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    Artists out front in anti-9 battle Essay

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    Gay-bashing measure fails in Oregon after intense campaign

    The arts gave, and they reaped. Ballot Measure 9–Oregon’s anti-gay initiative that was defeated Nov. 3 by 57 percent to 43 percent became a rallying cry for the arts. And the audience listened.

    Like the furor over National Endowment for the Arts funding which made Robert Mapplethorpe a household name, Measure 9 brought attention to the arts, and to censorship, discrimination and gay themes.

    From Portland to Los Angeles to New York, the performing and visual arts and the film and television industry staged benefits, donated box-office receipts and auctioned art. “They were a major player as a community,” says Sherry Oeser, of No on 9, the coalition that led the fight against the measure.

    The Oregon Citizens Alliance sponsored the measure, which would have prevented the state from extending anti-discrimination laws to homosexuals. Measure 9 also would have required schools to set a standard that recognized homosexuals as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” Colorado passed an initiative known as Amendment 2, which bans protected status for homosexuals, but nowhere was the fight so intense or the legislation so extreme as in Oregon.

    While it was unclear exactly what passage of Measure 9 might mean to the arts, the OCA’s Lon Mabon said that if it passed, the OCA would target what it perceived as gay-themed art, by seeing to it that the Oregon Arts Commission and the Portland Area Metropolitan Arts Commission didn’t fund those works.

    During the months leading up to the vote in Oregon, No on 9 offices were trashed and both OCA and No on 9 staff members were harassed. In Salem, a gay man and his lesbian roommate died when their house was firebombed.

    What could artists do? As with any political campaign, money was imperative.

    In Hollywood, Roseanne and Tom Arnold raised $25,000 at a summer fund-raiser. Singer/songwriter Holly Near appeared at a benefit concert in Portland.

    “We did have a good time raising money,” Oeser recalls.

    In New York, producers David Binder, Michael Stremel and John Cameron Mitchell (currently appearing in Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me at Circle Repertory Theatre) and a committee consisting of Charles Busch, David Drake, Christopher Durang, Craig Lucas, Larry Kramer, Stephen Sondheim and others held a fund-raiser on election eve. Daisy Egan of Broadway’s The Secret Garden, solo-performer Julie Halston, MTV’s Frank Maya and the group 5 Lesbian Brothers performed and raised $2,000.

    “I think it’s rare that artists get involved in political causes,” believes Binder. “They deal more frequently with social issues, like AIDS. This was a social issue, but manifesting itself in a political way.”

    In Oregon, theatres took a position and let their subscribers know it. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival sent letters to its membership. “The Festival thought it was important because Measure 9 could very well affect the type of work we could do in the future or the people we could employ,” says artistic director Henry Woronicz.

    The Portland Area Theatre Alliance, with a membership of more than 40 theatres, declared Measure 9 had the potential to exclude “important plays, playwrights and artists from the stage.” Gus Van Sant, who lives in Portland and films his movies (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) in Oregon, said that as a gay artist, he might be prevented from working in the state.

    In all, nearly $2 million was raised by an array of arts, business, religious and labor groups. Not only did the arts help defeat Measure 9, they addressed issues and struck a chord with audiences trying to make sense of the hatred Measure 9 bared.

    Portland theatres had planned their fall season before there was a Measure 9. But some of the shows scheduled to coincide with the “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit, which had a month-long stop in the city, proved uncommonly timely–particularly a production of Bent, Martin Sherman’s drama about the treatment of homosexuals in German concentration camps.

    “I had planned to do the play in response to the Holocaust and Anne Frank exhibit,” says Jon Kretzu, who directed the play at Triangle Productions. “The fact that it became so pertinent shows how art can imitate life. We were thrown into an atmosphere much like the times in the play.”

    Playwright Sherman wrote The Oregonian from London about the similarities between his play and what was happening in Oregon: “My research for Bent introduced me to the speeches of Heinrich Himmler. In one typical statement he declared that homosexuals were ‘dangerous to the national health’ and that ‘we can’t permit such a danger to the country.’ How different is this, really, from the language of Measure 9, which declares homosexuality ‘abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse,’ something that should be ‘discouraged and avoided?'”

    The Oregon Citizens Alliance says it is encouraged that 500,000 Oregonians voted for Measure 9. The group plans to try another version of the anti-gay initiative in two years

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