“Amends Oregon Constitution… homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism… are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.”
1992. This was the very end of the twentieth century. Most LGBT Oregonians still lacked any legal protection against discrimination. We could be fired, denied housing or public accommodations, if only suspected of being gay. Our relationships were not recognized for the sake of benefits or even hospital visitation. (See Timeline.)
Several attempts to provide protection against discrimination had been repealed by voters (Eugene’s city ordinance in 1978; Governor Goldschmidt’s order covering executive department employment, in the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s first ballot measure victory in 1988). A state law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, introduced in the legislature in 1973 and every session afterwards, wouldn’t pass until 2007; marriage rights for same-gender couples in Oregon wouldn’t be secured until 2014.
It would be three years before AIDS deaths in the U.S. would reach an all-time high. Freddie Mercury had just died of AIDS. Magic Johnson revealed he was HIV positive. As we fought the Measure 9 campaign, the very first clinical trial of combination antiretroviral therapies had just begun. The radical direct action force ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) had been active for five years by then. The offshoot Queer Nation was merely two years old.
The umbrella term “queer” hadn’t been popularized yet at the level of the mainstream. If we were recognized as a community, or as a movement, we were “lesbians and gays” if not just “gay.” We were “homosexual” to those uncomfortable with us, or “the gays.” It was a big deal that the “B” for bisexuals was added to the March for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation; the inclusion of a T for Transgender and other letters in the long pan-community acronym that’s common today hadn’t happened yet.
During the long months we were campaigning against Ballot Measure 9, Bill Clinton was campaigning to deny George H.W. Bush a second presidential term. Clinton was the first presidential candidate to court the gay vote openly. In his first year as President (after failing to overturn the military’s ban on gay service members) he signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” protection for lesbians and gays in the armed forces – they could serve but only if they stayed in the closet.
For those of you not yet born in the early 1990s, or those too young then to remember, this was the landscape for LGBT rights when Oregon voters were asked to amend the Constitution to condemn homosexuality and take away the rights of their family members, neighbors, and coworkers.
These were still early days for the LGBT movement, just a little over two decades since Stonewall. The Christian Right (aka the Religious Right or more recently by the term Christian Nationalism) was ascendant. Its attempts to see America governed by a “moral majority” had begun in opposition to school desegregation, grew through opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and was now focusing on gay people. The months leading into the vote on Ballot Measure 9 featured Pat Buchanan delivering his infamous “culture wars” speech at the Republican National Convention. Back in Oregon, Oregon Citizens Alliance leader Lon Mabon bragged that the national convention could have been an OCA convention, it so closely aligned with their anti-gay agenda.
Oh yes, we also had a problem with anti-Black and anti-immigrant violence in those days. Oregon was fertile soil not only for the Christian Right, but for white nationalist groups attracted by what they called the Northwest Imperative. (See Act I: 1988.)
This was the social, legal, and cultural landscape when the OCA succeeded in placing Measure 9 on the statewide ballot.
Amends Oregon Constitution
The words chosen by the Oregon Citizens Alliance were significant. As was the vehicle for the change they were seeking. This was not just legislation. This would actually amend the state Constitution, the foundational document meant to guarantee the rights of citizens. While many tremendous legal wrongs have been perpetrated against Indigenous, Black, immigrant and other groups of people in the history of the U.S., rarely were those injustices enacted by a vote of the people as part of a statewide election. Constitutions (federal and state) have been amended and interpreted to confirm rights to groups not explicitly named, but amending a constitution to explicitly require discrimination was – thankfully – without much precedent.
This attack on the state Constitution, and the extreme words used in the measure itself, led the No on 9 campaign to launch its first television ad with a visual depiction of what was at stake.
“The ad opens with a camera panning the yellowed parchment of the Oregon Constitution as two hands slice the bill of rights with scissors. The hands then edit the constitution in red and black marker. The word equality is crossed out. A line is drawn through freedom of speech. The words state must discriminate are added, along with phrases from the language of the anti-gay initiative: abnormal, perverse and unnatural. The title of the document is changed to read Constitution of the state of the OCA.” (Brian T. Meehan, “Oregon Constitution stars on first No on 9 ad for tv,” The Oregonian, September 29, 1992)
The Question Before Oregon Voters
The Official 1992 General Election Voters’ Pamphlet recapped for voters the question on which they would vote YES or NO, along with the text of the constitutional amendment (“Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Oregon…”) and a summary and explanatory statement prepared by a committee of proponents and opponents.
9: AMENDS CONSTITUTION: GOVERNMENT CANNOT FACILITATE, MUST DISCOURAGE HOMOSEXUALITY, OTHER BEHAVIORS.
BALLOT QUESTION: YES OR NO
Shall constitution be amended to require that all governments discourage homosexuality, other listed “behaviors,” and not facilitate or recognize them?
Amends Oregon Constitution. All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these “behaviors” are “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse” and that they are to be discouraged and avoided. State may not recognize this conduct under “sexual orientation” or “sexual preference” labels or through “quotas, minority status, affirmative action, or similar concepts.”
EXPLANATORY STATEMENT (IN PART)
The effect of this measure is to establish the rights of citizens to challenge governmental protection, encouragement or facilitation of homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism. Examples include but are not limited to:
- The establishment of homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as a minority classification for purposes of governmental affirmative action programs, quotas, or benefits; or for purposes of anti-discrimination statutes or ordinances.
- The expenditure of public funds either directly or through the free use of government property for purposes of sensitivity training related to homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism.
- The expenditure of public funds either directly or through the free use of government property for promotions, rallies, or parades supporting homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism by public or private entities or individuals.
- The employment in government, including public schools, of an individual whose primary job duties place the person in direct and regular contact with children or youth, if that individual publicly promotes, encourages or facilitates homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism.
Reading Between the Lines
The language of Ballot Measure 9 was bad enough on its surface.
By equating homosexuality with pedophilia and S/M (neither of which are more common among gay people than in the general population), the OCA reduced gay people from family, friends and neighbors who are contributing members of the community, to appalling “others” – sexual deviants. The pedophilia propaganda harmed children by distracting from a more accurate understanding of who poses the greatest molestation danger (their own family members).
The OCA hoped to make this a referendum on gay peoples’ sexual practices, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
But the more revealing language in the measure – that shows its deeper strategic goal – is far less titillating:
- “Quotas, minority status, affirmative action, or similar concepts…”
- “To establish the rights of citizens to challenge governmental protection…”
- “Specifically the State Department of Higher Education and the public schools…”
Ballot Measure 9 purported to be about homosexuality – and it was. It was about using homosexuality as a wedge to roll back America’s commitment to civil rights.
This was more than an attack on the gay community. It was an attack on inclusive democracy.
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.