On the final Sunday before Election Day, more than 5,000 people packed into Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square to unite behind the message, “Love Thy Neighbor.” Along with the chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Oregon, the state AFL-CIO president and a number of prominent business leaders, speakers included clergy and leaders from nearly every major religious denomination.
As The Oregonian reported at the time, each speaker “urged a vote against the anti-gay measure in short, one- or two-sentence speeches, all ending with the phrase, ‘that’s why I vote with you . . . No on 9.’ The crowd…joined in to shout the last three words.”
The idea for the scriptural rally theme, Love Thy Neighbor, came from faith leaders like Rabbi Rose and Lutheran pastor Joe Smith, Dan Stutesman remembers. “They contacted me and said, “We want to do something.”
“Now is not the time to be silent. If you ever thought of standing up for something, now is the day for you to stand up.”Rev. Joe Smith of St. James Lutheran Church, Love Thy Neighbor Rally
With the attack on civil rights and the gay and lesbian community led by Bible-quoting activists affiliated with the national Christian Right, and with campaigning taking place in Christian Right churches, lifting up faith-based opposition to Measure 9 was seen as critical. It was important not only to the undecided voters that each side was working to persuade, but to the LGBTQ folks within religious denominations who experienced the OCA’s rhetoric as doubly damning.
For some, it was a time of coming out not only as LGBTQ in largely heterosexual settings, but also of coming out as a person of faith within the LGBTQ community. Looking back on photos, news accounts, and community papers from that time reveals a visible burgeoning of pro-LGBTQ (or at a minimum, anti-Measure 9) activity across the faith spectrum – from educational sessions and social action committee meetings to rallies, prayer circles, and sermons from pulpits. (Read more about the work in African American churches.)
Congregation Beth Israel, for example – established in 1858, self-described as “the leading voice of Reform Judaism in Oregon,” and as we write this 30 years later, the target of antisemitic vandalism – already had a very active social committee. Member David Sarasohn, an editorial columnist for the Oregonian at the time, remembers that they formed a No on 9 subcommittee “which had about 45 people, the largest committee of any kind the congregation had ever had.” That was just one synagogue among the many houses of worship that engaged in the questions raised by Measure 9.
Job Title: Gay Person of Faith
Dan Stutesman was perhaps the only Oregonian at that time employed to be an out, gay person of faith. He was the Gay and Lesbian Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quaker organization founded during World War I that describes itself today as working “with people and partners worldwide, of all faiths and backgrounds, to meet urgent community needs, challenge injustice, and build peace.” AFSC had been working on sexuality issues since 1961, Dan says, “ahead of the times.”
Having grown up gay in a “split family” – half Protestant, half Catholic – then training at Catholic University as a priest, Dan understood his lifelong avocation as working to bridge divides.
His first faith-based organizing job was with Fellowship for Reconciliation, where he primarily worked in schools and churches on disarmament and peace and justice issues. Once he started working for AFSC’s gay and lesbian program in 1986, his sexuality was part of his calling card; “I was introduced as gay” he says.
“It was still very new for people,” Dan says. “I’d be invited to speak to the Baptists, for example. They had never talked to an out gay person.”
AFSC’s work was broadly focused on LGBT equality. Part of this was AIDS education, which provided opportunities, through various committees and boards, “to make connections out in the community,” Dan says. He served on Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s AIDS Council, for example, which entailed road trips around the state. “I spoke with all of the teachers in John Day” (a small town in the middle of the vast high desert of eastern Oregon). “I was there to talk about AIDS, but of course I spoke about homophobia too.”
Once the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) began to use homophobia as an organizing tool, Dan’s position with AFSC allowed him to serve as the informal coordinator of a group of faith-based activists who became known as People of Faith Against Bigotry (PFAB).
Besides having a salary that supported his community organizing, Dan’s board included “substantial people like ministers and psychiatrists” that he could deploy to whichever speaking engagements and audiences needed to hear from such mainstream authorities.
People of Faith Against Bigotry
The core of PFAB, Dan remembers, was about 12 people from different faith backgrounds, mostly LGBTQ, who “met all the time, quite often – maybe weekly – to decide different things” and coordinate their outreach work. This steering committee included both educators and church and synagogue members.
“People of Faith Against Bigotry, representing people of all faiths, organized people all over the state to reach ‘those in the pews.’ They led discussion groups of social principles, invited lesbians and gay men to speak in their churches and synagogues, held days of reconciliation, distributed packets of materials targeted for specific faith groups, held candlelight vigils, and published a full page ad that read ‘The OCA Does Not Speak for Me,’ signed by hundreds of people of all faiths.”From Suzanne Pharr’s account, “The Oregon Campaign,” in a list of a few “shining examples of hope.” (Transformation: Towards a People’s Democracy, pg. 115)
Their methodology was simple. “It was a scattershot approach,” Dan says. “We would take any denomination or faith group where they were, and try to move them one step closer to equality views. They didn’t have to endorse homosexuality.”
They were well aware that each religious organization was “having their own internal fights – and many still are” about LGBTQ inclusion and rights.
As Cecil Prescod, a United Church of Christ minister who was part of PFAB’s core group, remembered in our story about the attacks on a Catholic Church in a farming community outside Portland, “It was such a different era then. Thirty years ago very few churches were welcoming of LGBTQ people and all the mainline denominations had laws forbidding queer clergy. Clergy and laity who stood up for the LGBTQ community felt very much like trailblazers, confronting the possibility of backlash not only from others in their faith community but also the church hierarchy. The threats, withdrawal of financial support, and then the physical intimidation and destruction of sacred spaces – it was terrible, a very scary time.”
Cecil also says, “But in a strange way, it allowed ordinary people to say, ‘No more. They’re destroying our community. We have to say something.’ This was no longer a philosophical discussion. It impacted the real people’s lives, community life. It forced faith communities to say, ‘What are our true values?’ and to move beyond our comfort zone.”
“We got invited to places like the Seventh Day Adventists,” Dan recalls. “I was shocked, but happy to be invited.” They met each group where they were at. “It was about whatever next step was right for them, towards opposing discrimination and supporting equality.”
For some denominations, the discrimination they had faced for their religious beliefs became the basis for opposing Measure 9. Cecil says, “The Idaho Citizens Alliance failed in that state in part because within the DNA of the Mormon population there was religious persecution. The same was true for the Catholic Church in Oregon. The history of having been targeted by the KKK in the early twentieth century was in the DNA of Catholics in Oregon.” (Learn more in Story 8.)
Dan remembers PFAB’s work as being complementary to the other religious leadership voices prominent in the campaign. Rodney Paige, the executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO), was featured in many high profile speaking engagements. EMO lobbyist Ellen Lowe (known by some as the Church Lady like the popular Dana Carey character on Saturday Night Live from that time) was a primary spokesperson for the No on 9 Steering Committee.
“Some of my views were more radical than EMO’s,” Dan says, “but I tried to focus on what we had in common. They never tried to influence PFAB or tell us what to do. It was a positive relationship.”
Of the grassroots work in faith communities spurred by the fight over Measure 9, Dan is clear: “We actually did make a difference.”
Then & Now
Looking back 30 years to the many forums where Dan discussed or debated the Christian Right’s characterization of LGBTQ people, Dan reflects, “It was the nascent beginning of QAnon thinking. What they were saying about us was so outlandish, I never knew if they really believed what they were saying. I remember asking to see the ‘gay agenda’ they kept claiming existed. They had one printed up, something made up by some crazy person. We didn’t have a common truth.”
Dan points to Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow, a self-described “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom” who recently had to defend herself against claims that she promotes pedophiles because she supports the LGBTQ community and considers “the notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are white is absolute nonsense.”
Dan says, “We’re in a probably more dangerous place right now,” pointing to “modern day burnings of books that address racism and LGBTQ issues” and the homophobic and transphobic legislation that’s being introduced in so many places around the country.
For Cecil, the memory of the No on 9 era combined with the fact that “conditions are horrible today” is a reminder that “every era confronts challenges and things that are frightening. What we can learn from hearing the stories of the past is how our ancestors confronted those issues and sought to make changes.”
“Things won’t ever be fine. Every generation confronts its challenges. We have to continue the good struggle.”Rev. Cecil Prescod
Suggestions for Action from People of Faith Against Bigotry
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.