1970s parade at UO. Photo courtesy Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon

Keep the Candle Burning

How the history of LGBTQ+ pride in Eugene transformed into the celebration it is today 

Parades of rainbow flags and marches celebrating the LGBTQ+ community’s rich history generally start nationwide in June. But in typical fashion, Eugene does things a bit differently. Instead, Pride month is August, after events nationwide die down, encouraging Eugeneans to celebrate into the late summer.

According to 38-year-old Brooks McLean, board treasurer and sponsorship coordinator of Eugene-Springfield Pride, an August Pride month in Eugene goes back into the early ’90s. It was never really official, but rather an informal agreement so that local organizers and participants could fully enjoy Pride month in June in places like San Francisco and Portland. 

McLean says that the most popular Eugene-Springfield Pride event, known as Pride in the Park, started as a picnic-type event that functioned more as a community gathering. A few years ago, specifically around the 2016 election that led to the Trump presidency, McLean says that it became much more prominent in the community. 

“It’s just exploded in size, and there’s so many people who want to get involved,” he says. “There were some protests at our last in-person event, and I think that really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that we still face a lot of resistance in the world. The problem has not been solved.”

Nationally, what’s now known as “Pride month” was first born in an old hotel in Greenwich Village known as the Stonewall Inn. People who identified as other than cisgender and heterosexual often used the Stonewall as a safe space. The owners of the Stonewall sold alcohol to anyone at the bar, even if it was a criminal offense to sell to homosexuals at the time. 

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall under a search warrant to investigate the illegal sale of alcohol, but patrons refused to leave, sparking a six-day-long protest. The Stonewall Uprising reflected years of activism. One year after the incident at the Stonewall Inn, the first Pride march ignited in the streets of New York City. 

The University of Oregon Libraries promoted an online tribute to Eugene’s lengthy history of LGBTQ+ activism for Pride Month this year. The exhibit was originally made in 2012 and spearheaded by UO Library Exhibit Curator Linda Long. She curated “Creating Change: Forty Years of LGBTQ Activism at the University of Oregon” to shine a light on the life and culture of UO’s queer community of the past 40 years. 

The exhibit highlights some of the most significant events on campus for LGBTQ+ rights. UO first publicly acknowledged gay men’s and lesbian women’s rights in the late 1970s, when it added sexual orientation to its policy regarding equal employment opportunities, opening doors for other protective measures to the local LGBTQ+ communities. 

It took Long about six months to put together the exhibit. She spent many hours sifting through photographs, paper documents and reports. It was laborious, but she says she felt incredibly proud once UO published it for the community to see. 

“Sometimes, because of either lack of interest or because of suppression, some stories aren’t told,” Long says. “The history is there, but it has to be presented so that it’s accessible to people so they can learn about the past.”

The exhibit documents the history of the effort to achieve equal rights on campus for faculty, staff and students. Long says that the adoption of Measure 8 in 1988 was one of the most discouraging measures in the movement. The measure was created by Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), and reversed previous legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation for state government employees. Measure 8 also prohibited job protection for gay people in state government. 

But shortly after the measure was introduced, Harriet Merrick, a lesbian employee at the UO, took the new measure to court. Merrick won the case. In 1992, Measure 8 was ruled unconstitutional by the Oregon Court of Appeals. 

After the Creating Change project, Long continued to use her passion for research in LGBTQ+ storytelling in 2018. Long and another UO faculty member, Judith Raiskin, created the Eugene Lesbian Oral History Project, a collection of narratives from older lesbians in Eugene. The project displayed the “lesbian mecca” that existed in Eugene in the ’60s through the ’90s — more than 80 women participated in the project. 

Long says she hopes that the project validates LGBTQ+ students and faculty. She says that anyone who comes into the library should feel comfortable, regardless of how they identify. A small LGBTQ+ support flag is taped on plexiglass of the Special Collections registration desk; it also includes black and brown stripes for a full range of inclusivity. 

“When I think of how these young students coming in might feel uncertain about where they are in this institution, I want them to see something that tells them that they’re welcome here,” she says. “They have every right to be here, just like everybody else. What looks like a little thing can mean a lot to an individual.” 

To celebrate Pride this year, Eugene Pride plans to continue to expand what used to be a small community gathering to a prominent festival in Alton Baker Park on Aug. 14.

McLean says the park will be filled with booths, live entertainment, vendors and a beer garden at the backside of the festival. One of the priorities this year will be spacing out all the events so that people won’t feel cramped for COVID-19 safety. Unlike other years, there will be two big stages for performances. 

One of the most important additions to this year, according to McLean, is the collaboration between Eugene Pride and Hop Valley. Through this collaboration, Hop Valley will hold events year-round, allowing Eugene Pride to raise money for the Aug. 14 festival and its LGBTQ+ scholarship funds. McLean says he hopes these year-round events will remind community members that advocating for LGBTQ+ rights shouldn’t be limited to a month.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, especially as it relates to trans kids and trans youth. Having all these laws passed around our country is a full-frontal assault on being trans in this country,” he says. “We have to keep that candle burning all year instead of just kind of focusing on it for a day and then moving on.”

Find out more about “Creating Change” at Blogs.UOregon.edu/CreatingChange and the Lesbian Oral History Project at OregonDigital.org/Sets/Eugene-Lesbian-Oral-History-Project .