Far right in Oregon pushes referendum attacking legal status of homosexuals

October 23, 1992|By Bettina Boxall | Bettina Boxall,Los Angeles Times

PORTLAND, Ore. -- On the first page of the Oregon voters' pamphlet is a remarkable disclaimer that the usually staid ballot guide contains "language that citizens and parents may find objectionable" -- one more sign that this isn't just an ordinary political season here.

This is the year of Measure 9, an unprecedented and intensely publicized ballot initiative that would write into the Oregon Constitution a moral condemnation of homosexuality and require state and local government agencies to discourage it.

The proposal has turned this normally well-mannered state into an explosive battleground between the gay-rights movement and religious conservatives, who included a graphic description of sexual practices in the ballot arguments printed in the bulky voters' guide.

On one side is the Oregon Citizens Alliance, which warns that the ballot measure represents Oregonians' last chance to draw the line and save their communities from ruination by "homosexual radicals" who would turn their sylvan state into another San Francisco.

On the other side is most of Oregon's religious, business and political establishment, which has denounced the initiative as a blight on the state's progressive reputation and a blatantly unconstitutional mandate for discrimination and censorship.

One thing both sides agree on is that the outcome -- along with that of a more mildly worded anti-gay initiative in Colorado -- will ripple across the nation, framing similar political clashes to come.

"Clearly, these two initiatives, if the results are identical in either direction, are a potential foreshadowing of the kind of cultural politics you'll see in this country," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Rev. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson's Christian Coalition, which donated $20,000 to the Oregon alliance and is promoting both measures in political mailers.

Recent polls in the two states show the initiatives losing by hefty margins. But analysts say that could change with last-minute advertising blitzes by proponents. "I think [Measure 9] will fail, but I wouldn't put any money down on it," said Portland-based pollster Tim Hibbitts.

With the catchword of "no special rights," the initiatives would amend the states' constitutions to prevent local or state government from adopting laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination.

The proposed Oregon amendment further lumps homosexuality with "pedophilia, sadism and masochism," declares homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse" and forbids government from promoting or facilitating it.

Opponents of Oregon's Measure 9 -- from Gov. Barbara Roberts to mayors and clerics -- insist it would turn state and local government into morality squads, with dire consequences:

* Literary classics and textbooks that treat homosexuality in a neutral or positive light could be swept from the shelves of public libraries and schools.

* Openly gay teachers and police officers could be fired.

* Homosexual attorneys and doctors could be refused licenses to practice.

* Oregon movie director Gus Van Sant, who is gay, could have trouble getting permits to shoot his gay-themed films in the state.

* There would be no more gay pride gatherings on public property.

"I've lived here all my life and I can't believe Oregonians would do this to themselves. It's very troubling," fretted Michael Powell, who has turned his sprawling downtown Portland bookstore into a center of opposition, filling his shop windows with anti-Measure 9 displays and selling thousands of buttons and bumper stickers that urge voters to oppose it.

Oregon Citizens Alliance founder Lon Mabon, who grew up in Los Angeles, maintains the opposition has grossly exaggerated the initiative's reach.

Still, Mr. Mabon, 45, concedes that if it passes, openly gay teachers and other public employees who work with children would face reassignment. Landlords would be free to evict gay tenants.

If the child of a gay parent went to a school counselor about problems at home, the measure would require that the child be told "your parents are engaged in something wrong."

If a gay theme in a book -- such as in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" -- was discussed in a class, the teacher would be compelled to condemn homosexuality.

The alliance's forays into statewide politics have mostly failed during its five-year history. The group's candidates have lost their bids for various offices and an alliance-sponsored anti-abortion initiative was defeated 2-1.

The exception was a 1988 ballot measure to overturn a former governor's executive order banning discrimination against homosexuals in state agencies. The referendum won by 5 percentage points.

With Measure 9, the group is "going back to what they think works," said Mr. Hibbitts, the pollster.

Despite Oregon's liberal reputation, there is plenty of ideological room for groups like the alliance to take root, Mr. Hibbitts added. "The state is not Portland. In the rest of the state, we have some very strong conservative elements."

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