Back in the early 1980s I was what you'd call politically active — you know, taking part in demonstrations against things like Cruise Missile Testing in Canada and apartheid in South Africa. After a while I pretty much stopped, except for once in the late '90s when I took part in a demonstration against the government of Ontario, as the infighting between the factions just started to get on my nerves. All I have to show for those days is a file somewhere in Ottawa classifying me as a security risk, and a healthy respect for the organizational abilities of the right wing.
In retrospect I realize that the real problem with political action on the left is that we were always reacting to what someone else was doing. We're against this and against that, but it's not often we say what we are for. On the few occasions when that has occurred (Henry Morgenthaler's fight for a woman's right to an abortion and the fight to legalize same sex marriages in Canada), when we have stood up and said we are for this, we have won.
Instead of ever starting a campaign and mobilizing forces to propose a new way of doing something in line with our way of thinking, the left continues to let the right set the agenda all over North America on any of the issues we consider important. It never used to be that way; the left used to set goals for social change and work to meet them, from the labour movements of the early twentieth century that secured fair pay and safe working conditions to the voter registration drives of the early 1960s and the ensuing civil rights campaigns in the Southern United States.
Watching the DVD version of the documentary Ballot Measure 9, a filmed record of an attempt in 1992 to pass a ballot measure in Oregon that would have stripped homosexuals of basic civil rights, brought that all home to me again. It was the same basic story that is played out across the United States every election year, where conservative Christian "citizens" groups work to pass anti-homosexual or anti-affirmative action measures in the hopes of imposing their will on a community.
In 1992 the United States were coming off twelve years of ultra-conservative government and the religious right was feeling its oats after having their puppet Ronald Reagan in power for eight years, and his milksop successor George Bush Sr. for four. In that time they had been able to promote an agenda claiming AIDS was just retribution against gays, women were subservient to men, that the church and state shouldn't be separate, and all the other rigamarole we've come to associate with their fascistic mind set . (Fascism is the imposition, by a central authority, of a single belief system that all must adhere to.)
Ballot Measure 9 was first released in 1995 and director Heather MacDonald took her camera into the war rooms of both the Yes and the No campaigns interviewing people on both sides of the issue. As an audience member that means that initially you get a fairly unbiased view of each side's presentation; although since the one side is calling for stripping a group of people of their human rights and the other side is saying no that's not right, unless you're an advocate for the religious right chances are you're not going to be overly sympathetic to their cause.
I have to admit that when the footage started to include speeches by the proponents of Ballot Measure 9, I skipped to the next scene. Listening to people telling outright lies and propagating hate turns my stomach and I couldn't watch it. Besides, it wasn't anything different from what's been said before or since by people like Pat Robertson and Adolph Hitler. Perhaps what was worse was listening to the stories of the hate crimes carried out against people who were working on the No side of the issue. One woman's horse was attacked with a pitch fork, another found her brake lines cut, and quite a few were physically assaulted.
The person who came out looking the best was then Chief of Police, now mayor of Portland, Oregon, Tom Potter. He was genuinely appalled that one community within his city was being specifically targeted for violent actions, and he took steps to ensure that their safety was as guaranteed as possible, as the violence escalated the closer it came to voting day. Of course the leaders of the Yes movement refused to see how their spewing of hatred towards homosexuals could possibly be at the root of the violence.
I think the most unsettling part of the movie was the realization of how little has changed since 1992 when that measure was first proposed. I only have to look at Canada and all the hate that was spewed when the Supreme Court of Canada declared it unconstitutional to ban same sex marriage. In fact our current government tried to pass a "Defence of Religion" law which would have allowed people to discriminate against gays and lesbians if their God told them to. They only backed down when they realized even if they somehow managed to sneak it through parliament, it would be declared unconstitutional the first time it was challenged in court.
Included in the DVD of this film is an update that was filmed in 2007 featuring a core group of people on the No side discussing the after-effects of the campaign and the current situation in Oregon. These are intelligent people who aren't afraid to be self-critical and point out the problems within the homosexual community and the left in general when it comes these sorts of battles. Maybe I appreciated it so much because it echoed what I said earlier about always reacting to someone else's agenda and never setting it.
There is a school of thought among minorities that goes like this: if they don't know we're here they'll leave us alone to live our lives. The problem with that is you become an isolated group that nobody knows anything about and people are willing to believe any lies told about you because they've never had any dealings with people like you. In medieval Europe, when Jews practised this behaviour, the common lie used to incite hatred against them was that Passover matzoh was made using the blood of virgin gentile girls. As ridiculous as that might sound to us today, it was accepted as the truth back then.
How much different is that from spreading the lie that a child taught by a homosexual will become one, or that gay men are pedophiles? Both are equally as ridiculous as the blood and matzoh story, but they are readily believed today by people who don't have any contact with gays or lesbians.
Ballot Measure 9 is about a plebiscite that took place sixteen years ago in the state of Oregon that tried to strip homosexuals of basic human rights. While the original movie is both shocking and uplifting in places, it's the special features on the DVD that make it important for people to watch now. Reliving past victories is as much an exercise in futility as bemoaning past losses if you don't have the courage to learn from your mistakes.
Nothing was really decided in Oregon in 1992, because there are still those actively trying to strip minorities of their basic human rights. In 2007 Oregon introduced a civil union law which allows gays and lesbians to legally formalize their partnerships. The same group who put forward Ballot Measure 9 are currently working to have a measure included on the upcoming election's ballot revoking that law. If minority groups, especially gays and lesbians, continue to isolate themselves from the community at large they will continue to be vulnerable to attacks like this.