I’ve been pondering, lately. So settle in, get a nice beverage of whatever, and sit back. This is a long-ish ride.
I recently watched a DVD called Ballot Measure 9, a documentary produced and directed by Heather Lyn MacDonald. It was originally released in 1995. the DVD was released in 2008, I believe, and it includes a 30-minute “where are they now” segment.
Here’s the thing. We’re entering Pride season, as many of you know. And if you’re not aware of the history of LGBT Pride, I strongly recommend THIS documentary, Stonewall Uprising, which recently aired on PBS.
Want to know where I’m going? Click on…
And that’s why I’m recommending Ballot Measure 9 to you. It’s the story of the horribly contentious anti-gay ballot measure put forth by the virulently anti-gay group Oregon Citizens’ Alliance, headed by Lon Mabon. 1992 was the debut, in many ways, of the anti-gay right’s “No Special Rights” rhetoric as applied to LGBT people. The anti-gay right claimed that they weren’t being hateful; they just didn’t want LGBT people to have “more rights” than anyone else. And the way they packaged this message, it worked with a lot of people. The pro-LGBT activists in Oregon recognized that it was a brilliant strategy, and immensely effective and damaging. You need to know about things like this, because the forces against us have not changed their message much. They’ve changed their methods, and they’re very good, still, at grassroots organizing, but the message remains pretty much the same. And it was those early battles that created a lot of the anti-gay activists that are still on the scene, and sowing further division.
The OCA’s director of communications at the time was a man named Scott Lively, who later wrote a book called The Pink Swastika, which is a revisionist interpretation of Nazi history. In that book — which has become a standard source the anti-gay right uses against LGBT people — Lively claims that the Nazi party was full of gay men who orchestrated the Holocaust, and in fact Hitler wanted gay men as his private go-to guys because they were inherently more savage and brutal than other people.
So basically, Lively wants you to believe that gay people are responsible for the Holocaust. Keep in mind that Lively is not a historian, and in fact his book has been thoroughly discredited by legitimate historians, like this one, who have demonstrated that Lively did absolutely no primary research, did not spend any time in German archives, took several secondary sources out of context, and seems to have basically written the book with a specific agenda in mind: to discredit gay people. And it worked. Because 15 years later, the book is still in print, and still being used. Lively, as some of you know, was one of the American pastors who went to Uganda in 2009 to a conference to talk about the evils of homosexuality. As a result of that conference, the death penalty was added to the so-called “kill the gays bill” (that fortunately has not been passed…yet).
The point I’m making is that the campaign over Ballot Measure 9 in Oregon demonstrates a well-orchestrated grassroots right-wing effort to discredit and demonize LGBT people using propaganda that anti-gay groups still use today. Stuff like “gay people are dangerous to children” and “gay men are pedophiles” and “gays recruit kids” and “gays are promiscuous” and on and on. The source of a lot of these lies is a man named Paul Cameron, a psychologist who has been basically disbarred by several professional academic organizations because of his suspect “research” and methodology which serves no other purpose than to paint gay people as vile, evil people. Most of the rhetoric the current anti-gay right uses against LGBT people can be traced to Cameron and also to ex-gay ideology in so-called “ex-gay” groups.
That said, I was living in Colorado when Oregon’s Ballot Measure 9 was introduced. We had our own hateful legislation to deal with–the infamous Amendment 2, which basically took legal recourse away from LGBT people, using the “No Special Rights” call. That is, Amendment 2 made it legal to discriminate. If you fired someone because they’re LGBT, that LGBT person had no legal recourse. If you evicted them, they had no legal recourse. Back to that in a minute.
Ballot Measure 9 was worse, in a lot of ways. What Measure 9 did was equate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality, and encourage the public recognition that it was “unnatural.” Here’s the actual text:
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 they are to be discouraged and avoided.
The measure would have ensured that every LGBT person in the state would have pretty much no rights. It was an attempt to return the state to how LGBT people were treated prior to the 1970s (and you get a good taste of that in Stonewall Uprising). It was a hateful, horrific piece of legislation, and it galvanized both sides of the issue. OCA brought out all the most vile propaganda it could about LGBT people (and you can see that at work in an anti-gay film called The Gay Agenda). Lon Mabon and Scott Lively (and Bonnie Mabon, Lon’s wife) were tireless anti-gay activists, and this campaign is where you can really see what the anti-gay right is all about, and the types of arguments it uses. You can also see how truly effective they are at building grassroots support.
What you also see is how rhetoric creates political and social climate. The LGBT and straight activists working against this terrible legislation received hundreds of death threats (you’ll hear some on the film). They were attacked. Their property was vandalized. Their pets were killed or injured. A fire-bombing killed two people. The fact that this kind of hatred simmers just under the surface of many American communities is one of the most horrifying elements of not only this film, but of civil rights battles in general, and of the damage to communities that kind of sentiment does.
The Oregon pro-LGBT activists — and you’ll meet some in this film — worked tirelessly in the face of immense pressure and under threat of injury and death to build bridges with potential allies, hold rallies and marches, and reach out to people. Hundreds of people came out for the first time in that campaign, because they knew putting a human face on LGBT people could change minds, though it also put them at terrible risk.
As history shows, Measure 9 did not pass. Colorado’s Amendment 2 did, and as bad as I felt about that, I was far more worried about the message Measure 9 would send if it passed. And the leaders of OCA knew the stakes, too. Their goal — and OCA has pushed anti-gay legislation in Oregon in every election since then — is to get legislation like it in every state in America. And as you see in today’s news, that is still the goal of the anti-gay right.
So watching this film brought up a lot of things that I thought I had dealt with. Amendment 2 was also a vicious battle, and Colorado for Family Values, the group that spearheaded it, used the same rhetoric OCA did, the same vilification techniques, the same propaganda. The amendment was, of course, immediately challenged in court and in 1996, the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it singled out a specific group of people for discrimination. But that hasn’t stopped anti-gay organizations from pushing similar legislation in communities across the country.
So yes, it’s Pride season. And I am so very proud of all the work that activists before me have done, to help pave the road I’m on. I am so very proud of all the work that has been done, and I am so very grateful for the change that has come, even in my lifetime. But if you watch the 30-minute update (2007) in Ballot Measure 9, you’ll notice that two of the women who were deeply involved in the fight (Kathleen Saadat and Donna Red Wing) express some doubt about the movement. They’re not seeing the LGBT community working to create alliances with other groups that have had to battle for their rights. Saadat makes the point that if we as gay people do not demonstrate that we are a part of the human community, if we don’t fight for the rights of others who aren’t LGBT, then we have lost sight of a larger vision of social justice in the world. And I think to a certain extent, those are valid concerns.
So to younger activists, who are waking up to possibility and social justice, and who may have the right to marry wherever they want in this country in their lifetimes, check in with your elders. Get their thoughts on activism, on what worked, on what didn’t, on how to approach different communities, on how to approach people of different ages and backgrounds. As I recently told a fellow activist, “I throw props to the elders all the time, because they made it possible for me to be here protesting, too, and for me to even harbor the idea of marriage equality.” We are all part of a larger movement for social justice, and we need to remember that there is strength in numbers. So build alliances, build support networks across every boundary, and tap the wisdom of the elders who have been in this fight their entire lives.
Don’t forget their work, don’t discount it, and add to it. Social justice is hard, hard work. But it’s necessary. And so vital to our spirits.
Happy weekend, happy writing, happy reading.
Here’s a trailer for Stonewall Uprising:
And here’s one for Ballot Measure 9: