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HEARTS AND VOICES: VERA KATZ
Personal Recollections of Oregon Gay History
By George T. Nicola
Last updated February 10, 2011
1. A chance meeting
In 1972, Oregon gay activists sent questionnaires to those running for in the primary. This was done through the Second Foundation of Oregon, and the questionnaire asked how candidates would vote on gay civil rights issues.
Through some miscommunication, no questionnaires went out to legislative candidates. One spring day in 1972, I was sitting on my porch step when Vera Katz came walking down the street. She was obviously very tired from canvassing for her first Democratic primary run for the Oregon House of Representatives. When I found she had not received a questionnaire, I gave her a blank one. She filled it out positively without hesitation.
Years later while researching history, I found that there was a time just a few decades earlier that she had endured a much more rigorous trek. She was living with her parents in France when the Nazis seized the country. As Jews, they had to flee for their lives. So the child Vera walked with her parents and sister over the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain. Eventually they came here to the United States
2. Giving me a base in the state Capitol
Vera won the 1972 Democratic primary and then the general election. The following year, feminist lobbyist Gretchen Kafoury took me to Salem to show me how to lobby for a gay civil rights bill. Vera, a primary bill sponsor, allowed me to use her office as a base. With the help of Vera, Gretchen, and Gretchen’s husband at that time Steve Kafoury, I was able to get 17 bill sponsors. The bill failed in the House by just 2 votes short of a majority. However, the closeness of the vote showed that gay civil rights was an issue to be taken seriously.
3. Continued efforts on the state level
After 1974, I dropped out of the gay movement because I had to find a regular job. But according to gay activist Larry Copeland, it was Vera Katz who prompted the newly formed gay organization Portland Town Council ( PTC) to send a lobbyist to the next session of the Oregon Legislature. Vera did this while visiting Portland to support a ban on sexual orientation discrimination in city employment. She told the PTC people that she intended to introduce a new gay civil rights bill in the 1975 House. Because of that, PTC did send a lobbyist to Salem the next year.
Vera continued her strong commitment to gay civil right through her legislative career and eventually became Speaker of the House.
4. Mayor of Portland
In 1992, Vera was elected mayor of the City of Portland. In that capacity, she continued to support gay equality and dignity.
One significant contribution was her hiring of a young man named Sam Adams as her Chief of Staff. Adams soon confided in her that he was gay. It took a while for word of that to get out to the press, but Vera stood by him all the way.
In 2004, Sam was elected Portland City Commissioner, the first open gay person to be elected to the Portland City Council. In 2008, he was elected mayor. Portland became the largest U.S. city at that point to elect an openly gay person to that office.
Vera Katz is certainly one of the most important figures in the Oregon’s movement for LGBT rights.
More information on Vera can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Katz.
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