The Grants Pass Daily Courier in southern Oregon was targeted by protesters for its three-part campaign-season series, “Out of the Closet.”
Among the harrowing scenes captured in the documentary Ballot Measure 9 are several from the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass. A generally conservative I-5 town in between the liberal bastions of Eugene and Ashland, the rural reaches of the community included Radical Faeries, back-to-the-land lesbians, pot farmers, goldminers, survivalists, and more.
The impact of the Measure 9 campaign was documented by Grants Pass Daily Courier reporter Russell Working, who went on to report for The Chicago Tribune. His three-part October series, “Out of the Closet” (not available through any online archives) is recapped in Pat Young’s master’s thesis.
“The first story described what it was like to be gay and living in Josephine County,” Pat Young recounts. “The article also focused on the fears that many gays lived with, by opening with this sentence: ‘Along a rural road where a handful of local gays live, fear whispers with the mountain breezes. You feel it at the mobile home of Tom Tadlock, whose bedroom wall was blasted by a shotgun in July.’ … Some gays thought a minority of people had taken Measure 9 ‘as an excuse to declare open season on them.’”
The second piece in the series focused on Jim and Elise Self, a prominent local couple (Jim was a doctor) and their young adult child, Jen, who then identified as a lesbian. Describing them as an “all American family,” the article shared details of Jen’s coming out process, and how, as parents, they had offered their full love and support. (Today Jen Self, who also goes by Dr. J, connects growing up in Grants Pass during those years to their current work for cultural transformation.)
The final piece in the Daily Courier series, “Measure 9: Moral or malicious?” offered perspective from both religious conservatives and local LGBTQ folks.
A few days later, according to Pat Young’s summary, the paper “published a front-page story on Lon Mabon and his reasons for sponsoring the measure.” Despite this balanced news reporting, the Daily Courier came under immediate fire from Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) proponents. About two dozen began a picket of the paper.
OCA supporter Glenn Diller told the documentary crew, “Today they [the gays] are coming forward. And what’s caused a big controversy here locally: a doctor’s daughter came forward and said ‘I am a lesbian’ and the father and mother and daughter were pictured on the front page of our paper, all of them smiling.”
The protest organizer was Paul Walter, a member of Foundation of Human Understanding, a far-right organization founded by radio evangelist and hypnotism proponent Roy Masters. Masters moved the foundation from Southern California to Grants Pass in 1982. According to The Washington Post, “About 2,000 supporters followed him to the rural Oregon town of 17,000, where they have clashed repeatedly with local residents.”
“The protest organizer,” recounts Pat Young, “said the series was too sympathetic toward gays. He criticized the paper for not publishing a story about a conservative ‘straight’ family to balance the story on the family with the gay daughter. The newspaper editor defended the series by saying he was showing both sides of the debate.”
In the documentary, Elise Self says, “The newspaper was picketed for days and days. We went and talked to the editor shortly after our article came out, and he confided in us that the OCA was the angriest about our article, because it showed everyday people, a family.”
The Daily Courier wasn’t the only target of the protesters. The Selfs received hate mail stating that Jen should be “put to death.” As Jim Self told the documentary crew, “It’s the first time in my life that I felt like having a loaded gun in my house. And I don’t like to say that. I was scared.”
This painful experience of a divided community earned a mention in the 2010 celebration of the Daily Courier’s 125th Anniversary. In a review article titled, “Newspaper proudest of times it’s helped community,” it noted, “The newspaper has often found itself at the center of controversy and community.
“In 1992, Foundation of Human Understanding member Paul Walter organized a picket of the Courier for what was characterized as a too-liberal slant, especially related to two series, one on [Roy] Masters and another on Ballot Measure 9, which would have required the government and educators to teach children that homosexuality is ‘abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.’ Walter was again among the pickets who protested in 1993 after the newspaper continued to publish ‘For Better or for Worse,’ even though the comic strip included a homosexual character. Walter again picketed in 1994, when the Courier published an article about a lesbian-containing comic the paper didn’t carry.”
“When we first found out about our daughter we thought we were the only people in Grants Pass who even knew a gay person,” Elise Self says in the documentary. “That’s how closeted the community was then, how unaware we both were, and how isolated you feel. And then you start reaching out – a whole new world has opened up for us.”
Despite the hate mail and threats that resulted from telling their family’s story in the Daily Courier, Elise told the film crew, “The overwhelming response we received was positive. We even got a letter from the local Methodist Church signed by well over 100 members of the congregation, thanking us for being willing to stand up publicly for our daughter.”
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.