Oregon’s farmworkers’ union took a courageous stand for LGBTQ Oregonians, setting in motion one of the most durable legacies of Ballot Measure 9.
The conventional wisdom in 1992 was that Ballot Measure 9 would be defeated by white, liberal voters in the state’s main population centers (see A Gay Bar in Eugene). Despite this view, many were committed to engaging with rural communities and communities of color.
For some, it was a matter of survival – for queer people of color or rural LGBTQ folks, or as friends and family members of either, the danger was intensely local. Some white LGBTQ activists had a general desire for diversity without a deep political analysis.
For other activists, both people of color and white allies, there was a clear understanding that Ballot Measure 9 was at its heart a racist attack on civil rights that must be fought by an ongoing multiracial coalition.
Many who saw the underlying white supremacy of the religious right’s agenda expected that an attack on immigrants would be next. They were right – Prop 187 passed in California in 1994, a watershed moment in the growing anti-immigrant movement.
The intersection of immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights is one of the most durable stories to emerge from the fight against Ballot Measure 9.
“The legacy of this beautiful bond was established during devastating times. As a young organizer, I remember seeing our leaders, and hearing them teach us the value of being in community, and supporting all social justice causes.”Reyna Lopez, President of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste & Executive Director of PCUN
Farmworker Rights: Gay Community, Where Have You Been?
The Walk for Love and Justice was conceived of by Anne Galisky, the queer daughter of a once-undocumented Ukrainian immigrant who came to the U.S. after a seven-year journey via Mexico. Anne envisioned a 150-mile, two-week walk from Eugene to Portland to “take the agenda out of the hands of the Oregon Citizens Alliance and go directly to the people of Oregon, asking them to stand with us for justice and against bigotry” (from the April 1, 1992 press release; we’ll tell the full story of “For Love and Justice: A Walk Against Hate” in the coming months).
Along the route walkers would stay in churches, synagogues, and community meeting rooms. Between the state capital of Salem and the walkers’ destination of Portland was the town of Woodburn. A profile of Anne recounts:
“Hosts and participants took on the risks that were inherent in boldly and publicly supporting the LGBTQ community in that highly charged environment. In Woodburn, the only organization that was courageous enough to stand up for the LGBTQ community was Oregon’s farmworker union (PCUN). Farmworkers met the LGBTQ walkers and allies on the edge of town and marched into Woodburn together. That evening a crowd packed into the PCUN union hall for a bilingual getting-to-know-each-other session, with dinner provided by a synagogue from Salem.”
PCUN co-founder and then-President Ramón Ramírez has told the story of what happened that night, and what it set in motion, many times over the years. In a video produced by Gary Delgado for the Rural Organizing Project, Ramón recounts a core topic of that evening’s dialogue: solidarity and reciprocity.
“One of the questions that we put to the LGBTQ community was where had they been in terms of farmworker rights? We work in close proximity to Portland, so it was a question that was very difficult for them to answer.”Ramón Ramírez, Former President of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste & Co-Founder of PCUN
Individual LGBTQ community members may have acted in solidarity with farmworkers, participating in boycotts or providing financial or organizational support through non-LGBTQ-specific congregations or social justice groups. But there had been no queer-led organization to build a sustaining relationship of mutual respect and support.
Even without this track record, Ramón and participating PCUN members stepped forward. “We opened up a dialogue because we knew we needed to stand up for the LGBTQ community and build a long lasting relationship for justice for all,” Ramón remembers.
Rural Organizing Project (ROP) founder Marcy Westerling had been at the PCUN union hall that night. As Ramón recalls, “Marcy immediately started identifying with PCUN. Once ROP got formed we began building a relationship.”
Prop 187 Comes to Oregon
With the success of Prop 187 just to the south, anti-immigrant organizations filed multiple copycat measures in Oregon in 1995. “The Oregon initiatives required the following: the verification of the legal status of all students by public schools, and the exclusion of those without documentation; the denial of driver’s licenses to undocumented people; the denial of public benefits and services to anyone undocumented; and that reports on ‘suspected undocumented immigrants’ be made by all state, local, and governmental agencies.” (The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon, pg. 30.)
Marcy had already activated the ROP network of small town human dignity groups to support a PCUN boycott in 1993, in a multi-year effort to bring agribusiness NORPAC to the bargaining table. And in 1995 ROP included a full-page titled “Why Should Queers Care About Immigrants” in their kitchen table activism packet. Written by Sue Dockstader for Communities Against Hate’s The Racemixer, the piece concluded: “We owe a debt of gratitude and support to those in communities of color (both straight and queer) who have fought against the OCA. Stop immigrant bashing!” [Examples courtesy of ROP Archival Collection.]
Coming off the defeat of the OCA’s Measure 13 in 1994, Basic Rights Oregon was newly forming with a commitment to ongoing LGBTQ solidarity work around civil rights.
“The first thing we did was go to people like Marcy Westerling and ROP and Basic Rights Oregon and say, help us out to defeat these measures. And they did, they helped us out.”Ramón Ramírez, Former President of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste & Co-Founder of PCUN
When the anti-immigrant measures were filed in 1995, Ramón says, “The first thing we did was go to people like Marcy Westerling and ROP and Basic Rights Oregon and say, help us out to defeat these measures. And they did, they helped us out. They taught us how to strategize, and how to do electoral organizing, something we’d never been involved in, in any serious way. We were able to learn a lot. They laid out this beautiful strategy that [involved] CAUSA, PCUN, ROP, and BRO, developing a strategy that had different components to it. Immediately we began a 35-city tour in rural Oregon to talk about anti-immigrant measures. ROP shared their contacts with us. In every town we met with ROP supporters and the Latino community. It was a truly grassroots effort, a very successful effort.”
As noted in The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon, “CAUSA, an Oregon statewide Latino-based coalition, was co-founded by PCUN in 1996 to oppose four anti-immigrant ballot initiatives, which were potentially worse than California’s Proposition 187. PCUN co-founder Ramón Ramírez was a key player in the founding of CAUSA and in its successful attempts to prevent the anti-immigrant initiatives from reaching the election ballot: they fell far short of the 97,000 signatures needed to qualify.”
Continued Solidarity Work
Nine years after the No on 9 “Walk for Love and Justice” opened a dialogue about solidarity in the PCUN Union Hall, the Walk for Farm Worker Justice “included people from immigrant, labor, religious, human rights, community, small farmer, environmental, and youth organizations who marched to bring NORPAC to the bargaining table with PCUN,” according to the union’s history. It notes, “The Oregon Farm Worker Ministry and Rural Organizing Project provided a major supporting role for the march and the effort to bring NORPAC to the bargaining table by providing tours of field conditions through Washington, Yamhill, and Marion Counties and mounting protests, including a major picket line at NORPAC corporate headquarters in Stayton.”
After struggling for over a decade to center racial justice in its work, Basic Rights Oregon established a standing Racial Justice Program in 2007.
“Basic Rights Oregon was born out of ballot measure fights,” the program description reads. “Oregon has faced more anti-gay ballot measures than any other state, making us seasoned veterans at the type of ‘get out the vote’ operations that are needed to win when a community’s rights are on the line. One place our racial justice values emerge is in giving field support to battle Oregon’s anti-immigrant ballot measures.
“Our racial justice work is rooted in solidarity with groups that have supported us as we’ve supported them. For instance, in 2004 the farm workers union and immigrant rights group PCUN opposed, and organized its members against, Measure 36, which banned same sex marriage. Then, in 2014, after marriage equality was settled in Oregon’s federal court, we shifted our staff to focus on fighting against Measure 88, a ballot measure which sought to repeal the rights of undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s cards.”
For Ramón, it’s not just a matter of white queers and straight immigrants or farmworkers standing up for each other. It’s a recognition of the love and support needed for people who are members of both communities. On National Coming Out Day in 2016, Ramón wrote:
“Once again this year I am proud to come out as a vocal ally for LGBTQ communities, particularly people of color who continue to face unique struggles to coming out and being out. This remains true within the Latino community, where LGBTQ people face unique cultural barriers because of the strong presence of the church. As a result, they are less visible and less authentic. We can change that by standing up for justice for all people in our communities.”Ramón Ramírez, Former President of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste & Co-Founder of PCUN
Ramón continued: “I am among many other straight leaders of color who are making videos, writing opinion editorials, and sharing our stories to raise the visibility of leaders of color who are fighting for LGBTQ equality this National Coming Out Day. We are joined by more than 140 leaders and organizations that work in communities of color across Oregon that have publicly come out in support of LGBTQ people of color.
“Together, we can bring more visibility to LGBTQ people of color and help all families get the resources, respect and love they need to thrive.
“Thanks to the work of Our Families at Basic Rights Oregon, LGBTQ people of color can live in communities freer from discrimination and distress. It benefits not only them, but the rest of us as well, because when you do something positive for one member of our community, it affects all members of our community.”
A Legacy Formed Out of Devastating Times
In 2018, Reyna Lopez was named executive director of PCUN, which is now Oregon’s longest standing Latinx-led organization. The proud daughter of immigrants from Mexico who came to Oregon in the late 80’s just as the OCA was starting its slew of bigoted ballot measures, Reyna remembers hearing the story of farmworkers’ collaboration with the LGBTQ community. “As a young organizer,” she says, “I remember seeing our leaders, and hearing them teach us the value of being in community, and supporting all social justice causes.”
“To this day these bonds continue, and have grown and developed into golden coalitions and alliances for the long term. The lessons of 30 years ago can be brought to 2022, where PCUN and the farmworker movement continue to show up with radical generosity for all communities experiencing injustice. This story is still told to our younger generations, and will continue to be upheld as a key moment in our history bringing together the farmworker movement and the LGBTQIA2+ movement. Your struggle is our struggle.”Reyna Lopez, President of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste & Executive Director of PCUN
For more on PCUN’s many accomplishments, read the 2012 history compiled by PCUN staff and members with the University of Oregon’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon.
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.