In 2017, Basic Rights Oregon proclaimed, “Oregon is recognized as one of the most LGBTQ friendly states in the country to live and work because business leaders have fought to ensure that all Oregonians are treated with dignity and respect.” With today’s ubiquitous corporate rainbow branding, at a time when an anti-LGBTQ governor will punish a company as sacrosanct as Disney for their “DO Say Gay” stance, it’s hard to remember when businesses were largely silent about anti-gay discrimination.
The invitation to BRO’s 24th Annual Oregonians Against Discrimination Business Leaders Luncheon read: “In 2007, business owners and executives were instrumental in passing the Oregon Equality Act, which bans discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and other areas. A decade later, Oregon remains a valued leader in workplace inclusivity, particularly around transgender equality. Join us. Be a part of the movement for fair and equal workplaces in every community, every county and every corner of this state.”
How did organizers make this 500-person LGBT-rights gathering at the Oregon Convention Center a routine part of the annual calendar of business and civic events?
Measure 9 was the turning point.
To reflect on the origin and growth of the business community’s commitment to opposing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Oregon, we spoke to Eric Friedenwald-Fishman, a straight ally and community and business leader engaged in this political struggle since the first anti-gay ballot measure in 1988.
Compelled to Do Something
“My first involvement was as a college student at Willamette University in the mid-1980s,” Eric says. “I was pretty stunned going from Portland to Salem, how overt anti-gay sentiment was on campus – the word fag as a put down, the word gay as a put down. A group of us created a piece of guerilla political theater for a class, showing a gay person and a straight ally. On campus, that kind of overt discussion of the issue was unheard of at that time.”
Attending college across the street from the State Capitol gave Eric the chance to intern in the Governor’s office, where he worked with an early mentor, Kathleen Saadat. After graduating in 1988, he took a job with a PacifiCorp subsidiary doing a large development project in Portland’s Lloyd Center area. Then the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) targeted the Governor’s executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state employment with Ballot Measure 8. Eric went to his boss at PacifiCorp. “We should make a donation” to the campaign luncheon to defend the executive order, he argued. He was told no – “It’s too controversial. We have customers on all sides of the issue.”
Feeling compelled to do something, Eric signed up with the No on 8 campaign as a phonebank volunteer. He overheard the campaign manager and fundraising director bemoaning the cash shortfall for their advertising buy. Secretary of State (later Governor) Barbara Roberts had agreed to headline a media auction, but the volunteers and staff needed to organize the event had quit.
Eric popped his head around the cubicle divider and said, “I’ll do it!” The campaign leaders looked at the 22-year-old with understandable skepticism. “Who are you?” they asked. He explained that having grown up in Portland, having worked in catering, having served as student body president, he knew a lot of people. Without many other options, they agreed to let him organize the auction. Eric phoned up his fraternity brothers and they called everyone they knew. They got the catering for the event donated, helped create a buzz, and raised a lot of money for the media buy.
By 1992 Eric and some of those same friends had formed a public relations company, Metropolitan Group (MG). They had already staged a number of large events, including early planning for the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, through which Eric had built relationships in rural towns across the state.
Knowing that the No on 9 campaign would need a mass event to demonstrate the breadth of opposition to the OCA’s message, Eric and his partners at MG volunteered to organize the “Many Voices, One Message” Rally.
Many Voices, One Message
“As a straight ally I was used to seeing incredible leadership from the gay community, but a lot of silence and fear from the business community,” Eric says. “No on 9 helped to change that.”
The “Many Voices, One Message” Rally that Eric and his company organized was the largest political demonstration in Oregon’s history at that time, later surpassed only by crowds for Barack Obama.
“That rally was one of the first places we were able to get a really diverse set of leaders who hadn’t stood up in the past for the gay community (as many called it at the time). None of us thought we’d get that size of a turn out, and from such a cross-section.”Eric Friedenwald-Fishman
“That rally was one of the first places we were able to get a really diverse set of leaders who hadn’t stood up in the past for the gay community (as many called it at the time),” Eric says. “None of us thought we’d get that size of a turn out, and from such a cross-section.”
Metropolitan Group, at the time, consisted of a “really tiny team,” Eric remembers. One of the founding partners was an out gay man; the rest were straight allies. “There was no hesitation about taking this on,” Eric says. “It completely took over the company for several months. We donated all of our time and raised the money to cover all the costs. We probably ended up in the red that year as a business.”
As a young business owner, Eric was warned about the risks. “There were a couple of conversations where older businesspeople in the community trying to be supportive as mentors said, ‘If you have to do this, do it anonymously. Don’t put your name on it.’ Our response was, ‘If the fact that we stand for this means that they don’t want to do business with us, we don’t want to do business with them. And if no one wants to do business with us because of this, then we don’t want to be in business.”
They got some threats in the mail, but their role in the rally didn’t lead to being dropped by any clients. While the rally also didn’t lead to business pouring in, Metropolitan Group “made some long-term friends” through the campaign, “some of whom became amazing colleagues,” Eric says. (No on 9 Remembered author Holly Pruett joined the staff for three years after co-leading the 1994 anti-OCA campaign.)
Eric went on to serve as a leader in the formation of Basic Rights Oregon, with Metropolitan Group the very first business to sign on to BRO’s Businesses Against Discrimination and providing continuous volunteer leadership to the BRO board over the decades.
“Being at a company that has such a strong connection to the LGBTQ community is core to who we are,” says Eric.
“This Goes Too Far”
Generating the financial support and community will for such a large rally “took some arm twisting,” Eric remembers.
“People of a certain generation, the older corporate leadership, were in the place of ‘I’ve never met a gay person; we don’t have any gay people working here.’” Some voiced the same concern as his boss during the 1988 Ballot Measure campaign: This is too controversial, we have employees and customers on both sides.
But for the most part, Measure 9 marked a turning point, Eric says. “Folks who had been nervous during Measure 8, who thought they didn’t have any gay people in their workplace, had a visceral reaction against Measure 9. This is wrong. This is not who we are as a state.”
For the mainline Protestant and Jewish congregations, there was an ethical component to opposing Measure 9, remembers Eric. “Supporting Measure 9 was not being a good Christian, not being a good Jew, not living our values.”
The same values were voiced by an increasing number of business leaders. Being a good Oregonian, a good business leader, meant speaking out against writing discrimination into the state constitution.
Eric saw this same lightbulb going off outside of Portland.
In addition to organizing the rally with his partners at Metropolitan Group, doing fundraising through house parties, and participating in numerous panels as a Jewish speaker, Eric was on the road a lot for No on 9. With his history of work in rural communities like Pendleton and Baker, he was a strong believer in the importance of “meeting people where they are, having real conversations.”
“I’ll never forget talking with voters at a restaurant in Pendleton,” Eric says. “These were folks that could have been sent from central casting, the owner of the Caterpillar repair shop, not the town’s few progressive residents. One person said, ‘I’m not comfortable with that lifestyle, but I’ve never thought about it that way – if you can discriminate against them, what’s next? This goes too far.’ And the whole room turned.”
The Legacy of No on 9
Having been a part of Oregon’s business community since 1988, when you could be fired for being gay and opposing anti-LGBTQ discrimination was seen by many as “too controversial,” Eric says, “It’s imperative not to underplay the incredible victories we’ve won, the power building that has been accomplished. LGBTQ rights are now seen as part of a bigger fight, an integral part of a broader progressive alliance locally and nationally.”
The response Eric got in 1988, and even, sometimes in 1992 – “I personally agree with you, but we can’t be seen as taking a stand” – evolved into some of these very same businesspeople stepping up to serve as leaders in subsequent anti-LGBTQ discrimination events and campaigns.
“Today when I go to the Businesses Against Discrimination luncheon,” Eric says, “sure, there’s some performative stuff – but for the most part, the feeling is that we’re in a state where you’d think every business has always shown up to support their employees, and said, ‘This is what we stand for.’ That was not always the reality, of course. But the dynamic has clearly shifted from ‘I don’t know about this,’ to ‘This is a fundamental thing, to stand with all people in our community.’”Eric Friedenwald-Fishman
Alongside these measures of how far we’ve come, Eric also voices concern over the hundreds of anti-trans bills that have been, and are being, introduced in states and communities around the country, and the resurgence of other anti-LGBTQ attacks.
“We’ve come an immense way forward, and the fight for full inclusion is nowhere near over,” Eric says. As with Measure 9 and the other anti-LGBTQ legislation of the 1990s, “these policies, if enforced, will harm people. But their larger function is to use fear and hate to increase the power and control of anti-democracy forces.”
Seeing rainbow flags back up on U.S. Embassies abroad after President Biden’s election, seeing rainbow branding all over corporate America – these things matter, Eric says, but only if they reflect a real commitment to do the work of inclusive democracy. “Yes, show people they’re seen, that they’re welcome. But it has to be backed up by how people are being treated, and by playing a meaningful role in the policy fights.”
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.