It's been just over a year since same-sex couples in Oregon won the legal right to marriage and, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a landmark decision on marriage equality sometime this month, fingers are crossed for a particularly festive Pride season.
But whether or not the Supreme Court declares that same-sex couples have an equal right to marriage, the fight for full legal and lived equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Oregonians, advocates say, is far from over.
"It's not just legislation [that matters], it's how the community accepts and understands [LGBT people]," explains Megan Stackhouse, president of the board for the Human Dignity Coalition, a decades-old LGBT advocacy group based in Central Oregon. "Oregon is really doing better than a lot of the states, but that doesn't mean that people have true lived equality."
It's that phrase, "lived equality," that is coming to define the struggle for LGBT rights as discriminatory laws and policies fall like dominos across the state and nation. It speaks to the idea that even in a state like Oregon, where LGBT people enjoy a relative wealth of legal protections, discrimination still occurs on a regular basis.
Further, while the freedom to marry has been characterized by media and activists alike as a galvanizing issue for the LGBT community, it is not the only battle nor—depending whom one asks—the most important. And yet, in recent years it has received the bulk of the funding and attention. As a result, the prospect that federal marriage equality is on the near horizon has prompted many supporters, and some members, of the LGBT community to ask, "What now?"
In some states, and among some national organizations, the clear focus is on non-discrimination ordinances and the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). But Oregonians have been protected against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation since the passage of the Oregon Equality Act of 2007. Bend passed its local ordinance even earlier, in 2004.
In Oregon, which boasts stronger than average legal and policy protections for LGBT people, what lies ahead is not so different from what came before: Improving the lives and legal rights of transgender individuals and LGBT people of color in particular remains a primary focus of the work of Basic Rights Oregon, the state's primary LGBT advocacy organization, according to Co-Director Jeana Frazzini.
"I think we've moved significant policy [while] marriage was at the forefront of the work, and the space is opening up for that to be more visible," Frazzini says.
She lists off recent accomplishments including increasing access to healthcare coverage related to gender transition, fighting off efforts to allow for religious exemptions to the Oregon Equality Act, and passing a ban on so-called therapeutic efforts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors.
"Our focus is very much on continuing to build and maintain a strong political voice for LGBTQ Oregonians," Frazzini says, which means ensuring that LGBT individuals are front and center in policy decisions and making sure those decisions reach people in their everyday lives.
And while marriage equality has become nearly synonymous with LGBT equality in the recent past, she doesn't see any one issue taking its place.
"There's no magic wand to change the experience of LGBTQ Oregonians for the better," she explains. "The challenges people face are much more complex."
LGBT people face barriers in all areas of life, from health and insurance systems to employment and education. And when gender and sexual minorities are also marginalized because of their race, class, gender, disability, age, economic status, etc., these challenges multiply.
For example, though the Oregon Insurance Division issued a memo in 2013 banning insurance providers from denying transgender patients medically necessary treatments that are available to other patients, that doesn't mean they are actually receiving needed medical services. For many transgender folks, especially those living in more rural areas, finding a local doctor who is able and willing to provide care can be tricky.
In a recent national survey of transgender people, almost 1 in 5 reported being denied medical care because of their gender identity and fully half said they had to educate their doctor in how to care for them. As a result, more than a quarter of those surveyed said they delayed necessary medical care for fear of discrimination.
Bend's LGBT community currently relies on word of mouth referrals to competent medical providers. However, because there are so few locally, many providers have lengthy waiting lists. And that's not because lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have highly specialized medical needs. Rather, they are seeking care that is culturally competent. In other words: A gynecologist that doesn't assume her patient sleeps with men, or a general practitioner who calls his patient by the correct name and pronoun.
For transgender people in particular, access to medical and mental healthcare is not just a matter of wellness. It can impact their ability to secure accurate personal identification.
Case in point: until Basic Rights Oregon helped tweak the requirements for changing one's gender marker with the Department of Motor Vehicles, transgender people living in Bend had to provide a letter of support from the one and only local counselor on the DMV's official list of approved therapists.
The Oregon Equality Act prohibits employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, but it's challenging to prove discrimination in hiring.
Last fall, a transgender individual named Sorin Lorne Thomas filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), alleging that Bend-based New Visions Wilderness—a wilderness therapy program—fired Thomas after learning about Thomas' transgender identity.
It's the fear of responses like this, and often-persistent challenges in finding work, that pushes many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and particularly transgender people to look for work elsewhere.
"Here in Central Oregon, it's incredibly difficult for people in [gender] transition to find employment," Stackhouse says. "A lot of trans people I know have relocated to the [Willamette] Valley."
And even when transgender individuals find employment, the work environment can be toxic. In the National Trans Discrimination Survey, nearly every respondent (90 percent) said they had been harassed at work because of their gender or remained closeted to avoid harassment. As a result, transgender people are twice as likely to be unemployed; for trans people of color, unemployment rates are four times the national average.
In a competitive job and housing market, being LGBT can make the difference between gainful employment and secure housing, and unemployment and homelessness.
A similar trend exists when it comes to marriage. Though same-sex couples can legally wed anywhere in the state, many couples don't feel comfortable getting hitched in their hometown.
"Even with the freedom to marry being the law of the land here in Oregon, we still see people travelling to bigger cities because they don't feel safe," Frazzini says.
Nearly two years ago, a bakery in Gresham refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple's wedding, citing what they saw as their constitutional freedom of religion. The couple filed a complaint with the state, and the story went viral; a glaring example that equal treatment under the law does not always translate into equal treatment out in the world.
Leveraging legal victories
Still, those legal protections are not meaningless. Frazzini says they have both proactive and reactive impacts on the lives of LGBT people in Oregon. On the one hand, she says Basic Rights Oregon can use the laws to remind institutions and individuals of their legal obligation to LGBT individuals. But the laws have also prompted businesses and organizations to reach out to BRO for help improving their policies and practices.
Beyond encouraging fuller enforcement of the laws already on the books, Frazzini says BRO is working on a number of smaller issues that, while less flashy than marriage equality, help fill in the gaps. These include working with the Oregon Student Association to track sexual orientation and gender identity in higher education, updating the state's marriage statute to be gender neutral, and adjusting parenting statutes to grant more equal rights to non-biological parents.
Closer to home, the Human Dignity Coalition is focusing on some of the LGBT community's most vulnerable members.
"The biggest thing we're working on right now is transgender support," says HDC Board President Megan Stackhouse.
That includes both an ongoing peer support group for transgender adults as well as plans in the works for a "full spectrum" group for youth and their families.
"[The idea] was brought to us by the parent of a trans child in grade school," Stackhouse explains. "There are a lot of school-aged trans children in this community."
She says HDC is trying to counter a national trend of violence against members of the LGBT community. In the first eight weeks of 2015, there were eight publicized murders of transgender women in the United States. And transgender individuals face high rates of assault and suicide.
"There's been a lot of violence across the United States," Stackhouse says, "and we want to make sure Central Oregon feels like a safe space."
To that end, HDC is also focused on supporting LGBT youth through Gay-Straight Alliances at local schools and by helping young people develop leadership skills. She notes that the Pride booth for a service called "I'll Go With You"—where allies offer to accompany transgender friends to the restroom—is being run by a 15-year-old.
Why the bathroom buddy system? Using gender-specific spaces like public restrooms can be anxiety-inducing at best and dangerous at worst for people whose outward appearance seems to depart from the stick figure outside the restroom door. In some states, lawmakers are trying to pass legislation that would bar transgender individuals from using facilities that match their gender, and even going so far as to provide a "reward" for turning someone in.
In Oregon, state law upholds the right of transgender folks to use the restroom, locker room, or shelter that matches their gender identity, but that doesn't prevent people from trying to be the potty police.
But locally, youth have been at the forefront of ensuring everyone can pee in peace. Members of the Mt. View High School GSA recently successfully petitioned for a gender neutral restroom on campus to accommodate those students who might not feel comfortable using the boys' or girls' bathrooms.
"Schools are definitely safer and more accepting," says HDC's Megan Stackhouse, who grew up in Central Oregon and attended Bend High School. On the whole, she says she's seen incredible progress in her 30-some years.
In high school, she says she watched her LGBT classmates go through so-called "conversion" therapy and be subjected to physical violence because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. Today, she says a willingness to talk openly about these issues is contributing to meaningful change.
"[LGBT equality] is a conversation people are actually having now, as opposed to a conversation people are staying away from," Stackhouse explains.
Thanks to that increasing awareness and understanding, she says, it's now possible for two women to hold hands in Bend and "not necessarily [be] in fear of violence."
"We're no longer hearing people yell 'dyke' or 'fag' out of car windows," she adds, recounting a time when she had bottles thrown at her by a passing vehicle.
Stackhouse also looks to the growth of Central Oregon Pride as a sign of how things have changed. The first celebration in 2004 was a low-key picnic in the park, with no advertising or rainbow flags. Attendees were concerned the wrong people would catch wind of the event.
Last year, Central Oregon Pride brought an estimated 2,000 people to Drake Park—and nearly as many rainbow flags. And while the celebration has attracted protestors in the past, Stackhouse said none showed up last year; a trend she's hoping will continue.
"People want us there," she says, pointing to a upward trend in the number of event sponsors and the size of their contributions. This year's event—scheduled for June 20—has attracted more than $20,000 in cash and in-kind sponsorships.
And while Stackhouse and Frazzini agree that the fight is not yet over, they both recognize that the tide has turned in favor of LGBT equality.
"Now we have churches at Pride," Stackhouse says. "When you have one person with a sign that says 'God hates fags,' they're the person on the outside."
Central Oregon Pride
Noon to 6 pm, Saturday, June 20