Kathleen Saadat would not want the story of African Americans Voting No on 9 to be about her. “I see myself as a conduit,” Kathleen says.
But her willingness to come out as a lesbian on the cover of Just Out, the state’s major LGBTQ newspaper, in November, 1991, changed the terms of the debate.
At the time an assistant to Portland Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury, Kathleen wasn’t new to activism or politics. In an alumna profile in Reed College magazine, she said she’d grown up “shy but angry” in the Jim Crow-era South and Midwest; “attending segregated public schools and sitting in the blacks-only sections of the movie theaters would forge her social conscience.”
Already in her 30s when she moved to Oregon, by 1976 Kathleen was one of the organizers of Portland’s first gay rights march. She served as the state’s Director of Affirmative Action under Governor Neil Goldschmidt during the time he signed the executive order banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in executive department employment (later overturned by the OCA’s Ballot Measure 8; see Timeline). She helped craft Portland’s anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians, passed the same year she posed outside City Hall for Just Out.
The fact that Kathleen was a lesbian wasn’t a secret. “But she hadn’t advertised it either,” Just Out writer Andee Hochman noted in the cover story titled, “The OCA opens the door for Kathleen Saadat.”
Cecil Prescod was one of the many community members affected by Kathleen’s courage. An African-American minister in the United Church of Christ, Cecil was just newly becoming involved in LGBTQ activism at the time. “This was the first time that I got to meet and know Kathleen,” he remembers.
“We were all very young and Kathleen was this amazing woman that people respected. People respected her so much that they became more comfortable speaking about gay issues in the African American community as a result of her example. The integrity she had made it possible for many people to have conversations they otherwise wouldn’t have.”Cecil Prescod
Cecil notes, “It’s still a very hard community to talk about these issues in,” even 30 years later. For that reason, Kathleen made sure that she wouldn’t be left standing out in the cold.
Before the cover story came out, Kathleen reached out to friends and leaders in the African-American community. She told Just Out, “I’ve talked to people that I know and said to them, ‘This is what’s going to happen, and this is what I expect. I expect you to remind people that I’m the same person today that I was two weeks ago.’ To a person, each one of them has given me a hug and said, ‘You got it.’ It’s been pretty nice to have that support and reassurance.”
Among those committing to stand with Kathleen were State Rep. Margaret Carter, the first Black woman elected to the Oregon legislature; State Rep. Avel Gordly, who would go on to become Oregon’s first Black female state senator; JoAnn Hardesty, who in 2019 would become Portland’s first Black female City Commissioner; Black United Front co-chair Richard Brown; labor and community activist Anne Sweet; and more.
After committing to serve on the No on 9 campaign steering committee (see Gay Bar in Eugene), Kathleen found herself needing to go back to these allies once more. Her impetus came from two directions. First was from within the campaign and the white leaders with greatest influence on strategy – the campaign was not doing enough to engage communities of color.
Attempts by Kathleen and others “to have that campaign address issues of race and utilize effectively people of color… seemed to fall on deaf ears,” she later told historian Pat Young.
Racism Inside and Outside the Campaign
“The problems of racism within the campaign were the same as outside the campaign,” Kathleen says today.
She’d encountered dismissive treatment all her life. Serving on the No on 9 steering committee was no different.
She recalls being attacked several times in meetings, her statements subjected to innuendo and lies. Debriefing one of these incidents with fellow steering committee member Jeff Malachowsky over pizza, he asked, “What’s that about?” She said simply, “Racism and sexism.” The next time it happened, Jeff – a white straight man, then executive director of Western States Center – spoke up, countering the ways Kathleen’s words were being distorted with a simple, “That’s not what she said.” Kathleen says, “It changed the whole dynamic.”
Still, with all the dangers and difficulties of life on the campaign trail – the death threats, the long days, the big work of changing hearts and minds – she says, “The hardest part was the racism.”
Even as Kathleen and others were struggling to get the LGBTQ campaign to take issues of race seriously, the opposition was only too eager to feature people of color in their media to reassure white voters, and conservative voters of color, that Ballot Measure 9 “was not about discrimination.”
As Suzanne Pharr wrote at the time: “This mis/dis-information is used to wedge us apart from our allies. The OCA has gone into African American churches in Portland and told their members that while they were clean, upstanding Christians in their Civil Rights Movement, these perverted and diseased homosexuals now want the same rights African Americans fought so hard for. They remind them that there are very few opportunities to go around, and that they must protect what little there is available for them. Abortion rights are also presented as genocide against the African-American community and women’s participation in affirmative action as an attack on the position of Black males. Through presenting the idea of deserving and undeserving victims of hatred and oppression, the Right reinforces the idea of hierarchies of oppression, and divides us from another.” (Transformation, pg. 39)
African Americans Voting No on 9
With little support inside the campaign, Kathleen turned back to her allies in the Black community.
She recounted her course of action to Pat Young a few years after the campaign: “I approached Avel Gordly, Margaret Carter, and Richard Brown and said, ‘We have no presence. We have no visible presence in this struggle.’ They immediately agreed to help get one.” The four co-signed a letter inviting folks to convene at Margaret’s house. About two dozen came to that first meeting. They committed to organizing as African Americans Voting No on 9, with an average of about 17 people meeting regularly for the duration of the campaign – “which I thought was remarkable,” Kathleen says.
As they made their voices heard within the African-American community, “It was not a monolithic or unilateral response,” Kathleen recalls. “There was a lot of discussion just like in the broader community around what was right and what was wrong.”
Writing in The Oregon Witness, the newsletter of the Coalition for Human Dignity (see Oregon Democracy Project), Cecil stated it succinctly: “In summary, the OCA’s agenda is an anti-Black agenda.” Read his full article, “Oil & Water Do Not Mix! The OCA and the African American Community,” here.
African Americans Voting No on 9 made this case in one of their fliers:
Ballot Measure 9 violates every civil rights principle African Americans have fought for over the years. Not even one generation has passed since people twisted the Bible to justify laws which discriminated against Black people. Before that, practitioners of discrimination used the Bible to justify slavery and its inhumane treatments. Ballot Measure 9 is a vile reincarnation of both the Jim Crow Laws and McCarthyism. In light of these discriminatory practices we urge African-American citizens not to be deceived by the biblical justification that is being used to discriminate against people who are perceived to be different.African Americans Voting No on 9
“Because the whole issue of homosexuality is surrounded with issues of religion,” Kathleen told Pat Young, “some of the Black ministers had been saying to their congregations that they should vote for Measure 9.” Some of these ministers allowed OCA spokespeople to speak from their pulpits, fanning fears not only about morality, but about jobs through the false claim that gays and lesbians were seeking “special rights.”.
With the campaign focused on the white majority for the votes it needed to win, there were no resources dedicated to dialogue with the African-American community to discuss their fears and dispel misinformation. That work fell to African Americans Voting No on 9.
One prong of their strategy to counter the OCA’s attempt to wedge the African-American and LGBTQ communities was public. The group partnered with the Rainbow Coalition (which Kathleen co-chaired with Jan Mihara) to bring Rev. Jesse Jackson to Portland to speak against Ballot Measure 9. “We had a packed crowd. Absolutely packed to the rafters,” Kathleen remembers. Rev. Jackson stated: “No right-thinking person must ever use any scriptural text to justify any group being left outside the umbrella of civil rights protections.”
Another prong of their strategy was behind-the-scenes. Countless conversations were devoted to persuading Black ministers to consider neutrality.
“If they couldn’t support our effort, [we wanted them] to at least understand that it was a human rights issue and not say anything,” Kathleen says. By the final months of the campaign, as Pat Young documents, “ministers were speaking out. Reverend Willie B. Smith, pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, commented that while his church opposed homosexuality, he equated Measure 9 with Jim Crow Laws. Another pastor, Paul Spurlock of the Ainsworth United Church of Christ, said Measure 9 was ‘an affront to the conscience of the community.’”
A key turning point came when the Albina Ministerial Alliance (the association of African American clergy) agreed to team up with the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to place a full-page ad in an African-American newspaper urging people to vote No on 9, with quotes from prominent African-American clergy.
“The proposed Measure 9 is a violation of basic human rights. In light of the long difficult struggle of African-Americans in this country for our human and civil rights we must be extremely sensitive to the exclusion of Gay and Lesbians in regard to their struggle for the same rights. Voting No on Measure 9 does not endorse homosexuality. It simply affirms that Gay and Lesbian people are part of God’s whole family.”Rev. Robert Eaddy, Highland United Church of Christ
Voter education included print and radio ads (Western States Center helped raise the funds); speaking to community groups; and coming out, again and again, to invite people to think about gays and lesbians of all skin hues as humans.
The Power of Radical Inclusivity
“I can talk with almost anyone, if they’re willing to talk with me,” Kathleen Saadat told the Black United Front’s Oral History Project in 2010.
On the road during the campaign, she met with about 20 other people of color in the conservative southern Oregon town of Grants Pass. A Latino man was the last person to arrive; he turned to leave, saying, “I shouldn’t be here. I support the Oregon Citizens Alliance.” Kathleen countered, “Please stay.” When he asked why, she said, “We have to live on this planet together.” At the end of the meeting, he told her, “I’m so glad you asked me to stay. You talked about roads, work, children, schools. Now I see you’re not one dimensional.”
A white woman told Kathleen her support for Ballot Measure 9 was connected to her religious faith. Kathleen invited her to attend a service at Metropolitan Community Church with her. After worshipping with the primarily gay congregation, she told Kathleen, “I’m not sure I can support gay rights, but now I can tell people the bad stuff they’re hearing about homosexuals is not true.” Within the next ten years, she’d become an ally and advocate.
“I don’t expect the world to change overnight,” Kathleen told Just Out – or that her coming out would “make everybody go, ‘Hallelujah.’” Her hope was “maybe just to get people to think, to think about the value of human beings.”
For Kathleen, the No on 9 campaign was about more than gay rights, or even the broader threats to civil rights that was being advanced by demonizing LGBTQ people and propagating false threats of “special rights.”
“It’s time to stop throwing one another away,” Kathleen said in the 1991 Just Out interview, pointing to a dehumanizing dynamic that has only worsened since then. “If people are mean to me, I can tell them they’re being mean to me. I don’t have to kill them. If we can raise a few generations without the idea that killing is the solution to a problem, we might see a brand new world.”
Looking back from 30 years later, Kathleen says the most important message to carry forward about the fight to defeat Ballot Measure 9 is, “Everybody can participate in making the change we need.”
That’s why she agreed to stand for election to the original campaign steering committee in that bar in Eugene, and stuck with it, despite all the difficulties that followed.
“Winning 50 percent plus one of the vote was not a big enough goal,” Kathleen says. “You still need to build a movement.” The broad-based community representation of that original steering committee was an example of what building a movement might look like. The determined work of African Americans Voting No on 9 in the face of both campaign indifference and community discomfort is another example of movement building.
The need for an inclusive movement persists to this day. “The struggle to include, to broaden, is still there,” Kathleen says. “We talk about working together. We need to talk more about listening to each other. That plants the seeds of growth. You can’t do that while you’re diminishing the other person. You have to give what you want to get.”
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.