Happy Pride, Portland! This week, the Mercury is running a series of opinion pieces and personal essays from LGBTQ+ Portlanders on the theme Pride 2021: Queer Beginnings. As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all re-evaluating and re-imagining things, and that includes queer life and how we observe Pride. Here's the sixth and final entry.
On November 2, 2004, I sat up alone in my dark co-op room just off the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, watching numbers move the wrong way. I had paid close attention to politics since my childhood in Corvallis, and this was my first year voting. So much was riding on this night, above all a referendum on the Iraq war. Past midnight, with the results clear, I walked down Alder Street to 7/11 and bought a pack of Lucky Strikes, even though I didn’t really smoke, and finished half the pack wandering the empty campus. George W. Bush had won re-election, and here in Oregon, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage passed.
That the initiative was a ploy to inspire Bush voters salted the wound; it didn’t get him over the line, but the damage was done. Every county in the state voted for the ban except deep-blue Multnomah, and my native Benton, which is mostly a college town. Even UO’s Lane County voted for hate.
In May 2017, I carried the memory of that night into a legislative hearing. I was five months into my career as a civil rights attorney, and only a few days out publicly as a trans woman. I was there with dozens of trans Oregonians to support House Bill 2673, a bill to modernize the legal identity change process for trans people in Oregon. My own name change was still pending, and I used the complications in my testimony. Before the committee, I spoke of how stifling it was to grow up as a trans person in Oregon, and how simply speaking openly before the Legislature was something I could never imagine as a child. I spoke of hope that our state was now truly committed to LGBTQ+ equality, but also the need to take these stands in light of the dark clouds looming in the national climate.
Looking back from the present moment, this contrast is starker than ever. Over the last five years, I have been privileged to contribute to successful trans rights legislation in each regular session, including this session’s trans panic defense ban, as well as a broad clarification of trans rights throughout Oregon law. In that time, I have seen a state government that is receptive and reasonably responsive to LGBTQ+ rights advocacy. Yet outside of Oregon, this year has seen a tidal wave of anti-trans legislation in numerous states. While President Biden’s agencies are reversing Trump era attacks, legal campaigns are underway to circumvent LGBTQ+ rights through various means, and the federal judiciary has skewed hard to the right.
In this climate, campaigning in a “blue bubble” is a strange experience. It remains important to ensure the relative safety and inclusion of our state, both as example and safe haven. Yet the dissonance is striking, and the rising hate raises questions about the stability of our own bubble, and what threats may arise to our status as a leader on LGBTQ+ inclusion.
When it comes to our current state government, there is plenty of reason for hope. In recent years, we’ve seen the growth of a real and influential LGBTQ+ caucus within our legislature, and significant success of LGBTQ+ advocacy here. Oregon is noted for pathbreaking leaders such as Governor Kate Brown or House Speaker Tina Kotek. Less heralded politicians like Rep. Karin Power (D. Milwaukie), Rep. Rob Nosse (D. Portland), and Sen. Kate Lieber (D. Beaverton) have done real work to recognize LGBTQ+ community needs, move meaningful legislation, and build consensus behind LGBTQ+ equality efforts. Leadership in state agencies and court administrations has also shown significant interest in improving responsiveness to LGBTQ+ concerns.
Of course, these institutions have real limits. At some point, you have simply picked all the low-hanging fruit and less controversial fights, and you start stepping on toes. Further, as an anti-discrimination attorney, I can attest to the persistence of discrimination despite legal prohibitions, and civil rights attorneys know from experience that when the state is an opponent on discrimination claims, it can be a fierce litigator. More broadly, trans people face significant barriers to employment, housing, healthcare access, and other immediate material needs. This is especially so for Black and Indigenous transgender people, who face the highest disparities and lack of access to resources. Real racial and economic justice movements are crucial to truly address community needs; some of this work manifests in legislation that is not LGBTQ-specific on its face, including harder lifts such as progressive affordable housing policy or criminal justice reform, and much of this work occurs wholly apart from, and even against, our political institutions.
Back in the 90s, trans Oregonians desperate for protection on the job turned to disability anti-discrimination law for help, arguing that transness qualified as a condition that needed to be accommodated by employers. They received hopeful news when Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries agreed and applied protection, but the victory proved to be short-lived. The Oregon Legislature refused to accept this, and passed a law barring conditions “arising out of transsexualism,” as the legislation called it at the time. At a hearing to oppose the bill, trans people begged for their livelihoods, pleading for basic dignity and respect, only to be rebuffed. By the time that we fixed this statute in the 2019 session, the intent of this ban was already undercut by Oregon’s 2007 Equality Act, which provided broad employment protection for trans people. But the fix had meaning nonetheless, particularly given the weight of past harms.
This spring, scenes like that 90s hearing played out in state legislatures across the country as a coordinated wave of anti-trans bills proceeded in dozens of states. In all, more than 110 anti-trans bills were filed this year across 37 states. Thirteen of these bills have been signed into law so far. Most common were bans on sports participation by trans people, especially trans women and girls, despite a lack of demonstrable problems. Also common were bills to ban trans medical care for minors, including a bill passed in Arkansas that has left families with trans children to choose between their children’s health and fleeing the state.
Last summer’s Bostock decision by the US Supreme Court reaffirmed that LGBTQ+ people are protected by existing federal laws banning discrimination “because of sex.” This was the culmination of decades of precedent clarifying and expanding the scope of “because of sex’”protection. Application of Bostock is now in the hands of an overall judiciary skewed hard-right by Donald Trump appointments. Already, Trump judges (some of whom were appointed out of careers spent at anti-LGBTQ+ legal organizations) have issued opinions hostile to trans rights, from gratuitous rants against respecting a petitioner’s pronouns, to finding a constitutional right for University professors to refuse to use correct pronouns in class. A key weapon in this fight is the assertion of a right to discriminate in the name of religious freedom. 2018’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision cracked open the door to these claims, and a broader application of this argument by conservative federal courts could have serious implications for our own civil rights protections here in Oregon, from employment to public accommodations to healthcare. It is hard to predict where this may eventually lead, but there is significant reason for concern.
Against all this, the urgency of pushing forward in Oregon remains. Watching this campaign play out from Oregon raises special frustration, as many of the arguments happening elsewhere involve policies already in effect here. We have shown the good of LGBTQ+ legal protection, and disproved so many counterarguments. Facts may matter little to many of the people pushing hate campaigns, but with a longer view, these records matter.
Looking locally, even Portland’s queer-friendly reputation is relative. The need to finally ban the trans panic defense was made clear by recent Metro-area murders of trans women that shook our community. Proud Boys and other groups trolling our streets have had our community on edge. Hate crimes and assaults are still far too common. Personally, I recall a recent day working in my front yard with a Pride flag flying on my house. A group of young men passed by, and one loudly said “We’re coming back to burn that flag.” Our communities know well that relatively inclusive politics do not ensure safety.
Yet there is a reason why our state continues to draw LGBTQ+ people from across the country seeking community and relative safety. I sometimes see disconnects between LGBTQ+ friends who moved to Portland recently, and those who have deep roots here. While recent transplants may only have known the present brand, those of us born and raised here still remember Oregon’s purple history and often-bipartisan resistances to LGBTQ+ rights. That cynicism is hard to set aside. But the more we build here, the more durable our reputation becomes. The truth is that our outlook, landscape and possibilities here have shifted tremendously in a shockingly short span of time. That is an example worth defending, and improving.