The Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon discusses the state of gay Portland (and gay Oregon) as well as the role BRO will take in the upcoming 2012 election year.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Portland has a prominent gay and lesbian culture that contributes proudly to the city's overall character. As anyone who has caught a performance at Darcelle's XV or checked out one of the numerous events during the city's Pride month in June- the annual over-the-top Pride parade has got to be seen to be believed- or who could not imagine a holiday season without checking out a performance from the Gay Men's Choir can attest, the contributions of Portland's GLBT community are so completely woven into the city's social fabric it is unthinkable to imagine their absence. And this appreciation and celebration transcends sexual boundaries and demographics. Consider Sam Adams, who trounced Sho Dozono in the 2008 primary to become the first openly gay mayor of a metropolitan area the size of Portland's. Given his margin that allowed him to practically walk into the mayor's office, it is reason to believe that Mayor Adams did not solely receive votes from the city's LGBT voting bloc, but received staunch support from straight voters as well.
However, despite this celebration and appreciation within the city for the contributions provided by the LGBT community, it also cannot be denied that they continue to be marginalized and second-class citizens who cannot fully enjoy all the benefits their straight friends and neighbors enjoy. In 2004, Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as one man and one woman, one of a number of states that passed similar amendments in a concerted effort to turn out conservative voters. A number of these states have since passed judicial decisions allowing for marriage equality, ruling that these amendments are unconstitutional. As a result, gay couples in Ames, Iowa have more rights and our treated on a more equal footing than their counterparts in Portland.
Basic Rights Oregon is the state-wide political organization fighting for equality and fairness for the state's LGBT residents. Formed in response to a series of efforts by the Oregon Citizens Alliance in the 1990s to basically prohibit homosexuality- through ordinances that would deny homosexuals "special rights" or the "promotion of homosexuality" by local governments- BRO has had a number of political victories and defeats in its two-plus decades of existence. Perhaps the most damaging defeat of all was the passage of Measure 36 in 2004, and with the brutal loss of that campaign effort resonating today, BRO has recently announced that they will not seek to place a ballot measure to overturn this constitutional amendment in 2012. Jeana Frazzini, the Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, sat down for a long-ranging discussion about the current state of "gay Portland" (and, given the organization's scope, "gay Oregon"), the legacy of Mayor Sam Adams, and the role BRO will take in the upcoming election year.
To begin with a focus on Portland, similarly as to how Sam Adams does a State of the City address and how Jeff Cogen does a State of the County address, would you be able to offer a station of the State of Gay Portland?
Well, you know, being as our organization strives to work state-wide, I take a bit of a broader view on the State of LGBT Oregon. But what I would say about Portland is that we have a very vibrant community. We have a lot of folks fully integrated into the life of the city, I think more so than most metropolitan areas. You don’t necessarily see as much space “carved out” that’s sort of uniquely LGBT and I think that’s, you know, both good and bad. We have the good fortune to have a community center here in Portland, the Q Center, which is a great hub for the community to come together and find one another. And, I think we have a lot of really positive things going on in this city and also we have a lot of challenges. Particularly this last summer we saw a real increase in hate crimes against LGBT folks that needs to continue to be addressed. Our community faces a lot of challenges just like any other Oregonian who is struggling in this really tough economic environment: access to employment, housing- you know, all these issues are impacting LGBT Oregonians just as they are impacting anyone else.
You mentioned hate crimes. I was unaware of this increase in hate crimes on the gay community in Portland. I thought that with the passage of the federal hate crime legislation that would nip such actions in the bud, but you said a series of events happened over this past summer? Did these receive much coverage in the media?
We have a strong hate crimes law here in Oregon that Basic Rights Oregon helped get in place even before the federal statute and those policies certainly help but we still, despite having these laws in place there is still a lot of work to do in the community. And one of the trends that has emerged in our city of Portland is during the summer months when folks are coming from a lot of different places and a lot of different parts of the state and sort of converging on the bars in downtown Portland- there tend to be incidents that flare up where folks are being targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And we’ve seen that in the last two summers. One of the incidents that was most widely covered in the media was a situation where a male couple were holding hands walking across the Hawthorne Bridge and when they got over to the Esplanade on the east side, they were attacked and brutally beaten. There was a Hands Across Hawthorne event in which two or three thousand people showed up within a few days’ notice to hold hands across the bridge in solidarity, to show that this is a city that will come together to protect our own. That obviously was a really important moment and yet we still don’t have solutions to address the violence that persists.
So, how you describe it is that there is a degree of safety but that it might be a false degree of safety? Portland, as you point out, has these structures that provide for a safe environment, but that it’s the outside influences that have a negative impact?
You know, this is a city that has really embraced diversity and we have also worked as a city to create a really inclusive community. We have a sensibility that honors creativity and individuality and supporting folks of all walks of life. And yet, because we are such a diverse community you run up against the challenges inherent in that. And so I think that there is a way for LGBT in a city like Portland you can feel a little insulated or like we call it “the Portland bubble” and really recognize the experience of queer folks in Portland is really different than that of queer folks out in rural parts of the state where there’s more of a sense of invisibility and a much greater lack of community. Those experiences are really compounded when you talk about folks who are LGBT and are folks of color, because we do tend to be such a white state. Even though as far as we’ve come as a state and a city, we still have a lot of work to do to reflect the value of those policies represent and how we treat one another. That’s part of the continuing work of to share our stories and connect with our neighbors and build a community that recognizes that no matter who you love or where you’re from or the color of your skin, each of us has something to offer in terms of our contributions to our communities and that folks should be safe and respected and have the dignity to bring all that they can to the table.
Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty question of the day. In early November, BRO announced that they are not going to pursue a marriage-equality amendment on the ballot this year. Can you explain how that conclusion was reached and why it was reached?
Sure. So the decision made by our board was to continue and expand our education campaign that we’ve been running for two or three years aimed at moving the conversation forward about the freedom to marry here. We are one of twenty states in which the path of marriage equality is through a public vote. We have language in our Constitution from Measure 36 in 2004 that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, and in order to change that we have worked through the courts. Oregon Supreme Court has not agreed to pick up the case, so our legal route has been closed to us. The legislature does not have the power to do that, so it requires a vote of the people. And a “yes” vote on a constitutional amendment is a pretty big mountain to climb- despite having amended our constitution quite a few times; voters do tend to be quite a bit reticent to do so. And I think as far as we have come- we have seen tremendous progress on this issue, both on the national and right here in Oregon the last eighteen months, the shift in support has been dramatic, nearly a ten-point shift in the support of the freedom to marry. At the same time, if the election were to happen today it’s uncertain whether or not we would win a public vote. The numbers from a professional opinion polling research shows that it’s a dead heat. So, that’s a challenge.
And as the difficult economic times, the ability to spend on a campaign that runs on eight to ten million dollars of funds you have to raise from the community, of asking people to give their every waking moment, every spare dime, to an effort without a reasonable expectation that we could win seemed, I think, irresponsible at best. And rather than try to assess the situation from a limited perspective that any one organization might have, we chose to run a very comprehensive decision-making process that included an advisory group of about thirty folks who had geographic representation around the state, community leadership, political strategists, folks who really helped assess the situation and make some recommendations to our board. We did a survey of our supporters, an online survey with over one thousand responses from around the state. We did town-hall meetings in a dozen communities with, I think, nearly five hundred folks who came out and participated in those conversations. And, you know, just really had a comprehensive conversation about where are we as a community and what do we want to see happen. And we heard loud and clear from our supporters that folks only wanted to move forward if there was a reasonable expectation of winning, that people are very committed to making this happen. And although they are committed to what it takes to get it done, but folks said ‘Let’s vote on this one time and one time only and make it happen.’ And so, reflecting on all that and knowing that, in Oregon, we’ve never done a proactive ballot measure. Every vote has been forced on us, defending our rights and our dignity, and this is the first time in the driver’s seat, you know. It’s our terms, it’s our timeline. We decide when we’ve built a consensus that we feel confident in and we call the question. So, I’m really proud of the community for coming to the conclusion that we have more work to do, much as we’ve worked so hard and gained so much ground, there is more to be done. And looking ahead to the election, there is a lot of opportunity around that, to deepen the conversation and broaden the support to put us in a position that, I think, there will be no question that we could make it happen.
I spoke about this issue with a colleague of mine, who is a lesbian. I brought it up, and talked about how, from my perspective, “Let’s do it. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a no-brainer.” But, that’s my perspective. I’m married, I don’t see a threat if this were to pass as much as the other side may claim. And her response, she did take the survey, and she came to the similar conclusion, that right now is not the right time and maybe two or four years down the line. I found that to be an interesting dynamic, where me coming from a straight married viewpoint, “Let’s bring on marriage equality” and a lesbian saying “No, not really so much.” I don’t know if you have anything to say about that?
Well, I think that comes from the real challenge that we have as a community to make the decision to put our lives and our families up for a public vote. We shouldn’t have to be in a position where we should have to do that, and yet we are. And so I think you’ll find that folks take a much more pragmatic approach and thinking, “All right, if it will take a couple of years to get this done in a way that we can feel confident of the outcome, then let’s do that rather than risk an outcome that is a repeat of 2004.” I mean, it came through loud and clear in the town hall meetings and the survey that folks still have a palpable-like physical and emotional memory that the day after the election in 2004 felt like, of being in the grocery and realizing that more than half of the people in that building had voted to say that your family was less than or to, you know, deny the existence of the love and commitment that you have for your partner. And the experience of- particularly in small town Oregon- of seeing those “One Man One Woman” lawn signs all over the neighborhood and having to ask questions to your children about “Why they don’t think we’re a family.” You know, that’s just brutal. And, so, I think it’s remarkable the kind of patience and deliberate-ness that the community has shown in taking on the decision to keep this work going, and build consensus.
In a month the calendar’s going to flip over and it’s going to be 2012. All of a sudden, it’s an election year. If you’re not going to pursue a campaign on the ballot, what role is BRO going to take in the upcoming election year?
Well, we are an organization with multiple entities. We have an education fund that will continue to do the public education work and the grassroots organizing to move the conversation forward, particularly on marriage. We are a 501(c)4 organization with a political action committee that supports candidates, so we will be vetting candidates for public office and make endorsements, move our constituents to help out with the campaigns for a candidate that is with us on the issues, again ranging from marriage equality to access for transgender Oregonians and our support for communities of color. And we are also building a component to increase voter registration in the community, because not only to take the long view about going to the ballot on marriage, which is critically important, but we need to have more LGBT folks and young folks and progressive folks in the state of Oregon who are registered to vote, and see that they get into that habit of voting in every election that comes along because that’s really where we’re going to make a difference in whose representing us in legislative bodies, you know, who is being held accountable and speaking out politically on issues that matter to our community. So, we’ll play a role in the elections, despite the fact that we’re not fighting our own ballot measure.
On the subject of 2012 and the upcoming election season, my next question is about Portland’s congressional delegation, particularly in the House of Representatives. You got Blumenauer on the east side of the river, you got Schrader down to the south, and then on the west part of Portland all the way out to Astoria there is currently an empty House seat. So perhaps if you could talk about those two representatives that are currently serving, what kind of allies or support they have provided to the gay and lesbian community- have they provided a lot or if they need a kick in the pants, perhaps- and what kind of attention are you putting on that First District seat and what do you hope the outcome of that election is going to be?
You know, because of our focus on state-based work, we don’t operate a federal PAC so we don’t really get engaged that often with federal races, so that CD-1 race is not something that we’ve been involved in. I can say that in terms of Suzanne Bonamici, she’s a candidate that is very exciting given her leadership in the legislature. And certainly from Representatives Blumenauer and Schrader, we’ve had terrific support. Both of them have been right on the front lines in Congress and co-sponsoring legislation that is critical to the LGBT community, so we have good relationships there and we are very grateful for that.
At the local level, there’s going to be a mayor’s race and there are three pretty strong front-running candidates. I would assume BRO is paying attention to that as well. What have the three candidates- Brady, Hales, and Smith- been involved with BRO at any kind of level? Do you have any relationship with any or either of them, and what has that been like?
You’re putting me in a tough spot because the structure of our organization has a candidate PAC, it’s called the Basic Rights Oregon Equality PAC, vets the candidates and makes endorsements. It’s the board that manages that process for us. They convene at the first of the year and will start to dig into this stuff, so I’m a little bit limited about what I can say about candidates without that process having gone forward. So as to their candidacies I can’t say a whole lot about, but all three candidates have had positive engagement with the organization in the past.
So three years ago, the city of Portland was about to elect, in its May primary, Mayor Sam Adams. Who, I believe, was the first openly gay mayor of a city of this size. Houston ended up voting for a gay mayor afterwards, correct?
So now that he is winding down his term, what do you think is the legacy of Sam Adams, from your perspective?
What is the legacy of Sam Adams? I do think that Sam has contributed greatly to that spirit of Portland that is about tackling tough issues, focusing on equity and inclusion. It was under Sam’s leadership that Portland became the second municipality in Oregon to extend full, inclusive, medically-necessary health benefits to transgender employees, along with Multnomah County. Strikingly, that makes Oregon the only state in the country to have two municipalities to have done so. And that in particular is a testament to that kind of inclusive leadership. He recognized that there are issues that may not be politically popular, but it’s the right thing to do to recognize the incredible contributions of transgender folks in Portland, to the life of the city, and acknowledge that there is incredible discrimination against transgender folks. And to bring forth a little bit of fairness in that move was really incredible. For our community, that’s going to be a tremendous legacy.
Let’s talk about that extension of benefits, as the lack of access to benefits through marriage is a key reason why gay and lesbian individuals or couples may be in poverty. So that extension of benefits made by the city of Portland ended up winning the Bus Project’s award for Most Progressive Issue for this past year. So that must have been a tremendous relief or victory for BRO and other gay and lesbian organizations. Did you play a role in that, did you lobby for that?
Oh sure. Basic Rights Oregon has a long history of working for sort of the “broad umbrella” of the lesbian gay bisexual transgender community. But it’s only been the last two or three years in which we brought a real focus to understand what are the particular policies that are impacting transgender folks and engaging the leadership of trans folks within our organization. So we have a trans justice working group that is about a dozen or so trans-identified people who worked to gather community input and determine that health care equity was their top priority from the voices in the community and to pursue solutions to that. And the city of Portland was one of the first opportunities that arose as a chance to have an impact in that area. So we worked closely with the leadership of our transgender working group with the mayor’s office and the city councilors and the benefits office at the city of Portland to educate folks and have that conversation over the course of a year or so that led to the unanimous vote in the city council to extend those benefits.
I want to go back to the 2012 election year. President Obama is going to be up for re-election. And he has received some criticism from progressives, valid or not. I would like to ask you in regard to his performance, as to gay and lesbians. He has passed an extension of benefits to federal employees, oversaw the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he hasn’t pushed to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, but he’s no longer fighting it in court. What is perhaps your personal opinion- you don’t necessarily need to speak for the organization- and how do you think the gay and lesbian community should view President Obama’s actions and view his record?
You know, I think that often times change is much more incremental than we would like it to be. And certainly the really tough decision that we had to make to continue the education campaign and hold off on the marriage equality ballot measure here in Oregon is a testament to what some of the realities that what you have to face are. And given that, I have a great deal of respect for the leadership of President Obama. I feel that he has done more for the LGBT community in many ways than any other previous administration. And I think we got terrific policies to point to- the Hate Crimes Law, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and, you know, the extension of benefits to federal employees and so forth. You know, I think there are other areas that the administration has directed the INS not pursue the deportation for the partners of same sex couples who are not U.S. citizens. And that’s critically important given that without access to marriage, we don’t have the opportunity to sponsor our partners, when we’re talking about bi-national couples. And there is a list of, I think, hundreds of administrative changes that have been made that impact the LGBT community, let alone there is actually a LGBT liaison at the White House that we’ve never seen before. And they do a regular e-mail newsletter, and things like that. It’s a totally different world than any previous administration. And the opportunity to continue that work in a second term would mean, I think, a huge impact for LGBT Americans.
So, ten years from now, Portland as a city, Oregon as a state- what do you view as the best-case scenario, from your perspective as Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon?
Well, you know I think about for me, the best case scenario comes down to the experience that, as a parent with young kids, I often think about the work that I do and the change that I want to see in the world in terms of what I want and what opportunities I want my kids to have. So I think that in ten years from now as the best case scenario for this city and this state is that we have a thriving public education system where kids are supported in learning and in expressing themselves and, you know, being really all who they could be and, you know, bringing all their talents to their community and that they have the freedom to express themselves fully and a community where people are celebrated for their differences and could come together and work civilly through any disagreements that they might have.