Lawsuits couldn’t prevent the costly political campaigns required to defeat the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s hateful measures at the ballot box. But a lawsuit brought by Catherine Stauffer – a 22-year-old radical activist – ended up holding the OCA accountable, sending Lon Mabon to jail for 42 days, and eventually shutting the organization down.
Litigation as Education
Many inside and outside of Oregon had trouble understanding how such a blatantly discriminatory matter as Measure 9 could appear on a ballot for voters to approve or reject. The Oregon Supreme Court had made clear that they wouldn’t review what they considered “an advisory question [something that is not yet law] – let’s wait until it’s passed,” Charlie Hinkle explains. “My and the ACLU’s view was, that’s a fine principle in many, perhaps most, cases – but not when it’s a matter of constitutional rights. Some laws are not serious about achieving their ostensible goal; their only purpose is to sow division. The OCA’s measures were meant to sow division. We filed lawsuits to try to block Measure 9 but we didn’t succeed.”
Charlie Hinkle was for many years the primary public face of the legal community’s challenges to the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s ballot measures. During a 2011 ceremony in which the Oregon ACLU bestowed its first Charles F. Hinkle Award, Oregon Supreme Court Justice Thomas Balmer said, “There’s no practicing lawyer who has had a greater impact on civil liberties in this state over the past 40 years than Charlie, and no one who’s worked harder and thought more deeply about free speech and religious liberty.”
Charlie got started in the legal battle for LGBTQ rights by representing Peggy Burton, a high school biology teacher fired for being a lesbian in 1971. With Charlie’s support, she became the first LGBTQ public school teacher in the U.S. to file a federal civil rights suit, and the first LGBTQ person in Oregon to file a civil rights lawsuit of any kind. Charlie and Katherine McDowell, later represented Harriet Merrick, the plaintiff in the successful suit which overturned the OCA’s first victory, 1988’s Measure 8. And as a representative of retail giant Fred Meyer, he succeeded in having initiative petition signature collection banned on store property.
“I’m not a political organizer,” Charlie says. “I haven’t run a campaign. What I could do is litigate. And I could make speeches and write testimony, lobby politicians and journalists, and debate people and appear on TV interview shows.”
Litigation against the OCA’s measures involved challenging them at every step in the process, including the ballot title, the critical language to which voters would respond Yes or No. “Once we had to challenge four ballot titles in a single day because the OCA was filing so many variations, shopping for the best ballot title,” Charlie recalls. “We had to challenge all of them. It was a mess to litigate those things. I remember Justice Gillette saying it was a very confusing few weeks – ‘Which one am I working on?’”
There were some who argued that fighting the OCA at the ballot box wasn’t worth the money and community effort required, that the measures, if approved, would eventually be overturned by the courts – as Measure 8 was. For Charlie, as for all who joined the fight, “We felt we had no choice. Measure 9 was such a vicious measure, with such grave consequences for schools, government, employment, and the tenor of society. For any step forward any civil rights movement makes, there are two steps back – and we didn’t want to take a step back. The OCA galvanized the gay community. It was an opportunity to show that gay people were in every part of life. The process of public education was so important, even if we had lost.”
“Bringing the legal cases, even when we lost them, was part of the educational process. It focused the attention of the legal and broader community on what the real agenda, the really vicious agenda, of the OCA was, and its real-life consequences.”Charlie Hinkle
Charlie knew about those consequences first-hand. As one of the leading civic voices speaking against the OCA’s measures in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Charlie did not speak as an out gay man. “One of my strategies,” Charlie explains, “was representing the ACLU, being an ordained Christian minister, practicing in the largest law firm in Oregon – these things gave me an identity that gave me legitimacy. Being identified as a gay person wouldn’t have fostered that. It was a different world back then.”
The risks of coming out were confirmed by the refusal of senior partners in his firm to adopt a non-discrimination policy. Charlie remembers the explanation one partner provided: “He came to me and said, ‘We don’t want to be known as a place where queers work.’ I was just about to become a partner. It wasn’t the time to say, ‘You’ve got one.’ Today the firm is regarded for being a leader in gay rights protections.”
Filing Suit Against the OCA
As the ACLU was litigating the OCA’s measures, Catherine Stauffer decided to try to hold the OCA itself accountable. She didn’t start out with a courtroom in mind. The reporting about Catherine’s encounters with the OCA over the years has described her as a journalist – she worked as a photographer for Just Out. The full story of her involvement has not been told until now.
Catherine had been part of the radical direct-action scene with ACT-UP and Queer Nation in New York and Ohio. “When I got to Portland,” she says, “I was very impacted by the work of the Coalition for Human Dignity [see Act 1: 1988] and their research and tactics concerning racist skinheads.” She set out to conduct similar research on the anti-choice groups Operation Rescue and Advocates for Life, attending their public events, joining their mailing lists, and following up with phone calls.
“At these events, as a young woman of 22, men in particular would pick me and just talk at me, telling me their plans. Then I would turn the information over to people I thought could utilize it.”Catherine Stauffer
In that process, Catherine heard members of these groups talking about putting together what became Ballot Measure 9. “It really alarmed me,” she remembers. “Viscerally, it was very obvious to me that it would be very incendiary.” Once the OCA was collecting signatures in October, 1991, she received an invitation to their premiere of the antigay video that would be the centerpiece of their campaign, to be held at Portland’s Foursquare Church. “I carefully weighed if I should attend,” she says. After a year of attending their events and doing them significant damage through her intel gathering, “I felt they knew who had done it. I knew I could be in danger, but decided I would go.”
Catherine ended up being physically attacked by OCA leader Scott Lively in front of 200 people at the church. “I thought some of them would be so horrified they’d testify on my behalf,” she says. “But that didn’t happen.”
She called the police and filed a report. Some of the LGBTQ community members who were organizing the campaign against the OCA’s measure encouraged her to file a civil suit for damages. “It was a strategy to slow them down. We figured it would be taxing to them; we could demand tons of discovery materials.”
The civil court process took nearly a year. Catherine had to be escorted in and out of the courthouse by U.S. Marshalls. “I went to trial during a huge wave of hate crimes, six weeks before election day in 1992,” she told The Portland Alliance ten years later. “The state was absolutely polarized by Ballot Measure 9 and the presidential election. I was terrified. People from the No on 9 campaign were being targeted and attacked. The whole experience of being in court with the OCA at that time was extremely painful and difficult. I felt like I was on display for all of Oregon. The OCA’s attorney went out of his way to try to humiliate me. At one point he made me stand up in the courtroom and turn around so that everyone could assess whether or not I looked gay.”
Catherine had virtually no support in the courtroom.
“I was careful not to bring a group of my friends, because my friends would not tolerate seeing me being harassed like that, and if they got into a fight with the OCA, that’s what would be seen on TV.”Catherine Stauffer
Judgement Day for the OCA
On November 4, 1992, Catherine was awarded $31,500 in punitive damages from Scott Lively and the OCA. “I literally never thought about collecting it,” Catherine says. “It seemed too hard.”
But when the OCA attempted a comeback in 2000 with what would be another anti-LGBTQ Measure 9 – this one targeting students and schools – Catherine had an idea. “If I pursued them for collection of the judgement, with their persecution complex they might fight to lose. It was not a very large debt, but they refused to pay it.”
As reported by The Portland Alliance, “Stauffer and her attorneys got restraining orders on the OCA’s bank accounts. This severely impeded the OCA’s campaign. To their own detriment, the Mabons violated the restraining order and began to return campaign donations they had collected. As a result, they were found guilty of contempt of court, and fined.”
Voters rejected the OCA’s second Ballot Measure 9 in 2000 by 53%. It turned out to be their final statewide ballot measure.
Scott Lively paid his share of the judgement to be able to clear his name with the California State Bar as a new attorney. (Lively left the state after Measures 9 & 13 to promote anti-gay legislation in Latvia, Russia, and Uganda and run for Governor of Massachusetts in 2014 and 2018; his Abiding Truth Ministries is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is perhaps best known for his discredited 1995 Holocaust revisionist book, The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party.)
In 2001 Lon and Bonnie Mabon started representing themselves in court. “They had exhausted their legal resources,” Catherine says. “Lon Mabon started to self-destruct. Nothing had really touched his credibility as a leader until that point, but now the bizarre legal theories….” His courtroom tactics could be described, at best, as “cavalier” – including arguing that judges in Oregon “were not real judges,” serving judges with papers, and refusing to show up to court dates. As a result, Mabon was jailed for 42 days and fined an additional $42,000 on top of the original judgement.
“Mabon’s dramatic arrest in the courtroom was one of the biggest news events of that year,” Catherine remembers. “The image of him in handcuffs was circulated around Oregon for a long time. My friend who works at a hospital told me that people were cheering in their hospital beds the night he was arrested. He was shown on TV in jail for the next 42 days – and his reputation never recovered.”
The Oregonian editorialized: “Mabon, once a significant figure in Oregon conservative politics, [has] crossed over into the official crackpot zone.”
On March 28, 2002, The Portland Alliance reported, “Catherine Stauffer won the right to seize the assets of Lon and Bonnie Mabon and all the Oregon Citizens’ Alliances legal entities. The victory comes with a ruling by Judge Ronald Cinniger that Lon and Bonnie Mabon fraudulently transferred their assets – personal monies as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions and non-profit donations – while for ten years they avoided paying the $20,000 judgement they owed Stauffer.”
“The Mabons have put themselves and me through considerable grief by not taking responsibility for the actions of Scott Lively. They’ve gone to an enormous amount of effort not to pay a relatively small debt. They spent $32,000 in legal fees in one month alone when Lon Mabon was in jail. They could have paid me with that money. They’re playing games and seem to think they’re above the law.”Catherine Stauffer, in The Portland Alliance
Even while the OCA was in court, they were attempting to circulate their latest batch of three initiative petitions – another anti-LGBTQ measure targeting schools, another anti-choice measure, and one called the “Constitutional Oath and Responsibility Act.” They failed to qualify any of the measures for the ballot. Mabon blamed Catherine, telling The Oregonian, “the case has thrown a major monkey wrench into our collecting signatures. We’re way, way behind.”
The years of pursuing legal accountability for the OCA had taken a toll on Catherine, too. At the outset, she says, “I was 22, 23 years old and not a commodity people could understand or control. I pulled it off without much support.” Staying with the case for more than a decade meant “I had to keep my political wits about me for years,” she says. “It was a very difficult thing to have to hold. I personally felt called to do it; it was a direct action strategy I chose to employ. Once I started, I had to see it through and I did.”
In the end, Mabon owed Catherine an astonishing amount of money, which he never paid – legal fees for many hearings, two civil cases, and multiple appeals on top of the original judgement plus the $1000 dollar per day fine he was ordered to pay while he was in jail. “There was always the threat that I could come back after them to collect that. I made it clear that I would be back if he continued his anti-gay crusade. We threatened to take their cars and their wedding rings. We were very serious.”
Catherine was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for her role in shutting down the OCA by Pride Northwest. She went on to provide legal and jail support for other activists through the National Lawyers Guild, as a founding member of the Portland Legal Defense Network, and on the board of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center.
After attempting to revive the organization once more in 2007, the OCA failed to qualify their anti-gay measures for the 2008 ballot. Today, in 2022, Lon Mabon can be seen making salsa deliveries to area grocery stores.
- Read a 2002 account of Catherine Stauffer’s lawsuit, “The Oregon Citizens Alliance is Dead” in The Portland Alliance.
- Listen to a 15-minute 2018 interview with Catherine Stauffer, “Homophobia, White Supremacy, and the Oregon Citizens Alliance” on KBOO.
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.