“The trick was simply to help progressives and people who reject bigotry to find each other and organize in small communities,” says longtime activist Mike Edera who was living in rural Washington County during Ballot Measure 9. “The Right may be loud and dominant in a community but there are always many who do not agree, but are isolated. Working out a way for folks to gather makes a big difference.”
The votes-to-win calculation in a statewide campaign argued for a nearly exclusive focus on urban and suburban areas (see Story 4). This story is about a few of the people who refused to give up on rural communities.
“It was a function of living in a small town and recognizing that people who might have been your friends a couple of years ago were not your friends anymore,” Mike says of the impact of the divisive social politics of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). “It felt very important to me to understand that.” In a small community, “there was no mechanism for just shutting out the folks you disagreed with – there wasn’t enough density to do that.”
For rural LGBTQ residents, like the “back-to-the-land queers, fairie gatherings, [and] lesbian collectives” described by author and artist Tee Corinne in the Just Out column, “A Report from the Southwest Corner,” community connections were a matter of solidarity and safety.
For straight allies like Mike, it was about not shunning neighbors whose attraction to the OCA was bound up with economic dislocation. “I always felt,” Mike says of OCA supporters in declining timber towns and agricultural areas, “that this was a divided working class. Our opponents were fronting for some of the forces that were running society, but they were not of that. They were an independent force that had come out of years of neglect.”
People Who Are Hard To Talk To
Whether it was coming out as gay or lesbian to people who thought they didn’t know any or trying to connect around common values or economic anxieties, the method was the same. “Some of the most effective work starts with people talking with their neighbors, friends, family and those they work with,” Tee wrote at the time.
What happened then is what’s needed now, Mike says, in this time of even greater polarization.
“The practice was to actually go out and talk to people. Even people that were hard to talk to because I disagreed with them. Our side really made a great effort to connect with these folks, all over the state.”Mike Edera
A listing in Just Out titled “Statewide Organizations Mobilized to Fight the OCA” included groups located in or dedicated to at least 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties. Alongside the Portland-based statewide campaign organization were local groups in the smaller I-5 cities of Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Roseburg, Grants Pass, Medford, and Ashland; groups up and down the coast; and to the eastern Oregon reaches of I-84: from the Gorge Alliance for Human Dignity to Citizens for Human Dignity-Blue Mountain Region in Pendleton, People for Human Dignity in La Grande, and a Malheur County contact on the Idaho border. In the vast rural spaces of southeast Oregon were the Lambda Eastern Oregon Association in Baker City and the Klamath County Coalition for Human Dignity. (The backlash faced by Klamath Falls leader Cindy Patterson is featured in Story 7: Hate Crimes Surge.)
Many of these groups drew their name and inspiration from Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity, co-founded by Marcy Westerling. Marcy’s drive to support and link rural activists became the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), the most durable institution to come out of the entire No on 9 experience. ROP is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and telling its own story. (Western States Center’s relationship with Marcy’s early work – and the close connection your author Holly Pruett had – are part of Story 3: Oregon Democracy Project.)
Marcy shared some of what she was learning in “An Anecdotal Study in Rural Organizing,” an essay for the June, 1992 issue of Oregon Witness, published by the Coalition for Human Dignity (another partner in the Oregon Democracy Project), that was later reprinted in the NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit.
“As the network evolved,” Marcy wrote, “the Rural Organizing Project found its most pivotal role was breaking down the isolation of local leadership. The project found rural leaders facing tremendous barriers in identifying and connecting with allies in their own and other areas. These obstacles range from geographic isolation to a historic silencing of progressive voices and values in more conservative communities.”
There were two primary ways Marcy and rural leaders tackled this isolation. One was technical, the other, very human; both were highly relational.
For as much as urban folks might stereotype rural Oregonians as backwoods or backwards, the scrappy network of small town and frontier leaders that Marcy linked together were among the very first to adopt email. This was 1991 and 1992, several years before the popularization of the World Wide Web. The No on 9 campaign was entirely off-line. But a gay man in Portland named Larry Taylor had a technology background. He heard about what Marcy was doing from a mutual friend and approached her after a meeting.
“I lived in Portland,” Larry says. “There were lots of folks doing stuff in Portland. I saw that I could make a bigger contribution by helping rural communities. I started following Marcy around, going to all of her meetings.”
Larry proposed that one solution to the isolation gays and lesbians in rural Oregon felt was to connect them through email. He dedicated himself to explaining the nuts and bolts and equipping leaders in dozens of small towns and enormous rural counties to get on-line. “I would explain what a modem was,” Larry remembers. “You had to have a phone line, a computer, and software like AOL, which was about all that was commonly available at the time.” Larry was on call to help trouble-shoot when a phone wouldn’t dial up a modem, for example.
The OCA was active statewide, “doing lots of stuff everywhere,” Larry says. Sharing what was happening on the ground over “ROP-Net,” as the email network came to be called, “helped give us a holistic picture of what we were fighting. They’d do something in Klamath Falls and we’d put it on the email so folks in other communities could prepare themselves to fight back when OCA supporters tried the same thing with them.”
Larry was no stranger to anti-gay violence; he had a friend who was beaten with a chain after leaving a gay bar and had grown up in an era of bar raids by police. But living in Portland at that point, he felt relatively safe. The rural folks he met through setting up the email network “truly did feel frightened,” he remembers. “It made the work of breaking down their isolation even more rewarding.”
Achievable Steps Towards a More Inclusive Community
While technology facilitated connections across Oregon’s vast 98,000 square miles, it was a form of something more fundamental: support. Marcy addressed this crucial element in another contribution to the “Action Kit” titled, “Breaking the Isolation: Keeping Leadership Vibrant.”
“It is difficult to create a liberation movement without the presence of viable local groups, and isolated, unsupported leaders rarely keep a group alive. The Project saw that every community group had a need for an infrastructure that not only shared informational resources, but more importantly, allowed those in primary leadership roles to feel supported.”Marcy Westerling, “Breaking the Isolation: Keeping Leadership Vibrant,” NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit
“The support provided by the Rural Organizing Project varied along the continuum from moment to moment and from community to community, but inevitably our organizing included putting forth an obtainable vision of the world we were organizing to create,” Marcy wrote. “This meant checking in on a frequent basis with lead activists to monitor their mood. Often a negative mood reflected a concrete obstacle that, once problem-solved for solutions, returned the lead activists to a position of hope crucial to their ability to inspire others.”
On the road with Marcy, Larry saw, up close, her commitment to uplift. “Marcy’s public face was relentlessly positive and encouraging. She spoke plain language to people. I never fully appreciated what Marcy did ‘til long afterwards. Privately, I could see the work was very difficult for her; she would talk frankly with me about her frustrations.”
Publicly, Marcy – and rural leaders like her – kept their eyes on the prize of a positive vision and achievable steps towards a more inclusive community.
Tee Corinne put it this way: “We may win in November. Then again, we may not. But the networks are coming into place to fight the long and broad battle for human rights, not just for lesbians and gay men, but for all women, people of color and religious minorities as well. In a time when people all over the world need to earn to tolerate and embrace differences, perhaps in southwest Oregon we can find ways to get along with our neighbors to work for a world in which lesbian and gay men can live without fear.”
In words that hit the mark as much today as they did in 1992, Marcy wrote: “As the Christian Right creates a frantic pace for our social change work by setting brush fires for us to rush around and extinguish, local leaders desperately need to remain connected to the bigger picture. Establishing a true democracy that includes the participation of all is a daunting goal. It is often easier to see why liberation cannot happen than to feel it within our grasp. In the face of constant challenges that appear to require an organizational response, we become reactive and worn and are too exhausted to contemplate the additional work of being proactive.”
“In 1992, chaos and uncertainty seem to reign. The value of our organizing to date is that we have given a community hope and belief in the power of our collective strength. For now we fight the bigotry being advanced by the OCA, but our real purpose is to assert the vision of inclusion that we have for our community in a time of challenge.”Marcy Westerling, “An Anecdotal Study in Rural Organizing,” Oregon Witness, the newsletter of the Coalition for Human Dignity, June, 1992
Read more about Marcy’s work in Story 3 and Story 5 and in her obituary on the ROP website. After organizing against the OCA’s state and local ballot measures, Marcy went on to marry Mike Edera and provide hands-on training to organizers in Wyoming, Texas, Maine, New York, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
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.