Eugene, where the campaign began, provides a portal to explore Oregon’s political and cultural geography.
“A rarely told part of the story,” remembers Scot Nakagawa, “is the origin of the No on 9 campaign. It began with an election for steering committee members at a gay bar in Eugene.”
To understand the significance of this, and how much the eventual organization of the campaign veered from its origins, we need to look at the political and cultural geography of Oregon in 1992. It’s a story of power and control that continues to this day.
The first two facts to know:
Oregon’s population is highly concentrated in the handful of counties with sizable cities, and is overwhelmingly white. The 1990 census counted more than 90 percent of residents as white, just under 4 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 2.4 percent as Asian, 1.6 percent Black, and 1.4 percent Native American. Since then Oregon’s population has grown by 1.5 million people but remains 84 percent white, 44th among states for its percentage of African Americans.
Oregon’s Political Geography
Oregon is the ninth largest state by area, covering nearly 100k square miles between Washington to the north, California and Nevada to the south, Idaho to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
In 1992 nearly 65 percent of the state’s 2.8 million residents lived in the six counties with more than 100,000 residents. Clustered along Interstate 5, these were the tri-county Portland metropolitan area, where 41 percent of the total state population lived; Marion County, surrounding the capital city Salem; Lane County, home of the University of Oregon; and Medford/ Ashland’s Jackson County on the California border.
Of Oregon’s remaining 30 counties, 21 had fewer than 50,000 residents, including eight with county-wide populations of less than 10,000.
From the standpoint of a conventional electoral campaign, the fundamental goal is to get 50 percent plus one of the votes. You want to identify and turn out every one of the voters on your side (your base) and then persuade and turn out those most likely to move to your side from the undecideds in the middle. You don’t want to waste a minute of time or a penny of your budget on those who are already against you.
On a social issue like gay rights the strategy would be to find the votes in the reliably “blue” pockets where a liberal population was concentrated and ignore the rest of the state. One of the many problems with that assumption was that the victory of the Oregon Citizens Alliance Ballot Measure 8 in 1988 showed that Democrats weren’t immune to homophobia. The religious right was betting on gay rights as being an issue that could divide Democrats and recruit more people to vote conservatively. That had certainly proved the case in Eugene a decade earlier.
The Locus of Gay Political Power
Eugene – college town, lesbian mecca from the late 1960s-90s, gateway to numerous counter-cultural remnants like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters – is known as the Emerald City but is deep blue politically. It was the first and only jurisdiction in the state that had enacted legal protection for gays and lesbians. (See Timeline.)
Members of the city’s gay community in 1977 persuaded the Eugene City Council to add sexual orientation to its ordinance banning discrimination. This historic City Council vote was immediately undermined by a referendum to rescind the state’s first gay rights protection. Despite a vigorous campaign to defend the anti-discrimination ordinance, voters repealed it by a 29 percent margin. It would take 24 years for the City Council to reinstate these protections, a decade after Ballot Measure 9.
The story of the Eugene campaign is told in the 1983 publication, It Could Happen to You: An Account of the Gay Civil Rights Campaign in Eugene Oregon, as told by the Gay Rights Writers Group. The title was a pointed and prescient forewarning – if voters in a notoriously liberal city like Eugene could be persuaded to endorse anti-gay bigotry, it could happen anywhere. Watch the video of Eugene lesbians remembering the Measure 51 campaign in the Politics collection of the Outliers and Outlaws archive.
Terry Bean, a white fifth-generation Oregonian who attended University of Oregon, was one of the campaigners. By the time the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) filed Ballot Measure 9 he had moved to Portland, co-founded several Portland-based gay institutions (Right to Privacy PAC in the early 1980s and the grantmaking Equity Foundation in 1989) and helped launch the national Human Rights Campaign (1980) and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (1991).
The locus of gay political and financial power was firmly established in Portland by 1992. Right to Privacy (RTP, later renamed Right to Pride) held their 10th annual fundraising gala in a downtown hotel in October, 1991. Keynoted that year by Oregon’s Governor Barbara Roberts, the highlight of the banquet was always the lineup of dozens of elected officials from local to Congressional, waiting to be introduced one by one to the cheering crowd of 500 or more people. RTP’s strategy was to raise and contribute money to candidates such as these, willing to support LGBTQ rights. Not everyone in that room believed it was worthwhile to campaign against the OCA, believing the courts, elected officials, or Congressional action at the federal level were more likely to advance the cause.
In this context, what happened in that gay bar in Eugene was counter to all prevailing political norms.
The Gay Bar in Eugene
“It began with an election for steering committee members at a gay bar in Eugene,” says Scot Nakagawa, at that time a community organizer and expert on the racist and homophobic right. “Whoever showed up could be nominated, and those nominated were to be community representatives, and not just the directors of a political action committee. People were nominated or volunteered and then were voted on. Bob Ralphs facilitated the process.” [We’ll write more about Bob Ralphs later.]
About the setting, Scot remembers: “I remember it was dark. The meeting took place in the basement which doubled as the main dance floor and bar area. The room looked just like you would expect a gay bar to look like in the light of day – a little cobbled together, stained black painted walls. Beyond that there was the obligatory disco ball and not much else. It was very spare and felt very small, befitting a relatively small and very closeted queer community of that time.”
Among those nominated and elected were Scot, white lesbian Cathy Siemens (founder of the Lesbian Community Project) who had encouraged Scot to attend, and African American community leader Kathleen Saadat. Of the two Latinx community leaders Scot remembers having been elected that night, one quit shortly thereafter “over the sense that the committee was racist.”
“Why did they want me?” Kathleen asks today. “Because there was a commitment of people to broaden the movement and be inclusive.” The previous campaign, against the OCA’s Ballot Measure 8 in 1988, had been hastily organized (see Timeline) and left some activists feeling that more needed to be done to introduce voters to gay people.
The Contest for Control
Once this initial leadership body was elected, the Portland-based, primarily-male, predominantly-white gay donor base rejected the campaign.
“They didn’t know us or, if they did, they didn’t trust our ability to run an effective campaign.”Scot Nakagawa
Kathleen (see African Americans Voting No on 9), Scott Seibert, and one or two others of “the originals” stuck with the steering committee despite the racist dynamics and serious differences over campaign goals and strategy that would persist. Scot Nakagawa moved onto the paid staff of the organization led by that steering committee, the Campaign for a Hate Free Oregon (CHFO), renamed No on 9 once the measure qualified for the ballot and received its numeric designation.
This came to be known as “the official campaign” or “the mainstream campaign” to differentiate it from the literally dozens of other groups and organizations that were created to defeat the measure. (We’ll tell the stories of some of those groups in the coming months.)
Scott Seibert, for example – a white gay former deputy sheriff, Marine recruiter, and fraternity president – formed OUTPAC, dedicated to tracking OCA membership and money and sharing copies of OCA propaganda with queer groups. Scott drove around Eugene in an era with zero legal protections for LGBTQ people, with the customized license plate GAYMAN.
Despite serving on the “official campaign” steering committee, Scott Seibert was the kind of activist who was more tolerated than embraced by the small core of actual decision-makers. There was a fear of the many flowers blooming – the proliferation of multiple campaign entities, slogans, logos, messages, tactics. Would they form a harmonious bouquet to decorate the stage on a victorious election night? Or were these weeds starving the main harvest of the food, water, and oxygen it needed to thrive?
The “mainstream campaign” tried at various times to equip, persuade, cooperate with, co-opt, or ignore these many other efforts. This depended in part on the rise and fall of the influence in any given moment of paid organizers, national allies, and steering committee members.
After the ballots were counted, the “official campaign” closed up shop – as it had always intended. Many of the other organizations that formed or flourished through the long fight against Ballot Measure 9 lived to fight another fight.
The question of control, in some ways, was never really a question. Ballot Measure 9 was defeated because of the dozens of organizations that inspired thousands of queer Oregonians and their allies to come out and to turn out the No vote. But the big money for the metro-area media buys that fulfilled the conventional wisdom about how a campaign “was really won” would remain in the hands of the white liberal power structure that dominated the state (and still does).
In the aftermath of the No on 9 campaign, it was clear that not only would small towns across the state be subjected to mini-9 OCA measures but we would have to return to the statewide ballot (in a non-presidential, lower turnout year) to fight a sanitized version of Ballot Measure 9. A few of us, including your writer Holly Pruett, began organizing the foundation of the next “official campaign.” If we won both the vote and the trust of the community, we intended to become a permanent campaign-ready LGBTQ rights organization. Both happened – we defeated Ballot Measure 13 in 1994 and founded Basic Rights Oregon.
Early in that difficult two-year slog, campaign manager Julie Davis and I were called into the penthouse office of a downtown office building. The former mayor of Portland and cabinet member for President Jimmy Carter, who as a white college student had gone south to help with voter registration drives and as governor of Oregon had enacted the first ban on lesbian and gay discrimination (later overturned by voters); now a kingmaker and fixer for the business community, told us essentially this:
The gay community couldn’t be trusted and wouldn’t be allowed to run this next campaign. Ballot Measure 9 had been defeated – yes, but the campaign was a mess. It was chaos. A similar measure had passed in Colorado and the state was now facing business boycotts. The Portland business community couldn’t let that happen here. They would be running this next campaign. We shouldn’t feel bad. After all, civil rights wouldn’t have been won for Blacks in the south if white Northerners hadn’t come down.
Ultimately, the nascent No on 13 campaign brokered a compromise that allowed the queer community and our community-based allies to do all the hard work while a few business representatives – alongside labor, faith, and civil rights leaders – got to review the (never controversial) campaign polling and message.
Ballot Measure 9 was a campaign about civil rights that accomplished many things – but it did not fundamentally alter the underlying racial, geographic, or economic power dynamics of the state or the LGBTQ community.
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.