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August 14th, 2013 ANDREA DAMEWOOD | Cover Story
 

The Queer Frontier

The battle over gay marriage moves to rural Oregon.

gaymarriagecoverIMAGE: Xel Moore
Leighton Reed-Nickerson wheels his black 2003 Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible into the parking lot of the Harney County Farmers Market, a collection of a dozen stands selling vegetables, rag rugs and loaves of marionberry bread.

He’s not here to shop. Reed-Nickerson—wearing a pink polo short, a “Vietnam Veteran” cap and a ruby earring—intends to collect 50 signatures for a petition to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.

He knows this crowd. He’s a member of the City Council in Burns, a half-day drive from Portland, and owns the only radio stations serving this vast county, as big as Massachusetts but with only enough people to fill a third of the Rose Garden. It’s also one of the most conservative places in Oregon, a county that voted 3-to-1 to pass this state’s gay-marriage ban nearly a decade ago.

Reed-Nickerson pauses before he parks. “Maybe I should back in,” he says, “just in case we get chased out of here.”

He parks head in after all and walks across the grass toward a woman with curly white hair wearing a vest decorated with needlepoint bucking broncos. She’s sitting in the shade of her booth eating a cinnamon roll.

Reed-Nickerson asks her to sign. She shakes her head violently. “It says right in the Bible,” she tells him. “A man and a woman.” She cannot even begin to understand anyone who thinks homosexuals should have the right to marry. “I just don’t think they’ve got the sense God gave a goose,” she says.

The next woman Reed-Nickerson approaches is at the Harney County Master Gardeners table. She tells him she is a Christian and thinks America is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Marriage is between me and God,” she says. “Marriage was designed by God.”

But then she takes his ballpoint pen and signs.

“If other people want to be married because it’s a piece of paper,” she continues, “that’s fine.”


A GAY SATURDAY: Leighton Reed-Nickerson, 68, pauses after ringing the doorbell of a home in Hines, Ore., toward the end of a long day collecting signatures to put an initiative to overturn Measure 36—the state’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—on the 2014 ballot. “I believe all people should have the same rights,” he says.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

In the blue bubble of Portland, a large majority of voters want to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage. It’s not surprising the area dominates much of the focus of the campaign collecting the 116,284 signatures needed to put the measure on the November 2014 ballot.

Yet the campaign is also fanning out across Oregon, even in rural areas where asking strangers to help make gay marriage legal seems like an invitation to have a shotgun pulled on you.

But the voters Reed-Nickerson met during our visit have clearly softened their attitudes since Measure 36—the constitutional ban on gay marriage—passed nine years ago. Back then, it passed in every Oregon county except Multnomah and Benton, where Corvallis is located.

Oregon United for Marriage and the national Freedom to Marry campaign, which orchestrated the 2012 victory in Washington state, are taking aim at Oregon as next in a 50-state battle to legalize marriage equality. States like Oregon, supporters believe, can pass gay marriage through a popular vote—evidence they can present when the issue is ultimately pushed before the Supreme Court again.

“Oregon will be the first state to amend the constitution in favor of the freedom to marry,” says Thomas Wheatley, director of organizing for Freedom to Marry. “This is a good sign nationally.”

The campaign still isn’t ready to plant a rainbow flag of victory in Harney County or anywhere else in rural Oregon.

But conversations with high-desert voters show fundamental change.

“There’s a lot of people who have said, ‘Ten years ago, I would have been in your face,’” Reed-Nickerson says. “Now they say, ‘My son would like to marry his partner, and I’ve completely changed my mind.’”

Two hundred and eighty-one miles southeast of Portland, you pass endless stretches of sagebrush. It’s a road where you can punch your Honda Fit to 100 mph with few worries, save dodging errant jackrabbits that dart onto the asphalt.

A bronze statue of a swooping eagle welcomes drivers into Hines, the town just before Burns. Burns and Hines bill themselves as the gateway to Steens Mountain, but residents acknowledge they more often hear their home called “the armpit of Oregon.”

Both titles seem apt in their own way. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent and poverty is at 20.8 percent. The towns are surrounded by cattle ranches, one of the few heritage lines of work that remain, although there are fewer cowboys than there used to be: Harney County has lost 2.8 percent of its population since 2010. Today, Burns has fewer than 2,800 residents.

Most people with good jobs work for the government: the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Eastern Oregon Youth Correctional Facility.

This is where Reed-Nickerson chose to make his home three years ago, when he moved from Camas, Wash., and bought the radio stations. He’s living in a mobile home parked under the stations’ one-kilowatt transmitter while he remodels a house.

Reed-Nickerson, 68, is a pilot, a former member of the Army branch that dropped propaganda on Vietnamese villages, a graduate of Boston’s Emerson College with a degree in fine arts, a self-taught engineer who has flown the world giving speeches on electronic test measurements, a ham-radio enthusiast and a member of several historic steam railroad associations. He says he once spent an evening talking about flying with John F. Kennedy Jr.

“I’m going to be one of those people,” he says, “who gets there without many items on my bucket list.”

Reed-Nickerson, who goes by Linc, grew up in what he says was a “very, very bigoted Baptist family” in South Acton, Mass. As a teenager, seeking a faith that made more sense and where he felt more comfortable—“Jesus Christ was probably a really good evangelist,” he says—he converted to Judaism. It’s a religion where he feels comfortable questioning convention, something he didn’t find in Christianity.

As the owner of a local business, Reed-Nickerson says he did consider he might lose his advertisers and listeners by asking for signatures to legalize gay marriage.

He said he has never before gathered signatures for any political movement. But he decided to do so a month ago after talking with friends from the Willamette Valley, including one woman who is a lesbian.

“I woke up one morning and said they’re looking for signatures, and I’m going to do it,” he says. His wife warned him about the risk. He went ahead anyway.

“I’m putting my neck on the line and ticking some people off around here,” he says. “I’m taking a stand.”


GOOD MORNING, BURNS: Most people in Harney County know Reed-Nickerson as the voice behind the area’s only two local radio stations, KORC-FM and KBNH-AM. “He’s raised a lot of hackles in this town,” says one Burns resident. “He has a tendency to put his opinion on the radio, rather than let things lie.”
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Reed-Nickerson starts his Saturday of signature gathering at 9 am in the cluttered, doublewide corporate offices for his radio empire: KORC-FM and KBNH-AM. The FM station pumps out Jimmy Buffett, the Rolling Stones and the BeeGees. The AM station plays classic country and airs local high-school football games and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Two cats, Elmer and Ferris, loll about the studio. Reed-Nickerson keeps Ferris locked out of the control room because the cat has a habit of knocking the signal off the air.

A Democrat for more than 40 years, he’s been married for 36 years to his wife, Joan, who spends most of her time in Camas, where she owns a boilermaking business, restoring steam engines.

He’s also a guaranteed “yes” voter upon whom Oregon United for Marriage, which is running what’s set to be a $12 million campaign to legalize gay marriage, will rely: liberal, educated and in a higher income bracket.

Multnomah County can’t deliver marriage equality alone. Oregon United for Marriage strategists say the battle lines will form in the suburban counties of Washington and Clackamas, and in Lane County.

Multnomah County is going to need at least a 75 percent voter turnout, with “yes” votes in the high 60 percent range, says Tim Hibbitts, chief political analyst for Portland’s DHM Research, which has not done any work on the gay marriage campaign.

Then the fight moves to moderates in the bedroom communities, Hibbitts says. He says that because 2014 is an off-presidential voting year, the electorate will be slightly older and more conservative, which will make Oregon United for Marriage’s job more difficult.

“I don’t think there’s been much doubt that there have been attitudinal changes on gay marriage,” Hibbitts says. “That’s an important thing to keep in mind. But I don’t think they’re guaranteed a victory next year.”


A SIGNATURE EVENT: Brittany Nau, 18, gets the signature of one of her friend’s parents, Khristy Cronin. Cronin says she may leave town in search of a more open-minded community.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Reed-Nickerson drove two hours to Bend to pick up his petitions. The campaign asked him to collect 20 signatures. He promised to get 50.

His efforts will contribute little to the overall effort to get an initiative to overturn Oregon’s gay-marriage ban on the ballot. But that’s not the point of the pro-gay petitioners seeking signatures in locales they won’t win, Freedom to Marry’s Wheatley says.

Pushing a petition forces the topic into the public psyche.

“It is the act of having the conversation with LGBT people about why marriage matters that really, really opens up the opportunity for straight people to think anew,” Wheatley says.

Reed-Nickerson’s day starts promisingly. After getting an employee to sign the petition, he swings by the epicurean center of Burns, the Meat Hook Steak House, where the $22.95 prime rib special includes clam chowder, salad, the biggest slab of beef the plate will hold, two sides and a sundae.

Owner Todd Bigelow is outside for a smoke, leaning against his massive red Chevy truck (its sole bumper sticker: “EAT BEEF”) as Reed-Nickerson arrives.

Bigelow signs the petition without hesitation.

He says while signing that his wife won’t. They had an argument about the issue, and his wife firmly believes that being gay is a lifestyle choice.

“I have a family member who is gay,” Bigelow says. “I just happen to feel that in this life, if you walk and talk and you pay taxes, you can do whatever you want.”

At the farmers market, Reed-Nickerson is accompanied by Brittany Nau, a Burns High School senior he hired to run the radio stations’ accounts. Her dad is the town’s John Deere mechanic. She’s a self-described “odd duck” who favors Doctor Who and Marvel Comics in a town where the Hilanders football team is the pride and joy.

Nau supports gay marriage (as do more than 70 percent of Millennials, national polls say) but understands why she may face resistance when talking about homosexuality.

“I’ve heard people say it’s a disease,” she says.

Nau and Reed-Nickerson move through the farmers market counterclockwise, avoiding some people altogether, including two Mennonite women in long dresses and hair covers selling cookies. They pass another booth with two men wearing neckties behind a table piled high with tracts. One is titled “Pornography: Harmless or Toxic?”

“I think I can safely pass the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Reed-Nickerson says.

But Oregon United for Marriage officials say they are not passing on chances to chop away at a religious base gay-rights activists didn’t even acknowledge in 2004. The campaign has hired a full-time faith coordinator, and a traveling exhibit is circulating through churches statewide.

Campaign spokesman Peter Zuckerman says the message to these voters is simple. “A major lesson of the Bible is to have people treat others the way you want to be treated,” he says. “You love your neighbor and you love God.”


NO WELCOME MAT REQUIRED: A doorway in Hines, complete with the skull of a two-point buck.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Try telling that to the guy who shut the door in Reed-Nickerson’s face.

The man lives on West E Street in Burns in a blue ranch house with red trim. A sign in his front window reads “Jesus is the Answer.” He turned Reed-Nickerson away before shouting, “See my sign in the window?”

Richard (he declined to give his last name) says he’s a retired state worker who lived in Salem but moved to Burns, two hours from the nearest Starbucks. “I’m so happy to be out here it isn’t funny,” he says.

Richard says homosexuality and pornography is moving this country from its Christian foundation. He had an aunt who was gay—often a motivator to change people’s minds. Not for him.

“The Bible says you have to love the man, not the sin,” Richard says. “When I associate with people who are gay, I’m not going to put them down or snub them. I just don’t think it should become a law.”

Don and Delcy Currey were playing pinochle at the kitchen table with neighbors when Reed-Nickerson arrived at their house on North Court Avenue. None of the players signed the petition.

Don Currey is 79, a Democrat and an atheist—an anomaly in this town.

“I wax and wane on the subject,” he says of Reed-Nickerson’s petition. “We are meant to procreate, but we’ve already procreated enough and should stop. I’m just confused about the whole damn thing.”

He moved to California after growing up in Burns. He’s been back for 21 years and thinks people will be reluctant to vote differently than they did in 2004.

“We’re isolated,” he says. “When values change, they are slow to change here.”

Gay-marriage supporters say voters must be comfortable talking about the issue if they are ever to ink the “yes” box in 2014.

Dan Lavey is longtime top adviser and senior strategist for former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), and now president of Portland’s Gallatin Public Affairs. He says the support of voters in rural areas can help sell the campaign’s message.

Lavey, who is not involved in the campaign, says he is among those who voted for Measure 36 in 2004 and now plan to vote to overturn it.

“Republicans and conservatives, their voices will be amplified in this debate,” he says. “A ranching family from Harney County who supports this is a more compelling messenger than a liberal Democrat 20-year-old from Portland.”

ON THE LINE: Harney County Farmers Market vendor Kim Rollins supports marriage equality.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Reed-Nickerson and Nau look for signatures along Highway 20, also known as Broadway, with brick buildings that include two booksellers, a few thrift shops and a quilt store.

At Broadway Deli, they stop for turkey sandwiches. Owner Fran Davis, in a floral apron, sits down for a chat. She’s a boisterous woman who has run a food-service business in town for more than 25 years.

Davis writes Reed-Nickerson a $150 check for her radio spots. When he asks her to also sign the petition, she backs away like it was radioactive.

“I have an opinion about it, but I have to be so careful,” Davis says, leaning against the counter. “It’s really hard in a small town.”

She estimates 95 percent of her business comes from highway traffic—4,600 cars pass through every day, mostly traveling between the Willamette Valley and Boise, Idaho (which is closer to Burns than Portland). Still, Davis can’t afford to lose any of her local customers.

“If I lose one customer because they saw my name on a petition,” she says, “it’s not worth it.”


SIGN OF THE TIMES: Todd Bigelow (left), owner of the Meat Hook Steak House, is signing in favor of gay marriage partly because he has a gay family member.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Reed-Nickerson doesn’t like to make much of his service in Vietnam. But today he thinks wearing his veteran’s cap will earn him a little leeway.

“I can tell people I fought for these freedoms,” he says.

He rings the bell of a home two blocks off Broadway that has plastic sheeting over the large front window and a worktable blocking the walk. The shrieks of little dogs get louder as a man with a black handkerchief tied over his gray curly hair answers the door, his work gloves still in hand. He’s been out back digging a hole.

The man agrees to sign the petition. Even though his signature is public record, like a lot of folks in Burns he’d prefer if his name stays out of the newspaper. He was in the Air Force, and one of his best friends is a lesbian who lived in town, he says. He went to her commitment ceremony at the Harney County Fairgrounds.

“I believe in individual rights,” he says. “I’m a big Second Amendment advocate, and at the same time, I can support this.”

Most of the people who signed Reed-Nickerson’s petition told him they’re against the idea of gay marriage, but then signed anyway, based on their belief in personal freedom.

It’s a theme that national and local organizers have homed in on—and one the campaign fighting Measure 36 nine years ago missed entirely. “It was treated like a political question rather than a personal one,” Wheatley says.

The strategy this time is different.

Zuckerman says that during election season, plan to see ads featuring committed gay families telling their stories about why marriage matters.

“They share similar hopes and dreams as other people do,” Zuckerman says. “They want to marry for similar reasons.”


PATCHWORK IDEOLOGY: LaDonna Baron, holding one of the three Boston terriers who greet customers at Country Lane Quilts, says she’ll sign the pro-gay-marriage petition because she thinks it’s about freedom, not because she approves of homosexuality.
IMAGE: Andrea Damewood

Many of the nation’s most liberal states now grant same-sex marriages: among them New York, Maryland, Washington and California. Now the national effort is targeting states such as Oregon and Nevada, places with a strong personal-liberty streak.

“You’ll find a fair amount of cowboy, live-and-let-live conservatives,” Lavey says. “As long as somebody’s not messing with their camp, their crop or their cattle, they’re fine.”

Christine Bates couldn’t agree more. She’s the woman at the gardeners’ stand who compared America to biblical heathenism and then signed the petition.

Bates spent time in the 1960s in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, then a hub of hippie culture, where as a street singer she sang Christian and Jewish songs (she hums a few bars of “Hava Nagila” for Reed-Nickerson’s benefit).

Bates says she’s morally opposed to homosexuality, but will back the measure—in large part because the proposed amendment clearly says churches and clergy may opt out of performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.

“You can do your own thing, but don’t infringe on my religious rights,” Bates says. “Just don’t do it in a church.”

On Broadway, Reed-Nickerson and Nau duck into Country Lane Quilts, filled with fabric bolts, and are welcomed by three Boston terrier “greeter dogs”—Jessie, Joey and Potter—who get special mention in the radio spots co-owner LaDonna Baron buys from Reed-Nickerson.

Baron says she has noticed a more moderate attitude toward gay people since 2004. “We have a whole different set of people,” she says. “It used to be all loggers and ranchers, but now we have a lot of retirees from out of state.”

As for her own views, she wrinkles her nose at the idea of gay marriage.

“I work with some, in my other job,” Baron says. “I think they have the rights, it’s just not my preference. It really doesn’t matter to me, as long as they don’t stick it in my face.”

She signs Reed-Nickerson’s petition, too.

A place like Harney County may not change fast enough to have a huge impact on a vote in 2014. But every vote in Eastern Oregon that switches in favor of gay marriage takes pressure off the battleground counties in the Willamette Valley, where the fate of Oregon’s next civil rights battle will be decided.

Reed-Nickerson says he’s convinced his new hometown is changing faster than most people think. Since 9 am, he’s managed to get 27 signatures.

He’s certain he’ll get all 50 eventually.

“There are people here who will never change in 100 years,” Reed-Nickerson says. “Most likely by the time it gets on the ballot, there won’t be much of a change here. But eventually it will be accepted—it is a long-term process for things to change in Eastern Oregon.” 

 
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