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May 11th, 2005 HENRY STERN | Q & A
 

Roey Thorpe

Are civil unions a sellout, or too much too soon? The leader of Oregon's biggest gay-rights group ponders a Freedom Summer, Karen Minnis and political reality.

     
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Roey Thorpe
IMAGE: STEPHEN VOSS
With the Oregon Legislature plunging into the question of civil unions for same-sex couples with Senate Bill 1000, Basic Rights Oregon director Roey Thorpe finds herself back in the tumult.

Not that Thorpe isn't familiar with that spot after the past year. She has been front and center in the court saga that ended up killing gay marriage in Multnomah County, as well as the unsuccessful fight against a ballot measure banning gay marriages statewide.

Each battlegrounds presents a dilemma that past civil-rights leaders have dealt with before. Is change coming too slowly? Or is it coming too fast, stirring a backlash?

WW asked Thorpe about that balancing act.

WW: What parallels do you see between the civil-rights movement for African Americans and the gay-rights movement?

Roey Thorpe: This is a touchy subject. There are plenty of African Americans who have objections to drawing these parallels, while others feel comfortable with it. I usually try to draw parallels with several other civil-rights movements.

OK. Where do you see similarities with other movements?

There's everything from activating and mobilizing voters to getting in the streets with signs. And there's also a legal strategy that involves the courts-that's very much like the civil-rights movement but also like the women's movement.

Would there be any merit in a "Freedom Summer" where gays and lesbians went to rural Oregon with their straight allies?

For most rural Oregonians, the idea of people coming from Portland or anywhere else and telling them how they should think would be a turn-off. What we are doing is creating teams across the state of people who live in those small communities and want a different perspective to surface. That's the most effective thing we can do.

Why not take the more aggressive tack of you "must" tolerate me rather than you "should'' tolerate me?

Why must they?

Because it's a basic human right.

Our position is it is a basic human right, but we've learned through some pretty nasty ballot campaigns. I wouldn't characterize us as not aggressive. Our opponents certainly wouldn't characterize us like that. We've been passing local anti-discrimination legislation within the last year in Beaverton, Bend and Lake Oswego.

Doesn't that create gay-friendly and –unfriendly zones?

This is a first wave of outreach. Our plan is to go deeper and deeper. There is this impression that gay issues are Portland issues or that nobody transgendered lives outside Multnomah County. Civil rights in Oregon depend on your ZIP code, and that's not right.

What are the prospects for Senate Bill 1000?

We have great support in the Senate and from the governor. Whether or not the House speaker [Karen Minnis] will allow this bill to be heard or voted on is unknown.

Why demand something that's less than full equality?

We have never said civil unions are anything but second-class status. What we are saying is given the political reality, this is the best we can do at this moment and we need to do everything we can to stop the continued assault on this community. We are drawing the line in the sand right here. Does that mean our work is done if Senate Bill 1000 passes? Of course not.

Do you think you'll see gay marriage in your lifetime?

I do. I have seen it. And I do see it in Massachusetts, and I see it now in Spain, in Canada. The question is, where will Oregon be? Civil unions at least put us on the playing field.

You were a councilwoman back in New York. Will you ever run for office here to make change from the inside?

I'd rather chew off my left leg. Being an elected official is a lot less exciting than people think it is. I remember we spent one terrible summer talking about manhole covers and what design they should be. Frankly, I didn't give a damn.


Roey Thorpe moved to Oregon in 2001 to be the director of Basic Rights Oregon (www.basicrights.org) after working for Empire State Pride Agenda in New York and serving as a councilwoman in Ithaca, N.Y.
 
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