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Historians document Oregon's unique 'lesbian mecca'

The "Outliers and Outlaws" project showcases communities of lesbians who made Eugene and southern Oregon home in the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s.

OREGON, USA — A new living history archive is now online to show a unique slice of Oregon life.

The "Outliers and Outlaws" project showcases communities of lesbians who made Eugene and southern Oregon home in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s.

"Eugene was considered a lesbian mecca," said Judith Raiskin, a professor at University of Oregon.

Raiskin is part of the digital archive and exhibit project. She's collected more than 80 interviews with lesbians who were part of communes in Oregon.

Many lesbians moved from across the country to seek affirming communities, free from discrimination.

"Live more authentically," Raiskin described.

Communes included comprehensive services and businesses, all run by lesbians. These included food production and distribution services, book stores, construction companies, mechanics, tree planters and even a kung fu school.

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"They ran this town," Raiskin said.

"They changed Oregon history and LGBTQ history at a national level," added Courtney Hermann, a professor at Portland State University and documentarian who has filmed and edited for the archive.

The project aims to preserve history that only a handful of people ever experienced.

"If those archives aren't there, it's as if that history didn't happen," Raiskin said.

"Stories I think humanize us," Hermann agreed. "Breaking down barriers for folks to be who they are."

Both professors explained many historical accounts of LGBTQ+ experiences tend to be heavy and based on traumatic experiences.

Although "Outliers and Outlaws" showcases those challenges, it largely highlights the productivity and joy these peaceful lesbian communes represented. 

RELATED: 'Take nothing for granted': Oregon faces uncertain future of LGBTQ+ protections

The archive also dives into how lesbian activists bravely came out of their protected communities to fight anti-LGBTQ measures at city and state levels.

Some measures, such as Oregon Measure 9, would have lumped homosexuality in with "perverse" behaviors, such as bestiality and pedophilia.

"It was bad," said one woman who contributed an interview to the documentary. "You'd go collect petition signatures and people would spit at you. And there were hate crimes ... real beatings."

The Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) is helping support the project, pushing for more visibility and fundraising. The idea is to preserve history and show how it's repeating itself in the realm of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policy today.

"These stories are really relevant to all of us," said Liz Lawrence with OCF. "How we can all participate in making life better for all Oregonians."

The "Outliers and Outlaws" archive is designed for use in educational settings, showcasing often overlooked civil rights history for LGBTQ+ people. 

The exhibit currently lives online, but researchers hope to expand it to an in-person experience at the U of O. The documentary is also collecting donations.

RELATED: Oregon LGBTQ+ organizations receive thousands in new grant money

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