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Northern Exposure

Published in 1994
in Twin Cities Reader

Temp activists hit the road

They came for Missouri, but ended up in Oregon. They came for raucous protests and battle scars, but settled for paper cuts. They came to chant, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it," but were handed a list of phone numbers instead.

They came to work, and got $50 a week for five weeks of schlepping boxes, stuffing envelopes, licking stamps, and entering data-some of them in a not-so-swanky warehouse office in Portland, Oregon's Chinatown; others in the Oregon town of Bend, nestled in the scrub-covered foothills of the eastern Cascade Mountains.

Welcome to the world of '90s activism.

"It's like activist temp work," says Gary Schiff, the founder of Missouri Summer '94, a group of politically motivated students organized to help combat attacks on gay rights. Twenty-one of them, hailing from California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, ages 15 to 23, were slated for a trip to Missouri, until right wing groups failed to procure enough signatures to support an anti-gay initiative there.

So instead, Missouri Summer '94 students made a three-day motor coach trek 1,600 miles west to Oregon to work on "No on 13," a $2.5 million campaign aimed at stopping the Oregon Citizen's Alliance (OCA) from making it legal to discriminate against homosexuals.

Leslie Abbott, a researcher with No on 13, says the students of Missouri Summer '94 gave the campaign office structure and organization, making it possible for them to head into their crunch time, the major thrust of the campaign in the next two months.

According to Schiff, what's happening in Oregon (and in states all across the nation, including Minnesota) is a concerted effort by the extreme right to take over the Republican Party. The tactics differ in Minnesota because the state lacks an initiative process similar to those in Oregon, Colorado, Missouri, California, and other states.

The issue really isn't homosexuality at all, say campaign organizers, though a spate of anti-gay initiatives (including the repeal effort in St. Paul in 1991) suggests otherwise. "This is not about the gay community," explains Schiff. "These anti-gay measures are an organizing tactic which has little to do with getting queers back into the closet."

It has been a galvanizing factor, however.

"They hit the motherload with this issue," says Leslie Abbott, a researcher with No on 13. "Clearly the anti-gay stuff has given them membership, consistent media hits, and fundraising capacity."

Since 1988, when the OCA overturned an executive order barring discrimination of homosexuals, Oregon has been embroiled in a holy war of righteous anti-gay rhetoric and legal and municipal maneuvering.

On one side is the OCA-funded last year by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and some say with donations from neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They've called homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse," likening gays to pederasts, sadists, masochists, and serial killers. On the other side are Oregon gays and lesbians who are stinging at the perversity of it all, feeling under siege while trying to stem further attacks on gay rights.

In 1992, Oregon voters narrowly killed Measure 9, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have morally condemned homosexuality. The law would have stopped all efforts to protect gays from discrimination in the state. More extreme than Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2, the Oregon measure would have also required state and local governments to actively discourage homosexuality. Legal scholars surmised it would have resulted in the widespread banning of books and art, the firing of openly gay teachers and police, and the removal of licenses for doctors and lawyers who are openly gay.

The OCA's efforts didn't stop at that defeat, though. Undaunted, it passed anti-gay measures in five Oregon counties and 11 cities, winning 72 percent of the vote in one county. Last year state legislators blocked those measures by enabling citizens the right to sue local governments for enforcing discrimination.

Knowing all this, the group of Minnesotans who joined Missouri Summer '94 say although most of their tasks were best described as unglamorous, even plain old grunt work, they'd do it all again.

"It was a real adrenaline rush, working 10 to 12 hours a day in a chaotic environment," says Andrew Boepple, a 23-year-old University of Minnesota senior and the former president of the University Gay Community.

Meridel Nordley-Knox, a 15-year-old junior at South High School in Minneapolis, agrees.

"I don't like to just sit around. I like to do something to stop something if I can," she says. "Even though it didn't affect me directly and personally, it was important enough for me to sacrifice a summer for it."

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david southgate
writing for living.