“There were many straight people who actively campaigned against Measure 9. We relied heavily upon the non-gay community to go canvass and talk to voters. I’m glad so many straight people were able to go into places and handle that for us when a lot of us couldn’t do it. I think it’s important we thank these folks for their public support and activity.” ~ No on 9 activist Sharon Hill, interviewed by Pat Young
In the early 1990s, many Oregonians did not realize they knew a gay or lesbian person. Bonnie Tinker, a lesbian activist whose organization Love Makes a Family was a leader in community education during and after the No on 9 campaign, reflected on this in her conversation with historian Pat Young. Around the state there were “at least tens and often times hundreds of people who suddenly were coming out to their friends” along with “straight people who realized that sexuality was a real political issue.”
Ballot Measure 9 mobilized the LGBTQ community like never before. But it also activated a huge cross-section of straight people.
“In Oregon, the campaign was strengthened by people and organizations all over the state who were not directly affiliated with the No on 9 Campaign but were determined to do the difficult and loving work of trying to educate ordinary people about a group of ordinary citizens within their midst, those who call themselves lesbian and gay.”Suzanne Pharr, in her 1993 essay about Measure 9 (reprinted in Transformation)
Straight But Not Narrow
“Those buttons, ‘Straight But Not Narrow’ – I was never going to wear one,” says community and business leader Eric Friedenwald-Fishman. “There was a very big thing in those days, ‘I wouldn’t want to be thought of as gay.’”
Wearing those buttons could reinforce that prejudice. On the other hand, they could be an important form of solidarity, of making visible that it wasn’t just gay people who supported LGBTQ rights.
Many straight folks joined the No on 9 struggle regardless of the risk of being perceived as LGBTQ. (And it was a risk. Homophobic hate crimes were soaring and being fired or denied housing for being gay was perfectly legal in most of the state.)
Eric Ward, for whom the risk was compounded by being the target of racist discrimination and violence as a Black man, says of his involvement with the LGBTQ community in the fight against Measure 9, “I would have done almost anything for that movement.”
“People would call me homophobic slurs for years afterwards, in rural areas where I travelled to speak, accusing me of running the secret homosexual agenda. I considered it a point of pride.”Eric K. Ward
Others saw the value of speaking as an identifiably straight person, making it clear to voters that defeating Measure 9 was not just up to the gay community.
“We had to give them a way in.”
“We wanted the public to see that a heterosexual person took it as seriously as a gay person,” No on 9 campaign manager Peggy Norman, a lesbian, told historian Pat Young about the decision to feature Ellen Lowe as a primary campaign spokesperson. On the staff with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Ellen could “talk about religion and no one could take that piece away from her. We deliberately chose someone who the public could hear, to put our story out there. We had to give them a way in.”
“When you open the door to the OCA and the OCA began to restrict who was going to participate in the democratic process, it was really an assault on everybody. Perhaps the best person, at that time, to articulate that kind of universal application of what was happening was a straight person.”Ellen Lowe, interviewed by historian Pat Young
Some queer activists saw the prominence of straight spokespeople in the campaign as an effort to squelch or sanitize LGBTQ visibility in the effort. This was a source on ongoing tension –should the campaign be about increasing acceptance of gay people and reducing homophobia? Or should it focus more narrowly on opposing the writing of discrimination into the state constitution, without asking people to “approve” of homosexuality?
Many of the straight folks who got involved tried to do both – reduce homophobia by modeling an empathetic and humanizing relationship with gay people and appeal to everyone’s self-interest in the larger case against discrimination.
Fighting for Our Lives, the short video created by Elaine Velasquez and Barbara Bernstein as an organizing tool, featured many of these voices.
The Gays Now, Who’s Next?
The German pastor Martin Niemoller was often quoted in those years. After spending seven years in Nazi concentration camps for speaking out against Hitler, he said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This was the cautionary case many of the straight speakers made in Fighting for Our Lives and other educational outreach.
“I don’t tell people I’m heterosexual because I don’t think it’s any of their business but I’ve always very clearly been an ally to the gay and lesbian community and I do civil rights work. So I’m probably a good target for someone to say, ‘Look, she’s lesbian, she works for the Governor, she shouldn’t be there.’” [Measure 9 would have required the firing of gay people in public employment.]Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, at that time director of affirmative action for the Governor, in Fighting for Our Lives
The video also features two clergymen from rural communities. Paul LaRue says, “I will not be able to put my arm around my male friend [without people saying] ‘Hey, you must be gay’. I know two women who go shopping together all the time, people will say, ‘Something’s wrong with them.’” John Sandusky says, “As some point in the future I could find myself labeled part of some unacceptable group in society.” Portland Pastor Matt Hennessee says, “The African American community can’t see this without asking, ‘How far down on the list [of OCA targets] am I?’”
An Intersectional Analysis
In a tribute to national LGBTQ movement leader Urvashi Vaid after her death, The New Yorker wrote: “Vaid’s ideas often had to do with the interconnectedness of different causes. She understood and articulated the concept of intersectionality before the word had entered the language.” As an example, the writer cites a transcript of a 1994 conversation Urvashi had with AIDS activist Larry Kramer.
“What if we tried to identify how [HIV] treatment issues connect with racism?” Vaid said. “It’s going to express itself differently in your life than in mine…. That’s the issue of reproductive choice. It was never about men should march with women because they support women. It was more that men should march for reproductive freedom because we’re marching against the power of the state to tell you and me what to do sexually…. If the state can say you can’t have an abortion, the state can say you can’t have sodomy.”
Kramer replied, “I have to tell you that I never realized that.”
Some of the straight allies active against Measure 9 articulated a similar analysis – based less on this could be bad for me than this is bad for everyone, bad for inclusive democracy.
Kelley Weigel, for example, can be seen in the documentary Ballot Measure 9, out on the road with the Walk For Love & Justice, saying, “The OCA represents a much more fundamental threat to all of us. They have attacked reproductive rights. They have attacked affirmative action. That’s why I’m walking, even though I’m not a lesbian.”
As she told friends and family in her letter asking them to support her on the 150-mile Walk, “I know you support me and care about the same things I do. The OCA represents a ‘retrovision’ on American life which excludes members of our diverse society. At this time of social and political uncertainty, it is more important than ever that we take a stand for human dignity to insure these rights remain central during public discourse.”
Looking back 30 years, Kelley sees the tensions embedded in intersectional work as one of the primary lessons for today. “We need to do two things simultaneously,” she says – “to lift up leadership from within targeted communities, while embracing the truth that it takes all of us” to defend and achieve inclusive democracy.
Looking in the Mirror
For many at that time, Measure 9 called the question: what kind of people are we? The Rev. Rodney Page, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and another frequent speaker on behalf of No on 9, closes the Fighting for Our Lives video with the statement: “We have to tell people like the OCA and their ilk, ‘Stop it! This is enough! We don’t want to see this kind of bigotry in our community.’”
For some allies who understood the case against bigotry but weren’t too comfortable or familiar with gay people, that meant facing their own homophobia. For other allies, it meant looking at their own privilege relative to LGBTQ folks.
Anne Sweet, who grew up Black in the South during the civil rights movement, remembers the late 1980s as a time when “I was learning more stuff about oppression.” With the passage of the OCA’s first anti-gay ballot measure in 1988, “Something happened in my mind and brain,” she says.
“It reminded me we that all hang out in the camps of the oppressor and the oppressed. I realized the places I was an oppressor, as an adult to children, to disabled people in my able-bodiedness.”Anne Sweet
“As a perceived heterosexual woman,” Anne says, “I was given the role to be oppressive to gay and lesbian people. And I didn’t want that role. I didn’t want to look at what I knew about gay and lesbian people and how I treated them, and how as a perceived heterosexual person that I held myself as deserving better treatment.
“So I got involved, much to my ex-husband’s disapproval.”
“We’ve Got a Lot of Work to Do”
Thalia Zepatos, a straight ally who came on as deputy campaign manager for the last crucial months, remembers a life-changing day when she was driving across town with her car stacked to the brim with No on 9 lawn signs and literature.
“As a progressive activist, I had joined efforts to fight racism in Portland. Now the OCA measure pulled another layer of veneer off the surface of our progressive city,” Thalia says.
“I stopped at a traffic light and in the next lane was a pickup truck with construction equipment in the back, and one of those really crude, nasty OCA signs with the figures of two men on the side of their truck.
“These guys looked over at me, and at the contents of my car, and started yelling at me, taunting me, calling me a dyke and talking about faggots. I started yelling back. After they continued to provoke me, I actually got out of my car, like ‘Do you want to fight?’
“Meanwhile cars behind both vehicles were honking, and finally, the pickup truck took off. But it would have been terrible if they had gotten out of their vehicle!
“And then it hit me. I’d been moving around the city thinking people were basically decent – until someone thought I was a lesbian! Look at the vitriol that’s just been directed at me, just for being seen as a lesbian.”
“I just couldn’t forget that moment. It was so transformative. I felt like: I’ve really got work to do here. We’ve got a lot of work to do in our state.”Thalia Zepatos
Thalia Zepatos went on to train generations of LGBTQ advocates and advise numerous campaigns for LGBTQ rights, including serving as the chief message architect for the campaign that secured the freedom to marry nationwide. Watch for more of her insights in October, and read more from Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, Kelley Weigel, and Anne Sweet.
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.