It’s 2018, and after years of progress, our fight for equality and social justice is once again in peril. As queer folk, we are experiencing an erosion of our basic rights and the social recognition we’ve gained through decades of struggle. The legal and legislative victories that sanction our love and our lives are threatened, along with the gains that have helped people of color and immigrant communities.
I’m having déjà vu!
That’s why I’m writing today about Basic Rights Oregon’s legacy circle. But first, I want to share why this work for equality is so important.
Exactly 50 years ago, I was a bob-haired, fourth grade tomboy living on my parents’ dairy farm in St. Paul, a small farming community southwest of Portland. Along with my 11 brothers and sisters, I went to school, did my chores, and watched the nightly news with my parents.
Looking back now, I understand my childhood was a crash-course in equality and fairness. By following the social and political unrest reported on the nightly news, the daily newspaper, and weekly magazines delivered to my house, I gained an understanding of what it meant to fight for justice.
It started in the spring of 1968: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee – announced in a historic speech delivered by Bobby Kennedy as he stepped onto a stage to address an urban black audience on the presidential campaign trail in Indiana.
A few months later as summer began, we suffered another devastating loss. Robert F. Kennedy, our country’s iconic champion of civil rights and equality and the likely Democratic nominee for president, was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel.
Everything changed. I had been watching Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King making history right before my eyes, and now they were gone. The hopes and dreams they had inspired in me through magazine photographs and the nightly news were gone in an instant. What remained were the impressions these leaders, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war protests left on little tomboy me.
It was not anything I could have articulated at the time, but those fateful days in 1968 created the foundation by which I was to “#GetWoke” (in today’s terminology). Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy had the moral courage to stand up and fight for social justice, and they paid for it with their lives.
My crash-course in equality and fairness taught me what it took to achieve real social change. We needed a movement of people with a shared vision: taking risks, committing civil disobedience, and taking collective action together. I also learned that it required bold leaders willing to challenge the political and social establishment.
This was the seminal turning point that fueled my queer activism. And, years later, it helped me understand what the queer movement required of me.
From that point on, I grew up faster. My cool older brother Keith, who I had always looked up to, moved to New York and came out as gay. Over the years, as I became more aware that I was different from other teenagers, I took cues from him and found my own personal style. While I experienced my first girl crush, I didn’t have the full vocabulary or understanding to guide me out of the closet yet.
With Keith in New York, I headed off to college, got restless, and chose not to complete my degree. I was certain it was time to leave school and enter the real world, but I didn’t understand yet what that meant. Soon, though, I started falling for girls, and came out. It didn’t go well with my family, but it wasn’t the worst story: I was in Portland, and I wasn’t disowned. Oregon’s governor at the time had even added sexual orientation to the list of classes protected from discrimination in state employment.
My experience observing politics and social movements seemed distant and theoretical. Then, in 1988 – twenty years after our nation lost two of its most iconic civil rights leaders – it came rushing back to the forefront of my mind.
The Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) had decided to put my humanity, along with every other queer person in Oregon, up for a political vote. This ballot initiative campaign, the first of many to come, swiftly overturned the governor’s executive order barring discrimination in the public sector based on sexual orientation.
It was this campaign that helped me find my way to Barbara Roberts’ gubernatorial campaign in 1990. On this campaign I learned the magical power of “yes.” Over the course of the campaign, I said “yes” to every opportunity, from phone banking to door knocking and campaign training. Eventually, I became the campaign manager for Gail Shibley, the first openly LGBTQ legislator in Oregon.
On Gail’s campaign, I became a bonafide lesbian activist and a successful campaigner. From there, I found myself leading the 1994 statewide campaign against the OCA’s anti-gay ballot measure, and became the founding executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
Basic Rights Oregon was created by a group of activists who wanted to develop political campaigns designed to strengthen and support social movements beyond Election Day. As founders, we were committed to building an organization that would always be ready to defend our basic rights at the ballot box – while continuously working to secure legal equality and create a society that fully appreciates and acknowledges each of us as our authentic selves.
I certainly am not that fourth-grade tomboy anymore. In fact, I am not the lesbian activist I once understood myself to be. Today, I am a queer activist, firmly rooted in the belief that equal rights under the law do not guarantee equal lives.
In this era of white supremacy and Donald Trump, being queer demands that we organize, resist and agitate – while remaining keenly aware that no single piece of legislation can embrace the beauty of our bodies or capture how we live our many genders in authentic and disruptive ways.
From the beginning, I have supported Basic Rights Oregon, because they have always understood that “tolerance” is not our goal – it is liberation. And to be liberated, we must always be ready to defend our rights, while at the same time doubling down on campaigns that demand our equality. This is a movement, and as organizers, Basic Rights Oregon have always understood and translated the surrounding political and social climate into action. Basic Rights is on the ground first, ready to advance the dignity of LGBTQ people throughout the state.
We are fifty years on from 1968, the year of my activist rumbling, and I will be turning 60 in 2018. With this milestone, I am not slowing down one bit, but only growing stronger in my commitment to social justice and equality.
That’s why I am joining Basic Rights Oregon’s Legacy Circle by remembering them in my estate planning. I was touched to learn that Basic Rights Oregon has named their legacy circle after me.
By remembering Basic Rights Oregon in my estate, I am working to ensure that future generations of queer Oregonians have an organization that is committed to fighting for their political and social equality, and is working to create a society that fully embraces their queer humanity.
I will never forget the speech Bobby Kennedy delivered on the tragic night our greatest civil rights leader was assassinated, when he spoke of Dr. King’s dedication to “love and to justice between fellow human beings,” adding that he died “in the cause of that effort.”
Please join me as a member of the Julie Davis Legacy Circle by remembering Basic Rights in your estate too. Together, we can ensure that Basic Rights Oregon is here for generations to come.