“Teaching people to just think about it,” was the heart of the work, Anne Sweet says. “Helping them to make a personal connection, how Measure 9 would negatively impact them if this passed. This is your uncle; your bull dyke neighbor who mows your lawn and fixes your car for free; your son who we all know is gay but we pretend they aren’t.”
Anne was one of the hundreds engaged in educational outreach both inside and outside their own communities, who helped to defeat Measure 9.
The No on 9 message was delivered via all the pre-internet electoral methods – through television and radio ads; newspaper editorials, Op Eds, and letters to the editor; in debates and voters forums hosted by civic groups and news organizations; via visibility materials like lawn signs and bumper stickers; and through a methodical voter contact program that identified No voters through phone and door to door canvassing and then turned them out in a massive Get Out The Vote (GOTV) push.
We’ll hear more in the coming months from inside the campaign. This month’s focus is on the educational outreach that originated outside the “official” campaign. Some of this focused on the queer community itself, from teaching nonviolent communications skills to unlearning racism; other efforts focused externally on specific sectors. Some created organizing tools –videos, speaker trainings, fact sheets; even events to build bridges, like the Walk for Love & Justice.
New organizations sprang up as vehicles for those who wanted to take a different approach to the entire campaign – No on Hate, for example, which had several chapters around the state. Others were created to focus on a particular strategy or audience such as People of Faith Against Bigotry, African Americans Voting No on 9, Eugene-based OUTPAC, and the Oregon Speak Out Project. Some initiatives, like the extensive organizing within the labor movement, and the Oregon Democracy Project which gave rise to the Rural Organizing Project, tapped into the skills and relationships of existing organizations.
These efforts, looking back, are many flowers blooming, a profusion of creativity and commitment that collectively reached thousands of Oregonians, solidifying No votes and in some cases, changing hearts and minds. But at the time, some of this work was driven by desperation and fear. Some arose as an alternative to – even a critique of – what was called “the mainstream campaign.”
“It was a very scary time – as much for the fear that the Oregon Citizens Alliance was engendering; but also, I think the way that we responded exacerbated the fear. A lot of us were envisioning Nazi Germany all over again. In a way we really overreacted to the situation and took it out on each other.”Radio & video producer Barbara Bernstein
Some of the division within the LGBTQ community, and the fear, was driven by the loss on Measure 8, the first statewide campaign against a ballot measure sponsored by the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA). “People were so determined not to make the same mistakes that we made in 1988, when we lost that first anti-gay initiative,” Barbara says. That meant fierce and frequent debates about campaign messages, messengers, tactics, and spending priorities.
Fighting for Our Lives
Barbara Bernstein and Elaine Velasquez knew they would step into the fray from the first moment they heard about the ballot measure. Barbara secured funding to do a radio documentary on Measure 9, and Elaine was hired to produce a segment about the campaign for a group in New York doing a series on gay issues. They captured some incredible footage, for example on the Walk for Love & Justice, before ending the contractual relationship with the series sponsor. Soon after, another guy in New York stepped up with a “nice chunk of funding,” Barbara remembers, which allowed them to keep the cameras and audio recording rolling.
The result was the 20 minute video, Fighting for Our Lives, designed to counter the poisonous propaganda videos being circulated by the OCA. Marcy Westerling, who was mobilizing the statewide network of battered women’s shelters and rape hotlines through the Oregon Democracy Project, helped Elaine and Barbara develop their strategy and introduced them to several strong interview subjects.
“Marcy sat down with us and talked about what was needed,” says Barbara. “‘You need to interview Mr. and Mrs. America,’ she said, so she introduced us to Jim and Elise Self in Grants Pass. Jim and Elise laughed later that they didn’t really think of themselves as Mr. and Mrs. America! But they came across as people that America could understand.
“We thought a lot about how to connect with people who don’t get this, who think it doesn’t affect their lives. Elaine has this incredible skill in getting people to be really personal, getting people to tell their own stories. One of the most powerful moments is when Elise Self talks about how she was afraid that her daughter Jennifer would be discriminated against, and fights back tears.”Barbara Bernstein
“It provided information that people needed to have, says Barbara. “But it provided it in a context where they could really relate to it, and then have the follow up discussions. The reason it got out so well, was because the organizers knew how to use it. I felt like we got amazing support from the community to do this piece.”
The video received an unexpected boost when Barbara and Elaine released it with a news conference that – unbeknownst to them – “turned out to be on the same day that the OCA released their infamous video, the Gay Agenda. The news coverage depicted them as dueling videos. They shared a clip from our video and a clip from the Gay Agenda,” Barbara remembers.
Described by the Los Angeles Times as a “slick, professional tape… that features nudity, public lasciviousness and assertions that homosexuality is unnatural, a sickness and not worthy of legal protection,” the nationally-produced Gay Agenda was subsequently used in other efforts to solidify anti-LGBTQ discrimination in local, state, and national policy and law.
“When we got ahold of a copy of the Gay Agenda, it frightened us,” Barbara says. “It was so slick, and it was really an excellent propaganda piece.”
Even up against such hateful propaganda, Barbara remembers the years fighting the OCA as an “incredible blossoming of grassroots activism. It was really amazing to see how the word got out to such a wide community. It became very unacceptable [to openly support Measure 9] in lots of parts of Oregon, including places that we might not have expected. I remember at one point early on in the campaign I said to people, if only we had as many No on 9 signs on cars and houses, as there are ‘Go Blazers’ signs. And it ended up, we had more!”
Making a Personal Connection
Countless Oregonians stepped out of their comfort zones to make the kind of personal connection that was fostered by the Fighting for Our Lives video.
Anne Sweet – a union activist with Communications Workers of America who had her employer, the phone company, loan her to the No on 9 campaign – dove into these conversations directly, and also led trainings in making connections – not just between people, but among forms of oppression.
In addition to co-leading antiracism workshops through No on Hate, Anne worked with No on 9 door-to-door canvass volunteers. “Canvassing attracted lots of young, white gay and lesbian people,” Anne remembers, “and a lot of the canvassing happened in the Black community. We would have classes on how to behave in the Black community. For white kids, it isn’t, ‘Hi Betty!’ It’s, ‘Mrs. Jones, how are you today?’ – helping to dilute the social entitlement that persists in racism.
“I did the same thing in Black communities and organizations to remind Black people that when we say ‘gay and lesbian’ the picture we get is white – but remember that’s not true. When they throw out the gay and lesbian people, that’s your brother, uncle, cousin we’re talking about.
“Antoinette Edwards, her husband and I were canvassing the beauty shops and barber shops. This woman went on a tirade [against gay people] and the person doing her hair was flaming gay, begging us silently not to confront her and out him. But trying to interrupt that woman who felt very entitled to say those things; wanting her to remember when he can’t get a license to do your hair or open a beauty shop [if Measure 9 passed], he can’t do your hair anymore.”
Read more of Anne’s recollections.
Oregon Speak Out Project
Other efforts focused less on personal relationships and more on making a factual case against the measure to groups of people. The Oregon Speak Out Project was founded by gay attorney Ed Reeves with the vision of training 25 attorneys (gay and straight) as speakers. “I personally felt that I could not survive this unless I stood up for myself and spoke positively about myself and my community,” he told Pat Young in her master’s thesis research.
Their first task was generating invitations from host organizations. Initially, according to Pat, they “concentrated on Clackamas and Washington counties because of the number of ‘middle voters’ in those counties, and because the project wanted to reach beyond the friendly territory of Multnomah County. As time went on, the project expanded into outlying communities such as Bend, Klamath Falls, Medford, and Coos Bay…. Eventually the project generated over 150 speaking engagements and over 20 [speakers] training sessions, reaching thousands of Oregonians.”
As documented by Pat, “the project put together packets of information for people speaking on the issues. The packets contained questions and appropriate answers to main issues surrounding the measure, such as how it affected libraries, schools, employment, and democracy.”
Coalition for Human Dignity
Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD) had already been tracking the activities of, and assembling information to refute, the right in Oregon for several years. They described their role in civil rights education and research as “monitoring and opposing bigotry in all of its many forms, working to counter the agenda of the white supremacist moment and the Christian Right.”
The documentary podcast “It Did Happen Here” revisits CHD’s origins as “Portlanders who came together in response to neo-Nazi violence after the 1988 murder of Mulugeta Seraw” to its eventual move to Seattle and merger with Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.
As one of the groups whose No on 9 work was supported through Western States Center in the Oregon Democracy Project, CHD contributed to the formation of the Rural Organizing Project through road trips with Marcy, and produced a range of research and materials.
One of their efforts was organizing a series of research papers and educational pamphlets that made the case for specific constituencies, like “Facts Environmentalists Should Know About the OCA.” Tarso Luís Ramos commissioned and edited some of this work while serving as editor of the leftist newspaper The Portland Alliance.
Tarso recalls, “The newspaper sublet space to CHD and collaborated on various things. We each saw that the OCA was trying to build statewide power by vilifying an already widely-stigmatized group and we feared this strategy could leave the LGBTQ community isolated.” He adds, “CHD co-founder and No On 9 organizer Scot Nakagawa asked me to help broaden the resistance by revealing the OCA’s broader reactionary agenda and giving various organized progressive constituencies information that could sway their members.”
The pamphlets presented the OCA as a “comprehensive political organization” whose rising influence threatened various communities and values, including women’s equality, religious freedom, communities of color, labor unions, economic fairness, and environmental protections.
Some of these targeted arguments appeared in a special edition of the CHD journal, The Oregon Witness, including “Traditional Family Values and the War on Women” by No on 9 Remembered author Holly Pruett (read it here.)
The “Bigots, Ballots & Bibles: The OCA & the Christian Right” edition of The Oregon Witness also included: “An Introduction to the Politics of Fear” by Jeannette Pai-Espinosa; in-depth analysis of the OCA and their national connections by Scot Nakagawa, Sara Diamond, Steve Gardiner, and People for the America Way; discussion of the OCA as backlash to inclusive democracy and the gains of feminism and the civil rights movements by Suzanne Pharr, Johanna Brenner, and Inga Sorenson; a Christian and a Jewish perspective from People of Faith Against Bigotry; a “Case Study in Rural Organizing by Marcy Westerling; and “Oil & Water Do Not Mix! The OCA & the African-American Community” by Cecil Prescod.
Tarso continued working on the pamphlets after joining the staff of Western States Center in May, 1992. He remembers that WSC paid to mail pamphlets to thousands of union members and later funded CHD to produce a multi-state report on the Christian Right
Of the background research papers Ramos says, “Some were roughly written and never published, but nonetheless provided many of the talking points for the pamphlets as well as material that was repurposed for articles and speaking engagements, organizing meetings, and outreach for organizational endorsements.”
The research and analysis assembled as part of the No on 9 fight later reached a wider audience of organizers and funders through efforts like the NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit; a “live chat” about anti-gay initiatives Scot hosted on AOL (some of the very first “streaming” content); and the “When Democracy Works Resource Guide” that Scot narrated which included Eric K. Ward, by then with Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, and others who came out of the No on 9 campaign. “These broader movement tools leveraged the talents and lessons from Oregon for people in every sector who were standing up,” Tarso remembers.
One of the lessons Tarso thinks we need to take from that time is, “You have to respect your opponents.” For Tarso that involves going beyond denunciation. “We had to understand their strategy well enough to out-organize them.”
“In Oregon we built a broad coalition that ranged from moderate Republicans to anti-racist skinheads. Thirty years later, the No On 9 fight holds important lessons for progressive organizers nationwide.”Tarso Luís Ramos
Tarso Luís Ramos left Western States Center to join Political Research Associates in 2006, currently serving as their executive director. Access PRA’s current educational resources on Anti-LGBTQ Organizing.
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.