As cities across Oregon continue to celebrate Pride this year—Salem and Eugene in August, Newport and Seaside in September—they find themselves doing so at an ominous time for many in the LGBTQ+ community.
States have advanced and passed bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community in record numbers, limiting access to gender-affirming care, discussions of gender and sexuality in classrooms, participation in sports, and public drag performances. As of April, state legislators had already introduced a record-setting 400-plus bills targeting the queer community.
In Oregon, the context is different. On July 13, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed House Bill 2002 into law—expanding reproductive rights and gender-affirming care over the objections of Republicans—further cementing Oregon’s status as one of the states with the most protections for trans people in the country.
But despite the legislative progress made this spring to protect trans rights, Oregon has not been immune from the effects of the anti-LGBTQ+ moral panic and a more general rise in threats of political violence.
In early June, the city of Tigard canceled its Drag Queen Storytime and closed its public library due to threats of violence. In May, Atkinson Elementary School in southeast Portland canceled its Pride Fest due to threats made both on social media and via phone calls and emails to staff members. In March, a Vancouver brewery set to host a drag brunch was vandalized.
Oregon City successfully held its first ever Pride celebration on Saturday June 24, but not before it was forced to delay and relocate its vendor market and drag show, in part due to security concerns. Last year, the city of Keizer had to cancel its Pride event due to threats.
Lynette Shaw, board president of LGBTQ+ organization PFLAG Newberg, told the Mercury her group has dealt with its own set of issues, as it sparred with Mayor Bill Rosacker over a proclamation of Pride month in the city—a reminder of the extent to which communities are fighting for safety and acceptance on the ground daily that can feel far removed from legislative successes at the capitol.
“The protections at the state level are great, but that is Salem and that is the state,” Shaw said. “Those protections don’t do anything about the climate of intimidation and threat.”
In Wasco and Hood River counties, where Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance (CGPA) works, the threat has especially escalated in and around schools.
“It feels very, very concentrated especially around youth,” Nik Portela, a program manager for CGPA, said. “It feels like that’s where the national conversation is going, and we end up having to navigate that in schools and with parents and community members.”
That was the case in Portland as well this spring when the celebration at Atkinson was canceled. A Portland Public Schools (PPS) spokesperson said the district does not keep data on threats made against the LGBTQ+ community, but said the district is endeavoring to support its LGBTQ+ students and staff members.
“It is our responsibility to disrupt hate and injustice, and to create affirming and safe spaces for LGBTQ2SIA+ students, families, and staff,” PPS superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero wrote to community members in a June 9 email. “We owe our LGBTQ2SIA+ students nothing less: inspiring learning spaces where they can discover who they are, and be accepted for whoever that is.”
The issues organizers in and around Portland have dealt with this year line up with concerning national trends: a March survey from Marist found that support for criminalizing gender-affirming care has grown by 15 percentage points since 2021.
The country is also in the midst of a mental health crisis among LGBTQ+ teeneagers, 45 percent of whom contemplated dying by suicide in the last year.
While it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how common threats against LGBTQ+ events are, Shaw said her organization has had to be strategic about when and how they advertise events and draw up safety plans due to the threat posed by far right groups.
“Those groups are emboldened,” Shaw said. “That gives the queer community an increasingly worse case of a kind of tightening feeling in the chest—that we are being targeted by people who are not afraid of real violence.”
But Portela thinks the right-wing campaign against queer and trans communities over the last year-plus is having another effect, too.
"When I moved to The Dalles five years ago from Portland, there was nary a rainbow in sight," Portela said. "There was a secret queer Facebook group, you couldn't find a queer person for the life of you. You had to know somebody who knew somebody to get in. And now, with this increase in national hateful rhetoric, you're seeing rainbow flags pop up all over town.”
For Portela, that was made abundantly clear earlier this month. On June 3, CGPR was set to host a drag queen story time at the Hood River Hotel. The night before the event, while Portela and other CGPR employees were attending a burlesque show, they received word that a group of people were planning to protest the story hour and had specifically tagged people involved with the event on social media.
Portela said the CGPR team huddled to figure out whether they needed to cancel the event. They ultimately decided to post on their social media, spreading the information and asking people to show up at the hotel the next day to “form a human barrier” between attendees and protesters.
The reaction to the post took Portela by surprise.
“That was our most interacted-with post of all-time on our social media, surprisingly,” Portela said. “It doubled the [typical] amount of interactions, easily, within a few hours. And we posted it at 11 o’clock at night.”
The next day, as the event approached, the small group of protesters outside the hotel were vastly outnumbered by community members who lined the sidewalk of the hotel’s entrance and cheered each time parents and their children walked in, so they couldn’t hear what the protesters were shouting at them from across the street.
“It was pretty sketch,” Portela said. “We were really nervous. And instead of [canceling the event], we had so much community show up and protect us from those people. That’s what active allyship looks like—a lot of the people who showed up weren’t even queer. They were just community members who said, ‘That’s unacceptable.’”
CGPA also reported slurs hurled at participants of a Pride parade in The Dalles in late June, though the incident didn’t deter or interrupt the parade.
For Shaw, there are parallels to the region’s experiences dealing with the Proud Boys and other alt-right groups in recent years. Portela sounded a similar alarm.
“I think there needs to be more active allyship,” Portela said. “I think it can’t just be queer and trans people fighting the fight.”