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

Dozens of states introduced anti-transgender and LGBTQ policies in the last two years. Now advocates are tracking efforts to do the same in Oregon.

OREGON, USA — As dozens of states around the country introduce and enact anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, advocacy groups in Oregon are becoming more vocal to maintain protections.

On a rainy Friday in May, a crowd gathered in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, rallying in support of transgender youth.

"We need to stand up for trans kids and all of our kids," said Nancy Haque, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, the advocacy group that organized the rally. "We're out here fighting for them." 

Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) is tracking ongoing anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric around the state.

That included campaign issues advertised by Republican candidate for governor Stan Pulliam. He made anti-transgender initiatives a key part of his campaign, promising to ban transgender athletes from girls' sports.

"My girls shouldn't have to play against boys," Pulliam said in a television ad alongside his teenage daughters. 

"That seems really focused on destroying the mental health of already vulnerable youth," Haque said. "Feeling like they shouldn't exist. And those feelings lead to suicidality." 

A national survey by the Trevor Project showed 94% of LGBTQ+ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. About 42% seriously considered suicide, including half of transgender and nonbinary youth surveyed. 

In 2016, Oregon state guidance made it clear to schools that transgender youth should be treated consistent with gender identity and not be excluded from any program or activity.

However, a Willamette Week question to gubernatorial frontrunners showed most conservative candidates would push to change that and allow discrimination in sports based on gender identity. That included two candidates who will be on the November ballot: Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated candidate, and Christine Drazan, a Republican.

"It has become a battlefield — a wedge issue," described Jenn Burleton, who runs the TransActive Gender Project at Lewis and Clark College, advocating for transgender rights. "I do a great deal of debunking of myths." 

That type of advocacy has continued for decades.

"In Oregon, we have fought over 30 anti-LGBTQ ballot measures," Haque explained. 

Basic Rights Oregon worries more could be on the way.

The Human Rights Campaign reported a record 34 states introduced specifically anti-transgender bills in 2021. Seven more states added to that in the first few weeks of 2022.

Other states such as Texas and Florida have enacted laws that limit LGBTQ+ speech and health care, and in some cases, criminalize such care.

RELATED: Oregonians feel impact of anti-transgender push in Texas, other states

"It's coming around again," said Robin Will, president of the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN). "It's happening all around us and a whole lot faster than I thought." 

The renewed push for anti-LGBTQ+ laws reminds him of Oregon Measure 9. 

The 1992 ballot measure would have banned Oregon schools from mentioning homosexuality, lumping it in with pedophilia and other "abnormal" and "perverse" behaviors. The bill would have also prohibited AIDS education. A similar bill, also titled Measure 9, was introduced in 2000. 

The sponsor of the bill, Lon Mabon, paid more than $100,000 to promote the campaign, according to old reports by KGW.

"People had to hide who they were," Kristan Knapp told KGW last year.

Knapp was one of the LGBTQ+ advocates who fought Measure 9. 

"We had all been pretty marginalized and beaten down during that campaign," she described.

Advocates had to pour more than $1 million dollars into an opposition campaign to defeat Measure 9.

"Which doesn't mean we won anything," Will said. "It means we kept things from getting worse."

RELATED: Group honors queer heroes, rewriting Oregon and Washington history with truth

Now, more than 20 years later, similar efforts are solidifying themselves at smaller, local levels.

One example was the Newberg School Board's vote to ban Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride symbols

"To get political symbols out of our schools," board chair Brian Shannon said at the time.

"They're not political!" Haque said of these identities. "And if you believe in an individual's rights, then it's people's right to be who they are."

RELATED: Brown, Shannon on track to retain Newberg school board seats

Basic Rights Oregon said organized groups are gaining traction in the fight against LGBTQ+ representation in schools.

Parents' Rights in Education (PRIE) has campaigns in multiple states, including Oregon, rallying parents around a number of hot-button issues, including mask and vaccine mandates and curricula deemed "controversial."

PRIE representatives have fought school districts over subjects mentioning transgender issues and gender identity.

"There are only two sexes, I know what my body parts are!" Suzanne Gallagher of PRIE said at an Oregon meeting last year.

Nobody from PRIE responded to KGW's request for comment.

However, a member of another group, Oregon Moms Union, did.

“So much division right now on all fronts,” said Kori Haynes, Clackamas County chair of Oregon Moms Union and Republican candidate for Oregon House District 39.

Earlier this year, Haynes pushed against North Clackamas School District for using a "genderbread" person worksheet in her son's fifth grade class.

The Genderbread Person worksheet is a free tool that aims to help children understand differences between gender identity, expression and attraction.

However, Haynes said the way it was presented to her son's class involved students circling parts of the worksheet.

"He came home very embarrassed," Haynes said. "There were girls in class watching what he was going to circle.” 

Haynes argued the activity fell under sex education and should have required a warning to parents prior to the lesson.

Paplin Media Group reported the district said the worksheet was in response to some students "using derogatory language about the gender and sexual identity of fellow students." Newsweek reported the topic of gender identity did not fall into the statute needed to notify parents, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Haynes said she does not stand for bullying of other students for their gender identity.

“We do need to have compassion,” Haynes said.

She was glad the district responded to support impacted students, but said the specific class-wide lesson should still have come with a warning to parents.

“Made you feel blindsided,” she said. "A lot of confusion."  

Unlike some other members in these parents' rights groups, Haynes said she is open to LGBTQ+ and gender identity topics being discussed in school.

“I do think these things need to be learned," Haynes said. "I think they just need to be a little more thoughtful and intentional ... If somebody doesn’t want some of these things presented to their child in fifth grade, but maybe is okay with it in freshman – or you know, a little bit later – I feel like that should be their right."

Regardless of intent, transgender advocates and community members said the debate around their existence as "controversial" weighs heavily upon youth.

Burleton with the TransActive Gender Project offered youth encouragement.

"Continue to believe that you can thrive and survive and be the amazing human being you already are," she said.

Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, some Democratic lawmakers in Oregon have joined more than a dozen other states in pushing to offer legal refuge to displaced transgender youth and families. That means families being pursued with legal action in other states for providing kids with gender-affirming care would not be pursued in places like Oregon.

However, as anti-LGBTQ+ efforts gain traction around the country, Basic Rights Oregon said it will be up to voters to stay vigilant and decide the future of discriminatory policy in Oregon.

"Take nothing for granted," Haque said. "We need to be really aware at this moment of all the attacks that are happening on our community and really put them to the forefront."

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