The cultural power of music and humor was essential to surviving the attack of Measure 9 and surely earned some No on 9 votes. This month we remember some of the performers and satirists who gave us a break from the deadly seriousness of Measure 9; the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and Portland Lesbian Choir whose visibility lifted spirits and opened hearts; and the origins of Artists for a Hate Free America.
One of the four pillars of Western States Center’s work is Shifting Culture — convening culture-makers to use culture as a vehicle for building power in non-traditional social change spaces. WSC Senior Adviser and recently transitioned Executive Director Eric K. Ward saw that modeled 30 years ago during the fight against Measure 9.
“Measure 9 was a cultural call to our values. It was culture that allowed us to organize for political power. Seeking the political power of a majority voting No on 9 was a way of expressing what most of us thought of as a cultural commitment.”
~ Eric K. Ward
Eric likens it to the Two-Tone Movement in British cities in the 1970s and ’80s “where the music you listened to, the shows you went to, were because of your values.” As a Black punk rocker in Eugene in the early ’90s, improv theater was not Eric’s primary scene. But he never missed a WYMPROV! show. “I saw WYMPROV! dozens of times,” he told me. “I didn’t care that it wasn’t a punk rock show — it was cultural space I needed to be in.”
“The culture was about sustaining us in the midst of horrifying things,” Eric says. “To remember what we were fighting for. The stories that were made in that moment are part of that.”
This month’s stories are about the culture-shapers amidst the chorus of Oregonians from all walks of life who, together, defeated one of the harshest antigay measures ever put to American voters. Each story offers a unique prism on how this epic battle for civil and human rights can impart lessons for today’s fight for inclusive democracy.
“There were some nights when it was just amazing to be alive,” says Gregory Franklyn, who performed at an iconic downtown Portland club and produced ground-breaking LGBTQ cable access shows during the fight against Measure 9. Read more from Gregory along with stories from another of the era’s out performers and producers, Howie Bierbaum, with archival material from WYMPROV founder Sally Sheklow (1950–2022) and the Special Righteousness Committee’s M. Dennis Moore (1952–2012).
“You can’t expect everyone to be instantly transformed,” says Portland Gay Men’s chorus founding member Gary Coleman. “It’s not about that, but it’s about that visibility that’s consistent, and the message of love — which is what we always sing about — that cuts through.” Read about the choruses’ role in the No on 9 campaign, along with more memories from longtime Portland Gay Men’s Chorus members and a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir who now sings with PGMC.
“We tried to figure out, how do we connect this incredibly outrageous story, of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, with the rest of the world?” remembers Sarah Stephens. Newly arrived in Oregon from her work with the Hollywood Women’s Political Caucus, Sarah helped to bring national celebrity and media attention to the campaign, leading to the formation of Artists for a Hate Free America. Read more.
The response to Ballot Measure 9 is a story of and for all Oregonians, but the big and small acts that may have gone unseen, the everyday gestures of kindness or courage that created more space for inclusion.
This effort 30 years ago illustrates that every one of us — not just the cultural icons we know and remember — can do something to be part of defending inclusive democracy. It’s a cultural commitment, grounded in our values and what we choose to affirm through our courage and visibility.
“It’s still important to be visible and your true self, no matter what the struggle is. Living your truth and being honest is still a core truth.”
~ Howie Bierbaum
To each person committed to defending democracy and all who are wondering what is asked of us in these fractious times, we hope that No on 9 Remembered encourages you to be brave. To take action and take heart.
To remembering the past and shaping the future,
Holly J. Pruett, Senior Fellow
No on 9 Remembered Co-Curator
P.S. The Moth Radio Hour ends every show with this disclaimer: “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” That can be said as well about the stories and editorial choices presented on No on 9 Remembered. Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli explains discrepancies in historical memories as “not caused by faulty recollections . . . but actively and creatively generated by memory and imagination in an effort to make sense of crucial events.” Our hope is that the stories in No on 9 Remembered contribute to the meaning-making still so necessary as we grapple with the crucial events of our present time, connected as they are to what we saw during Measure 9. Read more.