotte Bridge Club, of which he was a devoted member.

He devoutly played competitive bridge and practiced yoga, particularly after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago.

King remained active to the end, taking a trip to Mexico to practice yoga this summer and another trip to Greece last year.

King was Alice Folger’s favorite bridge partner. For the last two years, they played twice a week at the Charlotte Bridge Club at Latta Park. They last played together 10 days ago.

“I was a very lucky lady to have known Don and play bridge with him,” Folger said. “He always made you feel like you were his best bud. He had this great mind ... this keen sense of math. Bridge is a math game.

“He never got upset if you made a stupid move. He was too much a gentleman for that. Always before each game, he’d compliment someone for the new pink blouse they were wearing, or for their new haircut. He exuberantly began each game, even when he wasn’t feeling well, with ‘OK, we’re going to have a great game today.’ ”

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