“Making fun of stuff was the way to take the sting out of difficult things,” Sally Sheklow told the Eugene Lesbian History Project. “If you could make it funny, it was survivable.”
From WYMPROV, the lesbian comedy group Sally cofounded, to stand-up routines by Howie Baggadonutz and a wide range of other queer performers, to the scene at clubs like The Embers and the all-ages City Nightclub, and the satire delivered to every voting household by the Special Righteousness Committee – the cultural power of humor, visibility, and affirmation was essential to surviving the attack of Measure 9.
“There were some nights when it was just amazing to be alive.”Gregory Franklyn
When longtime organizer and culture-maker Sally Sheklow died earlier this year, her obituary began, “Greeting each day ready to find humor in the world is a challenge for anyone. Maintaining that humor in a decades-long effort to secure the same freedoms enjoyed by your neighbors is nothing short of miraculous.”
After performing with Eugene’s Footlight Faggots and Lesbian Thesbians in the late ’70s, Sally created the musical The Sound of Lesbians, about the VonTramp Family and their lesbian sex therapist – cut short by a cease and desist letter from copyright attorneys.
The Oregon Citizens Alliance provided even more fertile ground for parody. Songs like “Who Put the Bon in the Lon-Mabon-Mabon,” sung to a 1950s melody, lifted spirits at campaign and community events. Hear Sally sing a verse and talk about writing the song “standing in front of the post office with our [protest] signs…for hours” by clicking on the No on 9 video in the Outliers and Outlaws exhibit.
For Eric Ward, as a Black punk rocker in Eugene in the early ‘90s, improv theater was not his primary jam. But he never missed a WYMPROV! show. “I saw WYMPROV! dozens of times,” he says. “I didn’t care that it wasn’t a punk rock show – it was cultural space I needed to be in.”
Sally and other cultural organizers were endlessly creative in how they brought people together during the long fight against Measure 9 and the other hateful ballot measures that preceded and followed it. Sally’s obit notes that she hosted a Family Freedom Seder in opposition to Measure 9 for 400 guests.
The campaign encouraged and supported creation of affirming social spaces. In the NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit, event organizer D-J wrote, “House and dinner parties are not merely fundraising tools for your campaign…. Money is only one asset the guests will bring with them. They also carry their own stories and histories, ideas and skills, anger and frustrations. They have contacts with other groups of people, at home and at work, that could support the campaign. And they carry a lot of energy with them that you can channel toward the benefit of your campaign.”
On one coordinated night, “Dine Against 9” featured more than 100 dinner parties in the Portland area, with solidarity events in states from Washington and California to Maine, and a glitzy afterparty.
Alongside these campaign-specific social events was a flourishing of comedy, music, street theater, and other performances that lifted up an angry and frightened community.
Howie Baggadonutz & the Power of Representation
By the time the OCA launched Measure 9, Howie Bierbaum had already skewered many a far right and religious zealot with humor and truth-telling. In 1985, broadcasting as Howie Baggadonutz, he co-created Queersville, a gay comedy show that aired live, Sunday nights at 10pm on KBOO.
“We called up Joe Lutz” – the OCA-backed Baptist minister who came close to unseating U.S. Senator Bob Packwood – “and talked to him live, on-air for 7 minutes,” Howie says. “He was vile.” Another subject was anti-gay, supposedly “pro-family” legislative candidate Drew Davis who was caught with a carload of porn and drugs – “ripe for comedy,” Howie remembers. “We called it all out on the show.”
They got threats – “Sometimes people would threaten they’d be waiting for us outside the studio.” But Howie says, “It was really important for gay people to have representation on radio and the stage. Everyone has access to a radio, free. You could listen with headphones in your bedroom as a 15 year old – how empowering!”
That led Howie into years of producing queer shows.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s it was so easy to put stuff together and get an audience. This was pre Will and Grace. We only had indie movies and live performances. I had a mission even though I didn’t know it – creating ways to have visibility and positive images and to bring people together; it was vital for validation and education.”Howie Bierbaum
Along with local lesbian comic Carol Steinel, Howie performed stand-up at community events, fundraisers, and venues like Darcelle’s. He produced the gay variety show Homogenized for several years. With Thomas Lauderdale, he ran a Monday night dance party called Queer Night. Howie cites Linda Shirley – another event producer and KBOO radio host, AKA the Dyke behind the Mic – Don Horn’s Triangle Theater, Darcelle’s, the choruses; “they all had their place and appealed to different people.”
Creating these affirming spaces was an antidote to “how terrifying it was to be out during that time,” Howie says. His house was being vandalized by juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood and he found himself fearful about displaying a No on 9 sign.
“I found it to be a very scary time,” Howie says. “I was a founding member of ACT UP in the late ‘80s. We were emboldened then, underground and fighting back, taking late night direct action, chaining ourselves to the federal building. I thought that energy would transfer over to fighting the OCA, but it was harder. The OCA put us under a microscope. I didn’t feel I could be as up front as with ACT UP. It felt very challenging.”
Building cultural power within the LGBTQ community and with allies had a lasting impact. Two years after the Measure 9 campaign, when the OCA had come back with Measure 13, Howie teamed up again with Thomas Lauderdale to do a benefit show at Cinema 21 with the Del Rubio Triplets. Thomas opened the show with his new band, Pink Martini.
“They lost the battle against queers culturally – that was a pretty quick trip,” Howie says. “But it’s still important to be visible and your true self, no matter what the struggle is. Living your truth and being honest is still a core truth.”
Gregory Franklyn & The Portland Nightscene
In 2017, when The Embers closed after presiding over downtown Portland nightlife for 48 years, Kevin Cook, AKA the legendary entertainer Poison Waters, described its significance to Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“Cook’s first trip to the club came before he was 21. He snuck in, underage, just to see ‘what all the hubbub was about.’ He described the environment as reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge! ‘Embers is a dance club, a performance venue, a gathering space,’ Cook said. ‘One side is a big dance floor – I’ll even use the word discotheque – with lights and smoke and mirrors. The other side there are drag shows many nights of the week.’
“But Embers was also more than just a nightclub, Cook said. ‘In the late ’80s, early ’90s, when I came about … Embers was such a welcoming space for folks who were figuring out who they are. HIV and AIDS hit about that time, and people were really lost for a lot of reasons,’ he said. ‘As in many aspects of the community, the drag community was hit really hard. Embers was… a place for performers to just be there to support one another, and then when it came time to raise funds and support for friends who needed it, a place to grieve and be together.’”
Gregory Franklyn found his community at The Embers. He’d been “trying to be a rock star” in Eureka, California and wanted a larger market for his music. “Portland was just right for me – I had culture shock for 20 minutes, maybe, and then I was home. Incidentally, Lon Mabon followed me here from California,” Gregory says, laughing. “I didn’t bring him here, I swear! He was involved with a cult called Lighthouse Ranch. The closest city, where they would come to recruit, was Eureka.”
When Gregory arrived in Portland, he says, “I felt embraced by the gay community here. It was the first I’d been associated with because where I was in Humboldt County, there wasn’t one. This was not long after Dan White had murdered Harvey Milk. Anita Bryant was doing her thing. Gay people were not accepted like we are today. I mean, America was not for us. It was against us at the time.”
He got involved with the gay-focused Metropolitan Community Church and produced television shows through Portland Cable Access – including PSAs about the effects of Measure 9 and the long-running series NightScene and Outrageous, broadcast from the all-ages City Nightclub. (These history-making shows are now being archived at the Stonewall National Museum & Archive in Fort Lauderdale. Gregory says, “Kids coming up in rural areas who don’t have the kind of community that I have are going to be able to see these programs and understand that they’re not alone; that they’re coming from a whole history and culture.” Scroll down for his 1996 documentary about City Nightclub.)
Gregory also performed regularly at The Embers. He and other musicians formed a group called Chain Reaction that would sing live in between Drag Queen performances. “We each had our specialty. My thing was pop music – my signature song was Dobie Gray’s ‘Drift Away.’ One of us was show tunes, one was country, one was alternative. We covered the whole spectrum.”
Though he later joined the staff at the cable access station, during the Measure 9 campaign he was unemployed, having been fired after his manager saw him on news coverage of the Gay Pride parade.
“The main thing of that whole period,” Gregory says, “was fear and anger. We were pretty sure that a lot of people were going to lose their jobs because of Measure 9. And we were dealing with AIDS at the same time. I was living in a little studio apartment near Lloyd Center, and at one point I was sitting there realizing that I had lost five personal friends so far that year, and it was only March. That was going on at the same time as Measure 9 was happening. It was a horrible, horrible time.”
“There were some nights when it was just amazing to be alive,” Gregory remembers. “That’s something that performers at the time gave to the community. We were all angry and frightened and very much personally feeling what was at stake. But we almost never mentioned Measure 9 during shows.”
“We were trying to take people away from that and provide a little levity to a pretty desperately bad situation. It was about, ‘Let’s do something else for a minute.'”Gregory Franklyn
At the same time, the performance community was constantly involved in fundraising, whether for the fight against Measure 9, or to meet the needs of a community stricken by HIV/AIDS.
The popularity of the performers and the dance floor at The Embers meant “there was everybody in that environment and a lot of them were allies; straight people were always welcome there. On weekend nights, the place was always packed.”
“What we should bring forward from that time,” Gregory says, “is the image of a community, all of us pushing in the same direction, even if we’re not always on the same page. The gay community in Portland is like any family in the sense that we bicker and fight among ourselves. Particularly the Drag Queens at The Embers. We throw shade on one another all the time, but when the rubber hits the road and these girls are in trouble, we pull together. We can always get back to throwing shade later, after the threat has been dealt with.”
The Special Righteousness Committee
Also known as the Family Alliance of God (FAG), the Special Righteousness Committee (SRC) was a legal political action committee formed in 1992 “to show how ridiculous the OCA and its ‘No Special Rights’ committee really are.” In materials now archived at the Oregon Historical Society, SRC wrote, “We use satire to hold up a mirror so Lon Mabon can see his own true reflection.”
The brainchild of a now-deceased Radical Faerie who, for these purposes, went by the name M. Dennis Moore, SRC argued for “a consistent approach to legislating morality.” He told The Oregonian he wanted to “draw attention to… the key issue in Measure 9: Do voters want to establish the precedent that some people can make their personal morality into public policy?”
“We are just as offended by oyster-eating, shaving and mixed fibers as the OCA is offended by homosexuality. We have just as much right as the OCA does to change the state constitution to require government discrimination against people whose behavior we don’t like.”Special Righteousness Committee
To make their point, they conducted a “Pure Fibers Fashion Parade” in front of Nordstroms, and a protest against eating oysters outside an iconic seafood restaurant. They even filed their own initiative petition to write all of the biblical Book of Leviticus into Oregon’s Constitution.
Their most far-reaching piece of agit-prop, delivered to every household with a registered voter in the state of Oregon via the Voters Pamphlet, was an Argument in Favor of Measure 9 that ends with: “AGREE WITH US OR BURN IN HELL!”
Their argument in favor of Measure 9 as “the first step in facilitating our militant moral agenda” appeared side-by-side with Lon Mabon’s Argument in Favor.
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.