After the OCA filed Ballot Measure 9, homophobic attacks and violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric skyrocketed. It wasn’t just the queer community that was targeted for opposing Measure 9. This month’s stories recount desecration of churches; break ins at campaign offices; threats against synagogues, businesses, journalists, activists; destruction of property and animal abuse; and a deadly fire bombing.
A note of caution: This story, and its sisters 8 and 9, are very tough terrain to revisit. We don’t do it lightly. We tell these stories to honor the incredible bravery of those who defend civil and human rights even in the face of political violence meant to weaken or deny those rights.
“People died in Oregon, because of the campaign.”
These words of Donna Red Wing’s open the award-winning documentary Ballot Measure 9. We encourage everyone to stream this video or obtain a copy, look through the transcript, and share it as a teaching tool. It depicts, in ways that memory can’t, the terror of those times.
For those of us who lived through those times to tell the tale today – not all of us did – the fear we lived with but weren’t stopped by remains unforgettable.
“After two weeks of harassment, break-ins and death threats, this morning at 4:30am somebody put their death threat around a rock and threw it through the window. Two times they pried the back doors off the house… and took all kinds of files, including unlisted phone numbers and my personal schedule. It makes me very angry. And with my background as a cop and as a marine, if I feel this way then I can imagine why other people are hiding and going back into the closet, just scared to death.”~ OUTPAC founder Scott Seibert, Ballot Measure 9 documentary footage
Performer and cultural organizer Howie Bierbaum says, “I remember the fear of being out and how terrifying it was.” As a founding member of the direct-action group ACT UP in the late ‘80s, Howie was used to fighting back. “I thought that energy would transfer over to OCA stuff but it was harder,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could be as up front as with ACT UP. I found it to be a very scary time.” Howie had just purchased his first home which was already being vandalized – “petty stuff by neighborhood juvenile delinquents.” Despite being out on the radio and stages for years, he remembers being terrified to put a No on 9 lawnsign in front of his home. “I understood how Jews in Amsterdam and Germany must have felt, under the microscope. Not ashamed of who I was, just sad that others would be so hateful in response.”
For queer newspaper publisher Renée LaChance, there was an ongoing sense of being targeted. The Just Out offices routinely received death threats; the neighboring typesetting office was broken into by vandals. “The threat of violence was what we ate and breathed in those years,” Renée says. “It was never not in the forefront of our minds, that we were fighting this battle. And it really was a war – there was so much violence and hate.”
In the early days of the OCA’s attack against the LGBTQ community, Renée reminds us, “the allies weren’t there yet. It was just us. We hadn’t made those connections with the churches and other groups – we had just started to. The emergence of ‘straight but not narrow’ as a whole category of support was a big deal. When the corporate LGBTQ employee groups, the religious and community groups and all the rest got involved, it changed everything.”
“Rise in Hate Crimes Worries Police”
That was the Oregonian headline on October 27, one week before the vote on Measure 9. The rest of the story:
“Hate crimes are on the upswing, and the controversy over Ballot Measure 9, the statewide anti-gay rights measure, is contributing to the increase, several police officials told a legislative committee Monday. Portland Police Chief Tom Potter said people in the gay and lesbian community were buying guns to protect themselves because they feared the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.
“’It has created a real climate of fear in our community, and I’m quite concerned about that,’ Potter told the Senate Interim Judiciary Committee.
“The legislative committee met to discuss hate crimes Monday, after the Sept. 26 firebomb killings of Hattie Cohens and Brian Mock in Salem. Cohens was a lesbian, and Mock was a homosexual. [Read more in Story 9.]
“The committee also expressed concern about the desecration of St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church in Hillsboro. Graffiti on the church’s walls targeted Catholics, Jews, Hispanics and homosexuals. [Read more in Story 8.]
“But Hillsboro police chief Ron Louie warned, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.’ With a change in Oregon’s cultural mix, high unemployment and the migration of Blacks and Hispanics with jobs into the state, ‘It’s not going to get any better,’ Louie predicted.
“During the first half of this year, hate crimes were up by 12% over the same time in 1991, according to a report issued Monday by the state Criminal Justice Services Division. Between last January and June, 282 hate crimes were reported to police agencies; during the first six months of 1991, 251 hate crimes were reported. Hate crimes are acts motivated by prejudice against a person’s race, national origin, religious background, sexual orientation, social status or political beliefs. [Read more about the difficulty of counting hate crimes.]
“Skinhead groups that push white supremacy and heterosexuality are recruiting members through schools, police officials told the committee. The groups tout their philosophy on dedicated telephone lines and on posters. ‘Ethnic groups outside the white race are their potential enemies,’ said Major Dean L. Renfrow, of the Oregon State Police.
“Hate crimes – including those sparked by the Measure 9 debate – even are being committed on students wearing No on 9 buttons, Louie said. He cited a young woman who was beaten up and her leather jacket torn by other students after she wore her button to school, he noted.
“Hate crimes must be taken seriously, added Stan Robson, chief deputy of the Benton County Sheriff’s Department.”
“The 1992 fall campaign has become a mean season of vandalism, harassment, X-rated videotapes and violence. Churches have been defiled. Car windows punched out. People harassed….Gays and lesbians say a cloud of fear and suspicion has settled over their lives. Proponents of 9 say they are afraid to speak out. Hate crimes are increasing and the national and world media have come running to glimpse this bitter fight in the green Pacific state that gave America the bottle bill.”~ The Oregonian, Sunday, November 1, 1992 (two days before the vote)
The legislative hearing, news coverage, and the documentary Ballot Measure 9 detailed LGBTQ organizations’ membership files and donor lists being stolen, brake lines cut and tires loosened on cars, gunshots and rocks through windows, beatings, vandalism of homes and businesses, a brutal attack on a straight ally’s horse. (Read more about the interplay of mainstream and political violence during this period.)
Just Out’s October editorial recapped some of this violence – “not to scare you, or to further victimize anyone, but to show what the perpetrators of homophobic violence are doing. And to show the courage of lesbian and gay Oregonians in the face of this violence” – with this message:
“We cannot afford to give in to our terror and fear. That’s what they want us to do. We must come out in great numbers and then block our closet doors so that we cannot retreat. It is not just people like Donna Red Wing, Scott Seibert, Kathleen Saadat, Sandy Shirley, Peggy Norman, or Scot Nakagawa who are on the front lines in this war, we all are. Whether you are standing in front of a microphone or your closet door, we are all targets in this war.”Just Out, Oct. 1992
“’They’ll win if we stop, so we’ll just keep going. We have to do everything we can to keep this poison from spreading,’ said Scott Seibert, just days after the break-in of the OUTPAC office….
“The determination and courage that each of us wears as we face these personal and public assaults deepens the pride in all of us.”
Violence Then & Now
Speaking personally as your writer, Holly Pruett, it’s been difficult to revisit the terrifying times we went through as a community, fighting Measure 9, the local OCA measures, and Measure 13, the sanitized version of Measure 9, a campaign I co-led in 1994.
I myself had the bomb squad come to my front door to check out a package left there for a high-profile campaign staffer who was staying with us. It turned out to be a care package from an admirer, but the times were such that everything had to be treated as a potentially mortal threat.
These days I rarely feel at risk for being an out lesbian – I’m white, comfortably middle-aged, middle-class and married, femme-presenting and only recognizably queer when engaging in public displays of affection with my butch spouse who is frequently misgendered with “Sir” and still faces public scrutiny and sometimes hostility when using a public women’s bathroom.
My vulnerability as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and teen date rape remains with me. More so, I am excruciatingly aware of the risks taken these days by showing up to the political protests that were spaces of solidarity and relative safety back in the ‘90s.
The rise of political violence in response to the candidacy of our nation’s first Black President was on our minds when our chosen family attended a huge Obama rally on Portland’s waterfront in 2008. My Asian American friend detailed our safety plan if shooting were to start – we would dive under the nearby stage equipment truck with the kids who were with us.
As longtime civil rights organizer and No on 9 leader Scot Nakagawa puts it, “The violence of the ‘91-92 campaign – and the violence that was rising all around us in Oregon in the late ‘80s through the ‘90s – was very real and could be very scary. But it was nothing when compared to the level of violence possible now. White nationalists and other violent rightwing factions today are better trained, more likely to be armed and have better guns – and, importantly, the context has changed such that they’re more likely to use those guns.”
“Back then,” Scot says, “if someone waved a gun in my direction, I considered it a threat that was very unlikely to be followed up on. Today, if someone waves a gun in my direction, I duck, assuming that it will be fired.”
As we revisit the pervasive, terrifying, and deadly violence of 30 years ago, our hearts are heavy with the death of a beloved LGBTQ activist, murdered while supporting a racial justice protest in Portland on February 19, 2022.
June Knightly is the fourth person to have died in Portland in the midst of far-right provocation in the past five years, and the third white Portlander in that time to be killed while putting themselves in between Black people and a violent white person fueled by misogyny and racial hatred.
We knew June by her chosen name Amazon in the late 1990s when she chaired the Lesbian Community Project board. LCP carried a heavy load during the violence of the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s attack on the LGBTQ community.
“June Knightly embodies the feminist lesbian community’s unwavering support for human rights for all. I am proud to call myself June Knightly and proud that I tried to show up for her community when they were under attack – just as she showed up again and again for Black lives.”Eric K. Ward
With June’s killing so recent, this is very tough terrain to revisit. We don’t do it lightly. We tell these stories to honor the incredible bravery of those who defend civil and human rights even in the face of political violence meant to weaken or deny those rights.
People like June “Amazon” Knightly, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher. The people you’re reading about in No on 9 Remembered.
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.