Way back in the way back, in 1992, an evangelical right wing group called the Oregon Citizens’ Alliance (OCA) circulated a petition called the Abnormal Behaviors Initiative. That initiative proposed to amend the Oregon constitution to ban civil rights protections for LGBTQ people while also labeling us “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” The initiative language lumped LGBTQ people in with pedophiles and those who commit acts of necrophilia and bestiality, making it seem almost laughable until it received the required number of signatures to qualify for the ballot in near record time. The initiative became Oregon Ballot Measure 9.
The apparent ease with which the OCA was able to get those signatures was terrifying. But that wasn’t the only cause for concern. Four years before, in 1988, the OCA sponsored a statewide ballot measure demanding repeal of a governor’s executive order banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in public employment. The measure won.
The OCA knew how to win elections. Moreover, the advertising campaign for the 1988 measure was built around the idea that LGBTQ people, and especially gay men, were, essentially, “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse” serial child molesters.
Concern turned to panic when a a baseline poll conducted by the No On 9 Campaign, the Political Action Committee formed to oppose the ballot measure, indicated Ballot Measure 9 had strong support. Polls on questions of discrimination tend to understate bigotry. In the privacy of the voting booth, however, the truth generally comes out.
I’m gay. The memory of the day the Abnormal Behaviors Initiative qualified for the ballot will live on in my memory forever. On that day, Oregonians were invited to participate in a demeaning, dehumanizing debate over whether or not I am a dangerous, conniving, sexual predator, and I was forced to help in hosting that debate with my taxes. On election day, every registered Oregon voter would have a chance to decide my fate based on whether they believed a “Christian” group’s manufactured “evidence” that LGBTQ people were predatory sex monsters, or the counter-evidence of the opposing campaign.
Worse, polls indicated No on 9 couldn’t win by being pro-LGBTQ. In a popularity contest, the evidence indicated, we would lose. Instead, the path to victory would involve casting the ballot measure as “too extreme,” indirectly suggesting that a less extreme law might be okay.
But that was then. This is now.
On May 3rd, the day of the Indiana presidential primary, Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. On that day, it became almost certain that, come November, voters will get to decide whether or not they want our president to be a man who has called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and who has promised to make South Asians and Arabs and anyone else who fits the profile “Muslim” a suspect class in the U.S. We are about to be thrust into a debate over who gets to be an American, and what being an American means based on whether or not we are willing to buy into entirely arbitrary and baseless stereotypes.
It’s an eerie echo of Oregon in 1992.
But there’s an upside to this story. In 1992, in spite of frightening polling results, Ballot Measure 9 was defeated. The LGBTQ community prevailed because the OCA overreached. Ballot Measure 9 ended up polarizing voters with more on our side, or at least on the side of not consigning people to second class citizenship on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation.
But that polarization didn’t happen on its own. Voters responded to three key ideas. First, that the ballot measure went too far and would, if passed, put all of us in danger. Second, LGBTQ people turned out by the thousands to volunteer, not just for the official campaign, but for key organizations all across Oregon that supported LGBTQ equality. And third, and in some ways most importantly, allies of the LGBTQ community came out by the thousands and declared their support for us.
In other words, the case was made that amending the constitution to enshrine bigotry was not in the interest of anyone (even if you happen to hate LGBTQ people). And, we made the case that we were ordinary human beings from every walk of life, defusing the bigoted propaganda of the OCA. Also, and very importantly, much of this work happened outside of the official campaign, in trusted community-based institutions and across the kitchen tables of people who knew nothing of campaign talking points and tactics.
The first wave of movement on LGBTQ rights was built upon LGBTQ people coming out of the closet. In the 90s, non-LGBTQ people came out more loudly and proudly than ever as allies, creating the space within which people who were unsure about or even hostile to LGBTQ people could pivot and get behind us. The allies included labor unions, religious leaders, professional associations, politicians of both parties, veterans, and more.
In this election season, those of us who have been spared the bigotry and persecution that is being faced by Latinos and Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslims) absolutely must come out. But we must do so without vilifying those who are falling prey to fear over a world made scary to them by right wing bigots, especially those for whom that fear is a proxy for economic anxiety. Compassion is the lever that creates the political and social space necessary for fearful people to pivot toward inclusion, and reaching those fearful masses is a job best accomplished by those less targeted, more free to take risks.
I know that many believe that Donald Trump will defeat himself. But we can’t simply assume that if Donald Trump loses, “we” have won. We need to defeat the bigoted, fear-mongering positions that Trump has built his campaign on because, win or lose, those arguments will live on after the election. By becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, he’s made those arguments legitimate in the context of national politics, at least for now.
I was on the staff of the No on 9 Campaign. I was a field organizer and national media spokesperson. On election day in 1992 I broke down into tears at the news that Ballot Measure 9 was rejected by Oregon voters. I felt like my community had said, we got your back.
But then I looked at the numbers and reality sank in. In one of the most hotly contested and widely covered and expensive campaigns of any year in Oregon, one that had drawn national and international media attention, including 9 consecutive editorials against Ballot Measure 9 in the New York Times, the measure still won 43.53 percent of the vote. And most of those votes came from outside of the core neighborhoods of urban Portland, from areas where LGBTQ people were the most vulnerable.
That number, 43.53 percent, more than four in ten in support of naked, vicious bigotry, reminded us that the fight is never over. Since then, with allies at our side, LGBTQ Oregonians have defeated more than two dozen homophobic ballot measures. LGBTQ people have also played key roles in defeating additional measures targeting women and immigrants.
Platforms for progressive activism exist now that might never have been created if not for the thousands of people who came forward in 1992, people from every walk of life including farm workers, unionists, Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, Arab American, and diverse faith community leaders, and the many other ordinary people who came to our defense even as the mainstream LGBTQ community failed at times to provide the warmest welcome.
Allies play a key role in every struggle, and Oregon has truly struggled through years of being targeted by vigilante white supremacists and right wing evangelical groups. In 1992 we saw the many targets of these groups begin to come together.
The battles that have been fought on so many issues since then have taught many in Oregon’s progressive community that solidarity is not a me for you thing, but a we for us thing. It begins with understanding that democracy is the best defense against those who would prey on us, and there is no democracy unless it includes all of us.
The fight is never over. You gotta love the fight, but in order to do that, you gotta love the people. This year, the targets of right wing bigotry need some love. Maybe enough of that love will help us find our way from me for you to we for us.