While many in the community and the campaign were fiercely debating whether to focus narrowly on winning 50%+1 on Election Day; or more broadly, on ending homophobia and securing everyone’s civil rights, there were some who worked hard in every moment to find ways to do both.
Thalia Zepatos believed it was possible to build a long-term movement to secure and defend civil rights through the unchosen crucible of short-term ballot measure campaigns. For four decades she has worked to make that vision a reality.
An experienced nonprofit campaign organizer who had recently completed her first book on women’s travel, Thalia served as deputy campaign manager for the campaign’s final three months. Afterwards, she played a lead role in consolidating the principles of a movement-building campaign, which informed the fight against the next round of local anti-LGBTQ ballot measures and the “Son of 9” statewide Measure 13 in 1994. That campaign launched Basic Rights Oregon, a permanent, campaign-ready LGBTQ organization with an intersectional anti-racist commitment, still thriving more than 25 years later. Training generations of LGBTQ advocates and advising numerous campaigns for LGBTQ rights, Thalia went on to serve as the chief message architect for the campaign that secured the freedom to marry nationwide. She now works to support equality organizers worldwide.
The No on 9 campaign, Thalia says, changed the trajectory of her life.
This transcript of our conversation with Thalia about her experiences and insights from inside the campaign staff has been edited for length and clarity.
Inside the Campaign
Scot Nakagawa contacted me and asked if I could come into the campaign for just an hour or two to provide some advice. They were trying to work on the canvassing script, and having some internal discussion about canvassing, and he thought that I might be helpful with that.
I came back several days in a row, and realized that there was not any part of the campaign that didn’t need a lot more assistance. The pressure on the campaign manager, Peggy Norman, was intense. There were international and national press calling on a daily basis. There was a film crew from the Netherlands there one day. There were journalists from Germany the next. At the front desk, on the volunteer reception desk, was one of those large old office phones with many, many buttons for all the different phone lines; every single button would be flashing all of the time. It was just a tsunami of incoming attention and traffic and needs and attacks.
Everyone knew the campaign needed more help. And so I took on a role to help manage the field, and also help with some of the messaging and the other interfaces of the campaign. As I discussed it with Peggy, she decided that her outward role of spokesperson was so demanding and overwhelming that I would step alongside her and help the internal coordination of the campaign.
One of her first actions was to initiate contact with Portland Police Chief Tom Potter to address security issues.
We were warned that every night when you got in your car, you knew that a bomb could go off – that kind of climbing level of fear. We were advised to hire security to watch outside the office, and to rent a chain-link fence to surround the building. Always keeping your eyes open and looking over your shoulder. Many, many people had that experience during the campaign. As we know, people were killed during that period of time. It wasn’t a random kind of paranoia. We all hoped that we would live through the campaign.
That first week that I was officially on staff, I decided to sit down individually with every member of the campaign staff to meet them, to hear about their work, and see what their challenges and problems were.
I’ll never forget it – in meeting after meeting after meeting, literally every single campaign staffer told me they were seriously considering quitting the campaign. The final person I met with actually told me that she was considering suicide.Thalia Zepatos
The emotional toll on these folks was overwhelming. They had faced wave after wave of attack: an attack on the previous campaign office, the cutting of brake lines on staffers cars, later the attack on St. Matthews Church. There were waves of hate that were directed to many people in the community. And the campaign staff not only had their own experiences of that; they were taking in everyone else’s and trying to reassure and comfort people in the community.
We contacted a couple of therapists who treated a lot of LGBTQ people, and they more or less said, “Wow, we’re glad you called. We are seeing that people are overwhelmingly stressed and emotionally at their limit. Their workloads had exploded during this period of time.”
We asked them to give us some tips and one or two of them may have come in to speak to the staff. We tried to do more debriefing, to let people say what was happening out loud. “What was the toughest thing that happened to you today?” Just to get it out, so we could console each other and reassure each other, rather than taking it home to replay over and over. We did this with the volunteers as well. We also asked, “What was the greatest thing that happened today?” so that people could remember something positive.
We reached out to sympathetic massage therapists to come in and offer massage to the staff and lead volunteers. I realized after a while that a few of them, while working on people, were also pouring out their own fears, like “I’m going to move away from Oregon if we lose.” One of the staff said to me, “What they’re saying to me increased my stress more than the relief I got from it!” So we converted a back closet into a quiet room, and asked all the people who were giving massages not to say a word. It was so essential for the staff to have a few minutes of silence and peace.”
Now the people I work with in campaigns are so much more sophisticated about having mental health plans, safety plans, and stronger levels of support. This should actually be part of planning for any campaign that’s under this level of attack, but we had to figure it out the hard way during that campaign.
It was an overwhelming situation. And layered on that, were very different ideas about what the campaign should be achieving, different ideas about the role of the campaign.
Short-Term Versus Long-Term Goals
The OCA was very smart in taking advantage of latent homophobia and transphobia, and stoking those fears. It’s a strategy that evangelical conservatives use to this day, worldwide.
In ballot measure campaigns, there is a constant tension between addressing that deep-seated homophobia and transphobia, and the short-term goal of winning a campaign. The question is, Does it make a difference if you win a campaign like this? It’s not just a theoretical question. It would have a huge impact on people if we were to lose.
But to get to victory, there were so many compromises proposed along the way. I would think of them, internally, as a kind of deal with the devil (I hate to use that terminology).
We had professional campaign consultants from other states. Their constant refrain was: “If you don’t do this, you will lose.” And some of the things they proposed were choices that campaign staff were really uncomfortable with, not based on the core values of people inside the campaign or the broader community.
Polling is used to support decision-making in campaigns, but polls are only as good as the questions are formulated. It’s very often consultants who are outside the community who make up their own language to test. They tell you we’ll do well with messaging like, “Keep government out of our lives”. And that every single message that even includes the words “gay or lesbian” tests worse than any message that never mentions who this campaign is about.
We were raising money from people of goodwill who strongly care about LGBTQ lives. We felt we couldn’t in good conscience pay that money to create messages that are not only not helping the community but actually eroding faith in government, which we need to protect civil rights. If we don’t take the hundreds of thousands, or sometimes millions, of dollars that are spent in a campaign and start to introduce the words “gay lesbian bisexual transgender” more forcefully into the civic dialogue, who’s going to do that?
The biggest challenge of the campaign is starting out on uneven ground. Because of homophobia and transphobia, we’ve got a Grand Canyon pit of misinformation that has to be filled in through education. And it’s very hard in the final six weeks of an ad-based ballot measure campaign to educate people out of this deep-seated homophobia and transphobia. It creates a horrible tension.Thalia Zepatos
That is how we began to understand how much work needs to be done in between these campaigns to win the long-term goal of equality. It’s a process we should be doing when we’re not on the defensive, so we can create a more level playing field where equality messaging could potentially be able to bring victory.
Over time, we learned a lot about how to ask better questions in the research phase, so that we would have the data to show, “Yes, people do agree with these values, and this is their understanding.” And about how to find the researchers who want to push the envelope to find the insights from one campaign and be able to carry them over.
There was another piece of learning, from the end of No on 9. We literally packed the campaign into boxes. It was all going to be left for recycling, including lists of volunteers and donors. I took boxes and boxes to my basement, because I couldn’t stand the idea that this collected base of power was just going to be recycled.
It’s not just the lists of supporters that were at risk of being lost. It’s the combined learning from each campaign; the word or phrase or value that gives us a chance to open this dialogue. We need people to carry that learning from campaign to campaign. Otherwise, you get a whole new set of consultants, a whole new pollster with every campaign, and they start all over again with the messages that don’t challenge homophobia and transphobia. ‘Even if you’re not comfortable with gay and Lesbian people, no one should be treated this way’ – that was a message recommended by pollsters across the country for many, many years. We had to push back: Why are we giving people permission to be uncomfortable? Why don’t we figure out how to make them comfortable and accepting – even champions?”
It felt to me that I potentially could be helpful, trying to hold on to those learnings and carry them to the next campaign – whether it would be in Oregon or another state. Eventually, for me, that meant joining the national movement to legalize same-sex marriage and leading the message research that won or defended that right in many state campaigns and finally nationwide.
Oregon was not only the testing ground for the religious right; Oregon was the testing ground for the messaging that won same sex marriage across the US, and paved the way for great increases in the rights of gay and transgender people by figuring out how to tell stories based on values. That really opened people up to a new way of thinking.Thalia Zepatos
From 1992 until today, I’ve spent almost my entire life doing this work, trying to help collect those lessons, and push the messaging envelope a bit further, and a bit further and a bit further. The whole movement has made a tremendous amount of progress since those horrible days of relentless attacks.
Another place that the campaign contributed to the long-term goal of reducing homophobia and building a movement to secure and defend LGBTQ rights was in the power of personal conversations.
We had to get a large warehouse location to stage our weekly door-to-door canvassing on Saturdays and Sundays because there were over 150 people showing up every day. In many other campaigns, it would be typical to pair canvassers and say, “You go on one side of the street, I’ll take the other. I’ll meet you at the end of the block.” But in the Measure 9 campaign, there was so much concern about safety, even on the doors. So we said, Stay together, two people all the time. We very often paired LGBTQ volunteers with allies. I remember constantly hearing members of the LGBTQ community saying, “I just can’t believe how many straight people are showing up! Why are they doing this?”
One week I did the canvass training, and I went out with a student who was maybe 16 years old. She was pretty nervous about canvassing, so I paired up with her. In the conversation walking between houses, she told me a little bit about her story – that she was a lesbian but she wasn’t out to anybody.
Towards the end of the afternoon, it was getting late, and there were about four more doors to knock at on our turf. But those houses were couple of blocks around the corner, and she said maybe we should skip them. I said, “Well, for one thing, we should just finish this out, so nobody else has to come back. But, as well, you never know what the next conversation might be.”
We had the voter demographics printed on our canvassing list and saw that one of those four doors was a single woman in her eighties. My young canvass partner asked, “Are you sure we should knock on this door?” I replied, “She’s probably not going to be very friendly but let’s not make any assumptions.”
We knocked on the door, and the woman very carefully cracked the door open. We explained about Measure 9, and asked her to vote No.
She said, “Are you from the campaign?” And we said yes. She looked at the young woman and said, “You’re part of the campaign?” And she responded, “Yes I’m a high school student, but I’m out here talking to voters.”
The woman opened the door a little further, and she said,” I’ve never said this out loud in my life. My husband is dead, my children live far away from me, but ever since I was your age – pointing to the young volunteer – I knew I was a lesbian. And I never did anything about it. I’ve never kissed another woman.”
And she said to the young woman, “Don’t waste your life living it for other people.”
We all started tearing up. It was the most incredible thing. The young woman said, “Thank you very much.”
Those conversations, transformative conversations, were happening every single day at the door. Sure, there were some people who said, “Get off my porch.” There were some people who said, “I’m voting Yes.” But there were also people who now had the opportunity to talk about something that had been hidden for so long.
The turn-out for the canvasses, and the experiences that happened there, were one real high point. But these kinds of transformative encounters happened every day in the office, too.
We had an area for volunteers to come in to take care of tasks like envelope stuffing and folding literature and fundraising letters.
Every week we had a group of high school students from the Metropolitan Learning Center, and their regular shift coincided with a group of LGBTQ elders who were – they used the term, cross dressers. They came every week in their sweater sets and skirt suits with pearls and prim handbags looking like the Church Lady.
And almost every week, these two groups sat together, folding literature and stuffing envelopes. When I would walk past them, the young people would be asking questions about their lives: What happened when they first understood their own identity? Where did they grow up? How did their parents accept them? How did they find community? What was their relationship status?
In these intergenerational conversations, the elders were reassuring these young people that it was okay to question their identity or their gender. And that it was going to get better. Things would get better for them.
Those types of interactions happened all of the time on the campaign. I just cherished the fact that the campaign was able to invite those kinds of conversations to happen. Individual conversations are such transformative engines of change.Thalia Zepatos
The Importance of a Broad Coalition
A piece that is especially meaningful to me over time is that so many straight and cisgender allies stepped forward to join the LGBTQ community.
There were external folks who did analyses about the Oregon No on 9 campaign and the unsuccessful Colorado campaign to defeat Amendment 2 that same year, and what was different about the two campaigns. I don’t have personal experience of what happened in Colorado, but one of the things they said was that in Oregon, the campaign was seen as a joint project. That allies were welcomed and accepted. And I was one of them.
I learned during No on 9 that there is a role for allies in these campaigns, that I could be of service. It’s not appropriate for me to be a leader of anything, but having some knowledge and skills, I can contribute in areas that otherwise too often rely on professional campaign consultants who may not be committed to the community’s values or long-term interests.
The No on 9 campaign created such a great opportunity to partner with leaders from multiple communities – many of which you’ve profiled on No on 9 Remembered… African Americans Voting No on 9, Asian American and Pacific Island leaders, PCUN and other unions, faith leaders, and more. So many stepped forward, risking disapproval from some in their communities, despite the very real danger. In many, many cases, this was an incredible power and asset in defeating Measure 9.
I think we saw, during that campaign, a wonderful kind of opening to the two important ideas.
One, that it’s possible – and necessary – to build an incredibly broad coalition around this kind of fight. To demonstrate: here are members of the LGBTQ community, alongside allies and every other community. And two, the importance of supporting the leadership from within each community that steps up.
It’s not the central campaign’s role to dictate how the campaign should play out in each community. But rather, for the campaign to provide money for printing the materials they created, and find opportunities to support the leaders within each community who know how the campaign should approach their community.
One thing that is positive about these ballot measure campaigns – as hard as they are – is that we don’t have a single candidate, which means we don’t need a single spokesperson. Especially over time, as we’ve learned more and more about the power of narrative and of storytelling, we see there are tremendous stories to be told across many, many different communities. It becomes a strength of the campaign to have multiple storytellers, multiple leaders, multiple spokespeople.
Building a Movement through Campaigns
When I think back on the No on 9 campaign, I think of it like a hurricane that comes through town. Everyone has their individual experience of what happened to them during this hurricane. We all have our own perspective on it.
But I have to say that I think we learned a lot from the experience. And I was so happy that in the end, after going through this pressure-cooker experience, we were able to win. That was very, very significant. It gave people in the community at least a moment of respite.
This campaign changed the direction of my life. Part of it was seeing this right-wing religious opposition, and how they very cynically would, over and over and over again, attack the LGBTQ Community as a recruitment tool for their own organizations and agenda. This kind of strategy in Oregon became an early testing ground for a movement that today has grown incredibly, nationally and internationally.
In the early 1990s, these repeated challenges – including the Sons of 9 local ballot measures in communities across the state, and then Measure 13 at the statewide level in 1994 – reinforced this whole question about all the people who showed up and came out and wanted to canvass, who wanted to work in their faith community or their union, in the African American community, and the API community – could we activate even a portion of all those people again in order to start doing the hard work of breaking down homophobia and transphobia?
While the campaign against Measure 9 defined its goal narrowly, at times, as 50% + 1 on Election Day, the campaign itself transformed over time. All of the thinking and creative problem solving during the campaign, and reflection afterwards, led to more analysis about what it would mean to run a campaign in service of the broader movement.Thalia Zepatos
What would it mean, and what would it take, to have a permanent organization like Basic Rights Oregon that would take those activist and donor names, and all that field and coalition experience and relationships, the research and messaging, and carry it forward to the next battle? And to win significant victories? Those were all lessons we were learning in real time in 1992.
Read Thalia’s recollection of a transformative moment during the course of the campaign, at the end of our earlier story, Straight But Not Narrow; and her reflections on Basic Rights Oregon’s 20th anniversary. The movement-building message research begun during No on 9 is recounted in Molly Ball’s 2012 piece for The Atlantic, “The Marriage Plot: Inside This Year’s Epic Campaign for Gay Equality – How activists rewrote the political playbook, reversed decades of defeat, and finally won over voters.”
For more on movement-building in the context of the Measure 9 campaign:
- Our story on the Oregon Democracy Project recaps Western States Center’s role in helping to carry lessons forward to Idaho and around the region, and the origins of the Rural Organizing Project as an ongoing engine of social change
- Suzanne’s Pharr’s essay “The Oregon Campaign” from that time, reprinted Transformation; see “The Struggle for Cultural and Social Change” (p. 113)
- Pat Young’s master’s thesis section on Election Day and the Aftermath, see “No on 9 Campaign Disbands” (p. 165)
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.