Sarah Stephens moved to Portland from Los Angeles, where she’d worked for the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus – “a very big powerful Political Action Committee at the time,” she says, “all the big names: Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand, Roseanne Barr.”
They had hired her because of her prior work on Central American issues. “Many of the housekeepers of the women involved had fled as refugees from Central America. The Caucus used its celebrity power to raise money for Central America solidarity work through big benefit concerts and houseparties that I helped organize,” Sarah says.
Coming out of that, she had no idea what she would do once she got to Portland. But Jeff Malachowsky, Western States Center executive director at the time and a member of the campaign steering committee, encouraged her to work on No on 9. “I got hired to do celebrity outreach, or whatever it was called,” Sarah remembers. “I didn’t feel welcome; the atmosphere was toxic and crazy. It scared me and I didn’t have any idea how to plug in. But I made two of my best friends in the world – Scot Nakagawa and Jack [then going by Linda Shirley].”
“We tried to figure out, how do we connect this incredibly outrageous story, of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, with the rest of the world?”Sarah Stephens, co-founder, Artists for a Hate Free America
The gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant was based in Portland, the setting for his acclaimed indie movie Drugstore Cowboy. My Own Private Idaho, starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, had recently been released. “Scot was a key validator” when it came to making the case for the stakes in Oregon, Sarah says, and “Gus adored Scot.”
“Gus brilliantly used his name and influence in just the right ways to make it a very hip thing, and to make Oregon matter,” Sarah says.
Sarah and Scot worked with Gus and Portland-based concert promoter and producer Chris Monlux to organize a Hollywood houseparty for No on 9, attended by Lily Tomlin, Roseanne, Faye Dunaway and “a whole ton of other celebrities,” Sarah remembers.
“I knew how to make it work in Hollywood and could connect the dots. The No on 9 campaign leadership was there; it was surreal – worlds colliding! – but it was great. We raised some money, but more importantly, the story became national. It was a New York Times story, that Hollywood was outraged and up in arms.”
One person in attendance was Danny Goldberg, the President of Gold Mountain Records, the grunge/alt label of Atlantic Records at the time. Danny was also the manager of Nirvana. Sarah and Scot pitched him on doing a benefit concert featuring the band.
Held at the Portland racetrack, the concert drew 6,000 fans which The Oregonian reported was “roughly half of what the promoters initially thought the show might sell.”
“Master of ceremonies for the four-band concert was Jello Biafra, former singer for the Dead Kennedys, currently a touring political firebrand and ‘spoken-word artist.’ Biafra used his soapbox to warn of ‘Christian supremacists’ who would ‘peep into your windows the next time you want to smell some teen spirit,’” The Oregonian wrote. Panning Nirvana’s performance, the critic noted, “the event did seem to be a somewhat effective forum to get young voters to pay attention to Ballot Measure 9. And some of the bands made sure to urge voter registration.”
The t-shirt from the event has become a collector’s item, as have the kitschy Tom Peterson watches Scot and Sarah gifted the band.
Sarah still has a poster on her wall from another facet of No on 9 artists’ involvement. Produced by members of the design community and featuring a 1937 photo of silhouettes of dancers, it reads, “If you’ve ever known love, vote against hate. No on 9.”
Artists for a Hate Free America
“The New York Times piece for the event in Hollywood made me realize there was a future for an organization that engaged artists and entertainers in anti-hate work,” Sarah says.
After Measure 9 was defeated, she and Scot, with Gus Van Sant and Chris Monlux, regrouped and began to envision Artists for a Hate Free America (AHFA). Jeff Malachowsky and Western States Center co-founder Cynthia Guyer were also early board members, along with Sharon Gelman, the founding executive director of Artists for a New South Africa, which had formed in 1989.
“It was a lot of beating the bushes, pulling threads, trying to figure out who knows who, going back to my Central America solidarity work with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Melissa Etheridge,” Sarah says. “I had some friends from those days – band managers for groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys. I went back and beat all those bushes.”
Over its six-year run, AHFA worked with musicians like Michael Stipe/REM, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Hole, Ice T, Ani DiFranco, Neil Young, and Sarah McLaughlin, and hosted the movie premieres of Basketball Diaries and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
“We succeeded at reaching top-tier artists and getting them engaged,” Sarah says. “It was an amazing effort – the result of many people working very hard and using their connections for the cause.”
Sarah remembers an AHFA concert in Charlotte, NC for Harvey Gant who was challenging U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. “It was Pearl Jam, Gloria Steinem, and 30,000 drunken frat guys. They listened to Gloria only because Eddie Vedder had his arm around her.”
“For the artists and for us, the message was framed by what the Right was doing, a response to the Religious Right. We wanted to convey that this is just the beginning. They’re going after a lot more than gay rights – immigration, race, gender. The only way to fight them is if we’re all in this together. That really resonated with the artists. More privately, it was about the white power skinhead Aryan Nations crazy shit in the Pacific Northwest and that these audiences were so susceptible. Most of the bands we worked with were straight white boys.”Sarah Stephens
AHFA produced extensive materials – Voter Guides for events and shows and their newsletter, Hate Watch, distributed to their artists – and publicized the work of grassroots anti-hate groups around the country. Sarah had hoped to go one step further, to fund field work; despite trying every angle, with industry barriers, “it proved to be very difficult,” she says.
“Our strategy was to get a percent of the take at concerts and be funded by the record labels. We had successes – Pearl Jam put our logo on their CD cover. Beastie Boys gave us a percentage. But not the institutional change in the industry needed to fund more work on the ground.”
It was fun to come across an Artists for a Hate Free America Voters Guide in the Museum of Pop Culture. But the museum fell prey to pop culture’s prevailing infatuation with celebrity culture. Its curatorial notes proclaim: “Artists for a Hate Free America was founded in 1993 after a group of American musicians successfully worked together to defeat anti-gay Prop 9 in Oregon.”
Musicians and celebrities did get involved, adding their voices to the thousands of volunteers, the dozens of full-time campaigners, and the countless unnamed Oregonians who defeated Measure 9.
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.