LGBT Activism in Oregon

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.

--Rosa Luxemburg, 1918

Past and present lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements have focused on freedom and equal opportunity. A partial list includes: reforming criminal and marriage laws, expanding access to health care and employment, asserting privacy rights, challenging socially constructed identities, and ensuring protection from harm. The Stonewall riots of 1969 are commonly considered to be one of the founding events of modern LGBT activism. The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village, New York, was violently raided in June of 1969 by New York City police. In response, the LGBT community fought back. The Stonewall Riots demonstrated to world that the LGBT community was a force to be reckoned with. This event led to the formation of activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Similar groups appeared throughout the United States. LGBT activism escalated in the early 1970’s; alongside other civil rights movements such as the feminist movement and the Black civil rights movement.

For decades after Stonewall, being an activist for the equality and the rights of the LGBT community was a huge risk. Bars were regularly raided by police; people suspected of being homosexual were often beaten or thrown in jail; men and women risked losing their jobs if their sexuality was discovered. The social and political atmosphere was very different than today. Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality to be a mental illness. Before the emergence of LGBT activism, most gay men and lesbians had little community or personal support and no legal protection of their rights. This is why Stonewall was so important; it helped create an understanding that members of the LGBT community were entitled to equal rights.

Long before Stonewall, LGBT activism existed throughout the country.  The Dalles, Oregon was home to one of Oregon’s first gay activists, Marie Equi. Equi’s civil activism began in July 1893 when her partner, Bessie Holcomb was refused pay for a teaching position she held at the local private school by the school’s superintendent. Equi took action against this by assaulting him with a rawhide horse whip, which later resulted in charges of assault and battery. Equi was commended by locals and even the newspaper for taking action against injustice. After receiving her medical degree in 1903, Equi was involved with activism in opposition to WWI and women’s fight to gain the vote in Oregon. Forthright about her sexuality, Equi lived with her female partner in Portland, and together they raised a daughter. Equi’s activism was a bold stance against the social and political climate of the time. Contributing not only to civil rights activism, Equi also helped shape women’s progression in medicine, reproductive rights, and suffrage.

The Portland Gay Liberation Front was born in 1970. A local newspaper, The Willamette Bridge, refused to run an ad placed by a young gay man in the personals section of the classifieds. Openly gay Bridge staff member John Wilkinson challenged the decision with a letter in the newspaper stating that gay people needed to be able to meet each other in a less secretive way. Wilkinson suggested the formation of a GLF movement similar to the one created in New York City. This was positively received by other members of the LGBT community. Another Bridge staff member, Holly Hart, joined Wilkinson and drew upon her previous activist experience in the women’s movement. With the help of Wilkinson’s partner, Dave Davenport, they formed the Portland GLF, which was the first gay political organization in Oregon.   

Another landmark event for the Oregon LGBT community occurred in 1970. Peggy Burton, a teacher in Turner, Oregon, was fired for her sexual orientation. Burton became the first LGBT public school teacher in the United States to file a federal civil rights suit, and also the first LGBT Oregonian to file a civil rights lawsuit of any kind. Burton’s case lasted four years, and the court ruled her dismissal was wrongful. Although Burton did not continue teaching, the action she took in response to discrimination was an important step towards ending employment bias against lesbians, bi-sexuals, transsexuals, and gay men in Oregon.

In 1970, Gladys McCoy was elected to the Portland School Board, becoming the first African American woman to win elected office in Oregon. McCoy, and her husband Bill, a member of the Oregon Legislature, advocated for both African American and LGBT civil rights, and contributed to the state’s first bill to end sexual orientation discrimination. In 1972, Gladys McCoy began working with gay lobbyist George Nicola to shape a sexual orientation nondiscrimination plank for the national Democratic Party’s political platform. She became the first Oregonian with political power who helped support LGBT civil rights and equality. Gladys McCoy once stated that she felt she could not seek equal rights for herself as an African American if she did not help in contributing to the LGBT community’s fight for equality. She is honored on The Walk of The Heroines as one of Portland's Black Women Civil Rights Pioneers.

One woman who has contributed much to the LGBT community is lesbian activist Kathleen Saadat. For over forty years, Saadat has made important and significant contributions to many civil rights groups. She has worked on, and has brought a feminist perspective to, campaigns in Portland relating to women’s rights, the African American community, the Cascade AIDS Project, and LGBT community activism. In 1974, she helped organize the first gay rights march in Portland and later helped work on the city’s civil rights ordinance which banned discrimination against members of the LGBT community in municipal employment. She also aided in the defeat of Oregon Ballot Measure 9 in 1992, which would have amended the Oregon Constitution to ban civil rights protection based on a person’s sexual orientation. Saadat remains a powerful activist within Portland’s community today.

Another leader among Portland’s LGBT activists is Bonnie Tinker. Tinker was the founder and director of “Love Makes A Family”; a non-profit organization working for equality and rights for LGBT families. Tinker’s efforts for gaining equality for LGBT families was an important contribution to Portland’s activism around LGBT rights, and was personally important to her. When asked why she founded “Love Makes A Family,” Tinker replied, “So our children would have a support system around them and so parents would see that it was possible to be out and have their children supported, and we could then be involved in an effort to really gain rights for our families.” Tinker had a lifelong commitment to civil rights activism and was an inspiration the community around her. Her efforts were cut short as she was tragically killed in 2009 in a bicycle accident in Virginia while attending a Quaker conference. Her spirit and life dedication towards liberation and peace are celebrated on the Walk of The Heroines.

LGBT activism in Oregon has helped to make important changes in our state. This is due to the activists who pioneered the movement with their dedication and bravery. Countless efforts towards equality and civil rights have been made, but there is still progress that needs to take place. We can learn a lot from the courageous women and men who have given their voices, time, and even their lives so that people can have a better quality of life. Activism is important and the endeavors of activists in our community should be recognized and honored. If it weren’t for their courage and hopes, we would not be where we are today. In honor of LGBT activists everywhere, thank you.

Further Reading:

GLAPN. “Oregon Gay History Timeline.” Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest.

Harris, Angelos. “Kathleen Saadat.” Women City Builders.

Helquist, Michael. “A Woman Of Consequence: Dr. Marie Equi.” GLAPN.

Boag Peter. “Gay and lesbian rights movement.” Oregon Encyclopedia

Robb, Graham. Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

 

Author: Hayden Roma, Monumental Women Senior Capstone, Winter 2014. Major: Graphic Design.