By Thalia Zepatos
Co-Founder of Basic Rights Oregon and former Director of Research and Messaging for Freedom to Marry
This picture is from a giant rally held in October 1992 near the end of the No on 9 campaign. We were trying to defeat a constitutional ballot measure funded by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an extremist group that would have criminalized LGBTQ Oregonians. We were just getting ready to unload lawn signs to distribute at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was so powerful and comforting that day—more than 10,000 people crowding into the square and onto the surrounding streets, near the end of a frightening and difficult campaign.
We had been warned by Portland Police and the FBI that skinheads were threatening to do harm to campaign leaders and supporters. Bomb threats came in daily to the campaign office. The brake lines were cut on a campaign leader’s car. All across the state, volunteers with our bumper stickers were getting forced off the road, or met with aggressive taunts. A supportive church was defaced with Nazi symbols and the rectory lit by an arson blaze. The ever-increasing climate of hate and fear was fueled by the homophobic verbiage and nasty campaign literature dropped on doorsteps by the Oregon Citizens Alliance.
In September, the unthinkable happened: Hattie Mae Cohens, a lesbian, and Brian Mock, a gay man, were murdered by a firebomb thrown into the basement apartment they shared in Salem. The police labeled it a hate crime.
The Rally at Pioneer Square the following month was a chance to bring everyone together—thousands of LGBTQ people and straight allies—to hear speakers who helped us honor the dead, and give one another the inspiration, courage and stamina we needed to continue to fight statewide through Election Day.
Near the end of the program, I was called upon to make the fundraising pitch. As I asked everyone in the Square to empty their pockets, volunteers circulated through the crowd to collect money in black garbage bags. Later in an office next to the Square, we counted more than $30,000. We would have enough money to finish out the campaign. And we would honor Hattie Mae and Brian by defeating Ballot Measure 9.
It was the experience of so many who worked to defeat Ballot Measure 9—and subsequent statewide and local ballot measures—that led to the formation of Basic Rights Oregon. And we know our fight’s not over. In 31 states, for instance, it’s still legal for employers to fire someone for being transgender. Today in Oregon, we have strong non-discrimination laws. However, just this year we’ve witnessed Portland’s Multnomah University petition the federal government for a religious exemption in order to ban transgender students. And in Dallas, a brave, 14-year-old transgender student, Elliot Yoder, stood up to hostile neighbors and an intolerant City Councilman who sought to deny him his legal right to access the school facilities that match his gender identity. I know we’ll continue to share our stories and change hearts and minds. I know we’ll prevail.