The Rebel Girl: The Limits of the Law

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Catherine Sameh

NOT A DAY goes by in Oregon that the battle over lesbian and gay rights isn’t making the news. Either the infamous Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA) is passing laws against gay rights or fighting pro-gay efforts to end discrimination. Whatever the case, the OCA has not slowed down since Measure 9 was defeated last November, and the likelihood of their organizing dying down is nil.

In fact since Measure 9 the OCA has pushed through anti-gay ordinances throughout the state, with voters in eight counties approving such laws. These “Sons of 9,” as they are popularly referred to, have largely been watered down versions of Measure 9, no longer focusing on homosexuality as perverse, but just simply as wrong. This approach has taken the OCA further into the hearts and minds of communities and individuals who are resisting the increasing visibility of lesbian and gays.

On August 2, Governor Barbara Roberts signed House Bill 3500 into law, after it passed the Senate 19-11. HB 3500 “prevents local governments from enacting or enforcing laws or policies that single out citizens or groups on account of sexual orientation, or grant special rights or treatment to any citizen or group on account of sexual orientation,” and is seen by many as a compromise between the pro- and anti-gay forces. The House earlier rejected a Senate Bill which would have outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Many supporters of gay rights believe that HB 3500 will not affect gay-rights ordinances throughout the state, but may in fact reverse the OCA ordinances. Gwenn Baldwin, spokeswoman for Governor Roberts, stated that HB 3500 will “bring Oregonians back together,” by giving everyone the same rights. The OCA has come out against HB 3500, launching a campaign to recall the senators who voted for it.

While some gay-rights activists claim HB 3500 as a victory, others see it as a compromise at their expense The mere wording of the bill to include “special rights” signals a tremendous capitulation to the logic of the OCA, who equate any civil rights demand by the lesbian and gay movement as a “special right” Furthermore, the bill assumes a certain equity between those working for gay and lesbian liberation and those opposed to it, and simplifies the problem as one of both sides asking for too much.

While it may be true that many activists, on both sides if you will, are battle weary, the question is far from settled with HB 3500. HB 3500 may be used to protect lesbians and gays from discrimination in some cases, but there is no guarantee it won’t be used to actually veto lesbian and gay civil rights legislation in the future. The OCA doesn’t plan on quieting down until lesbians and gays are back in the closet for good. The lesbian and gay movement shouldn’t settle for anything less than making sure that doesn’t happen How to do that is the hard question Compromises of the sort represented by HB 3500 may sound nice, but fail to grapple with the complexity of the issue, and get us no further into the hearts and minds of those we need to reach.

September-October 1993, ATC 46