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Despite New LGBT Governor, Rural Oregonians Still Face Discrimination

Monday, February 23, 2015


In the same state that received national attention for having the first LGBT Governor in America, some LGBT Oregonians won’t get married in the their home towns out of fear for their own safety.

As a state, Oregon set an equal rights milestone Feb. 18 with the swearing-in of Governor Kate Brown, who has been openly bisexual since 1992. The reality for LGBT Oregonians living in rural areas remains challenging. 

“We’re not there yet,” said Gina Du Quenne, President of Southern Oregon Pride, which is based in Ashland. “Marriage equality is legal but we have a long way to go.” 

Photo: Facebook via LGBT Portland

U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban May 19, after which point Oregonians in same-sex relationships began marrying immediately. 

Du Quenne said since May, some couples living in rural eastern and southern Oregon towns go to the more liberal cities of Ashland, Salem, and Portland to have their weddings, because of discrimination in their home towns. 

“If you don’t feel safe and you don’t feel good the day that you’re getting married, people don’t want to be in Grants Pass or Klamath Falls or Medford on that day,” Du Quenne said.  “We’re kind of treated like secondary citizens, especially our trans[gendered] brothers and sisters,” Du Quenne said. 

Focused on Oregon

Governor Brown, who has been married to her partner Dan Little since 1997, has long been an advocate for the LGBT community, and was the 2012 Southern Oregon Pride Parade’s Grand Marshall, alongside transgender rights activist Sylvia Guererro. 

“I’m hoping she will use her platform to build a bridge, listen, and make things happen,” Du Quenne said. 

Major national news outlets, including The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Slate and the Chicago Sun-Times, along with major LGBT media, ran headlines celebrating Brown’s landmark.  

“I agree that although Governor Brown is getting a lot of national media attention, she is very focused on Oregon,” said Brown’s Communications Director Kristen Grainger. 

“She considers herself a strong leader in the LGBT community and wants to make sure every family and individual in Oregon has the ability to thrive regardless of their sexual orientation, their race or where they live.”

In 2007, then Senator Brown helped pass the Oregon Equality Act, which prohibited both employers and landlords from discriminating against prospective employees or tenants for their sexual orientation. In the same year, Brown helped bring in the Oregon Family Fairness Act, recognizing same-sex relationships as domestic partnerships. 

Discrimination in rural Oregon  

After campaigning successfully for marriage equality, Basic Rights Oregon has identified the experience of LGBT Oregonians living in rural areas as an area in which advocacy work still needs to be done, including access to information and health care, particularly for transgendered citizens, and people of color. 

“It’s a clear priority for work moving forward,” said BRO Executive Director Jeana Frazzini. 

LGBT Oregonians living in rural areas face both subtle, and overt discrimination. 

In 2010, organizers of Medford’s annual Pear Blossom Festival denied Southern Oregon Pride an entry into the event’s parade on the grounds that the Pear Blossom Parade is a family event. However, the Southern Oregon Pride Parade in Ashland is open to families. 

The Medford Mail Tribune printed a letter by Jackson County Patrol Sgt. Dace Cochran Nov. 3, 2014, in which Cochran called the gay and lesbian members of the community “an abomination.” 

“They're wrong no matter how you spin them,” Cochran wrote of same-sex marriages in another letter to the editor, also printed in the Mail Tribune, in 2013. 

Rather than repudiate Cochran’s letter, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement in November 2014 holding that because he wrote the letter as a private citizen, not as a Sheriff’s Sergeant, he was exercising his right to free speech.

An online petition launched by several groups including Southern Oregon Pride, Lotus Rising Project, RV LGBT Elders, Oregon Action, and Medford Congregational United Church of Christ called on Jackson County commissioners, and the sheriff’s office, to officially repudiate Cochran’s statement gathered just under 350 of 1,000 signatures. 

'A champion for decades'

“I expect her to play the continual role she’s played for decades,” Frazzini said of the new governor. “For decades she has been a champion for the community.” 

BRO is pushing for House Bill 2307, which would prohibit mental health providers from performing “conversion therapy” on youth in Oregon. Another package, led by the Center for Intercultural Organizing, would require all Oregon law enforcement to undergo training to stop profiling on the basis of race and sexual orientation, among others. 

“Our legislation will come to her desk. We haven’t had the conversation yet, but I’m 100 percent confident she’ll sign it,” said Frazzini. 

Grainger, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Brown’s immediate focus will be a smooth transition into the governor’s office and a productive session in the legislature. 

Du Quenne is looking to the newly sworn-in governor to use her current national momentum to promote acceptance for LGBT Oregonians living in rural communities. 

“It would be a wonderful celebration if our new governor would listen to what our needs are as a community, because now we have this wonderful opportunity,” Du Quenne said.


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