LGBT history in Portland

The Rose City has a long history of LGBT activism and inclusiveness.

Portland is a very LGBT-friendly city.

This section was produced in collaboration with PQ Monthly, dedicated to serving the LGBTQ communities of Oregon, Washington and the Bay Area. PQ Monthly is published on the third Thursday of every month and updated daily online.

Portland’s LGBTQ history likely goes back to the first human inhabitants of the area. According to the First Nations Two-Spirit Collective, native people have celebrated gender and sexual minorities for millennia. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke noted a number of encounters with such individuals in Oregon. While some tribes have struggled to keep these traditions alive in the face of colonial influences, the Portland Two-Spirit Society is evidence of the resurgence of Two-Spirit pride.

LGBTQ Portlanders first found widespread visibility, and later organization, through the local media. In 1970, not long after the riots at Stonewall, John Wilkinson and Holly Hart wrote articles about gay life in the Willamette Bridge. They called for gays and lesbians to organize, and the Portland Gay Liberation Front (PGLF) was born.

After the formation of the PGLF, advances in gay rights began to mount. Two years later, in 1972, Oregon became the fourth state to repeal its sodomy laws (enacted in 1853). By 1973, Rep. Vera Katz (who later became Portland’s mayor) had introduced the state’s first gay rights bill, which failed to pass by just two votes. There were even enough gay rights groups to hold an Oregon Gay Political Caucus. The following year, the Portland City Council adopted a resolution barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Portland’s first LGBTQ pride celebration took the form of indoor events such as dances, sponsored by the Second Foundation. The first outdoor public pride festival was held in 1975.

Portland saw its first AIDS-related death in 1982, and by 1983, Cascade AIDS Project and PALS (Personal Active Listeners) were formed. The 1980s also saw the beginnings of still-vibrant community institutions such as Esther’s Pantry, Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, Portland Lesbian Choir, Peacock in the Park and Equity Foundation.

In 1988, the Oregon LGBTQ community met a foe that would provide impetus for the next decade of activism. The Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), a conservative Christian group, sponsored Measure 8, which ultimately succeed in repealing Gov. Goldschmidt’s executive order prohibiting the executive branch from discriminating based on sexual orientation in employment. The measure was overruled by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1992.

Still, the OCA tried again to fight LGBTQ rights with 1992’s Measure 9, which sought to prevent “special rights” for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. This became a galvanizing battle for the community and led to the creation of the state’s primary LGBTQ rights organization, Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), in 1996.

In 2006, Q Center — Portland’s first LGBTQ community center since 1978 — opened its doors. The following year, the Oregon legislature passed bills banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, public accommodations and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Portland voters took that sentiment to heart in 2008 when they elected Sam Adams, the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city.

Adams led the Portland City Council in 2011 to unanimously make the health insurance policy for city employees transgender-inclusive. The state continues to be a leader in trans healthcare with a case currently in court challenging the policy for state employees.

In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge made marriage legal for all couples in the state after overturning Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. The Oregon district attorney declined to defend the law when it was challenged in a federal lawsuit, and the decision went into effect immediately.

In February 2015, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown made history as the nation’s first openly bisexual governor when she was appointed to the position upon then Governor John Kitzhaber’s resignation. Brown, the 37th governor of Oregon, has long been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights and organizations throughout the state.

For more on the Portland’s rich LGBTQ history, visit the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN) and check out the walking tour.


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