In this photo, taken in 1991, I was almost 34 years old and had just moved from southern California to southern Oregon (Portland came later).
I had fallen in love with the area 10 years earlier when, in 1981, I received a summer scholarship in grad school to study Shakespeare “from page to stage” at Southern Oregon University’s Center for Shakespeare Studies in Ashland. Because the program was about teaching and studying the plays through performance, I was lucky to attend the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and learn from the actors, directors, designers, and other professionals who brought the plays to life on stage. The experience inspired me to become an English teacher, and so I returned to California and eventually earned both my English teacher and librarian credentials.
But it would be another 10 years before I would move to southern Oregon and another two before moving to Portland. I had a long layover in southern California, where I never truly felt like I belonged. I definitely wasn’t one of the California girls The Beach Boys sang about. My twin sister, Carole, can tell you how awkward I was at virtually everything. I struggled with my identity and really wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
For spring break of 1991, remembering how much I had enjoyed that summer in Ashland, I decided to drive to Oregon. In advance, I set up a few school visits and conversations with principals. I remember crying as I drove through the green countryside that stretched for miles and miles along rivers and streams and through forests. It was so beautiful. And I remember feeling at home in Eugene when I noticed women were wearing the same comfortable shoes I was wearing. That sealed the deal.
I accepted an offer to be the teaching librarian at a middle school south of Roseburg, which included automating their library, developing a library studies curriculum, teaching it, modernizing their collection, and bringing some life to their sad little library. Perhaps you know the type – it had served more as a detention center than a learning center. I was determined to make it a classroom, a fun and resourceful library, and a sanctuary for everyone.
I rented a small cottage at the end of a lane on the Umpqua River and got rid of my California license plates as soon as I could. The Great Blue Heron that I saw soaring upstream my second weekend there confirmed I was going to be an Oregonian! The name Umpqua relates to a band of the Coquille tribe and is said to mean place along the river, dancing water, thundering water, satisfied, and my personal favorite, This is the place!
Part of my bold, sudden move to Oregon — where I had no family or friends at the time — was my pledge that I would never again live a closeted life as a Lesbian. I would live an open and authentic life. I would not drive an hour and a half or more from home to find a safe place to socialize, I would not avoid pronouns in my storytelling, I would not date men (even though I had loved a man deeply), I would not isolate, I would not be invisible, I would not repeat unhealthy coping mechanisms, I would continue therapy, I would get to know my real self, I would dress the way I wanted, I would find my tribe, I would learn to dance, and I would let myself fall in love again.
Well, I succeeded in all of the above. However, for a couple years my efforts would come with considerable risk, pain and suffering in, what we would now call, the “alt-right” communities of southern Oregon where homophobia, racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia are prevalent.
Before moving there, I had researched the area and learned it had a large and active Lesbian and gay community, several plots of Lesbian-owned land and farms, an ecofeminism movement, and women’s land home to women-only music and art festivals, meditation retreats, community gardens and more. I was excited about a life in the southern Oregon woods and rivers.
What I didn’t know was that the area also had a history of hate crimes and violence against Lesbians and gay men. And with the automation and closures of lumber mills in these timber towns, many people (white men in particular) had lost their jobs. Domestic violence, alcoholism, gun violence, child abuse, and violence against women, children, and LGBT communities were a sad reality.
It wasn’t long before drunken male colleagues from the school where I taught were driving down the quiet, dead-end Paradise Lane where I lived to park and spy on me. They complained when I declined their invitations for dates; one said to me, “There aren’t too many of us [single guys] left around here; you can’t afford to be too choosy.”
When they learned I was a Lesbian, they stalked me, harassed me at work and at home, made sexually explicit remarks intended to humiliate me, and threatened to have me fired because of “the company” I was keeping. I had become friends with a Lesbian sheepherder who had left the district and her teaching career some years prior due to harassment. Interesting to note that a white male P.E. teacher against whom there had been several complaints of inappropriate behavior with young girls was still on the teaching staff.
As a closeted Lesbian in southern California, I was used to being invisible. In southern Oregon, I had to get used to being watched.
In 1992, Oregon became embroiled in anti-gay politics. It started with a statewide initiative called Ballot Measure 9, sponsored by a group called the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA). That initiative would have amended the Oregon constitution to forbid any civil rights protection based on sexual orientation. It also grouped homosexuality with pedophilia, requiring that public schools teach that these practices were “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.” Fortunately, the measure failed, but it sparked a slew of local anti-gay initiatives by the OCA.
Despite my school administration’s concern and support for me — and the support and love of the LGBT community I had become a part of — I knew southern Oregon was not where I belonged. I loaded up my stuff and moved me and my two cats to Portland in 1993. I shifted my career to the non-profit realm and became the executive director of an environmental information and education center associated with Washington State University in Vancouver. In that position, I was a teacher, librarian, environmental activist, and community organizer. It was liberating and empowering. I did that work for seven years before joining the City of Portland in 2000 for my now 16-year career in public information, public involvement, and community outreach.
During my two years teaching in southern Oregon, I certainly learned about their economic woes. I watched as the timber industry abandoned the workers, families, and communities that had devoted their lives to the mills. These families believed what the timber bosses had told them — that they’d forever have jobs in the mills. The timber industry planted and perpetuated a dangerous myth that education wasn’t important. Boys, in particular, dropped out of school, never completing high school, some not even junior high school. They didn’t need an education, they thought, because they had the mills.
Decades of heavy logging of old-growth forests destroyed habitat of the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, so the EPA established environmental protections. Some lumber mills had to close. Most mills that survived automated their operations, and they continued to overcut the forests faster than the trees could grow. These factors contributed to an economic crisis in timber towns. And the timber industry, largely controlled by Republicans that had swiftly built these towns in the name of corporate profit, abandoned them just as swiftly.
A few timber towns recovered, however, because they rallied together and shifted to making their livelihood in tourism, river recreation, forest recreation, and other fields that aligned well with their protected natural resources. It took creative thinking and working together. And it certainly took education.
I am not insensitive to the plight of the timber towns and the towns in middle America. But I oppose the hate, racism, sexism, bigotry, misogyny, violence, abuse, homophobia, xenophobia, and ignorance in some of their communities. And I fear that Republicans will do to middle America what they did to the timber communities — all in the name of corporate profit.
Only one candidate in this presidential election offered a plan to help them — a village plan that included investments in education, vocational training, tax law reform, economic development initiatives, gun control reform, community safety, women’s rights, human rights, and more. Was it perfect? No, but I believe it was better than anything her opponents offered.
This presidential election and its aftermath have been hard for me, as I know they’ve been hard for others. Some of the old hurts have been triggered and I’m sorting through that baggage, stepping into puddles of unresolved yuck and insecurity while I navigate this new reality and uncertainty. I’ll be fine. I know what makes my heart sing and my spirit soar.
I’ve come a long way since the 34-year-old in this photo. I will not go back to the closeted life I lived in Ohio and southern California. I will fight against what I experienced and witnessed in southern Oregon. I will live authentically. And I will do what I can to help ensure that we as a country do not go backwards. I don’t wish that pain, isolation, and fear on today’s LGBTQ+ youth, or anyone. Everyone deserves a place, their personal Umpqua.
Composed November 12, 2016 – four days after the presidential election of 2016, where the Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton and Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes