By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Marcy Westerling never intended to start the Rural Organizing Project. But in the early 1990s, as the reactionary right in rural Oregon began increasingly scapegoating LGBTQ people, she knew something needed to be done.
“It was very much a byproduct of living in a rural community, seeing the challenges of being a semi-out lesbian,” says Westerling, who lived in Scappoose at the time and only moved to Portland recently for health reasons. “When the [Oregon Citizens Alliance] and the anti-[gay] language started emerging as more and more a topic of conversation, I knew my community well enough to know there was no one to lead diffusing the anxiety around queers.”
The OCA was campaigning for Measure 9, a “no promo homo” initiative to change the state constitution that attracted national attention.
“All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism,” the proposed amendment read. “All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”
Rather than encouraging the isolated queers of rural Oregon to take on the OCA alone, thereby by jeopardizing their safety, Westerling started seeking out allies to build strength in numbers.
“I ran the only 24-hour crisis line for women in the community, so I had lots of connections throughout the county and had a sense of who would not be ok with this hysteria,” Westerling, 53, says. “We started with under a dozen people; by the end of the campaign we had over 500.”
Westerling is well-suited for this work, says ROP Executive Director Cara Shufelt, who calls the group’s founder “a force.”
“Marcy is very bold, she’s very visionary,” Shufelt says. “She’s the gal that really saw issues that were considered urban issues and realized there is a way to mobilize around them in rural communities.”
Though Westerling had been involved in conversations about homophobia through her work in the non-violence community, Measure 9 was a tipping point. Though the initiative failed to pass, subsequent campaigns by the OCA would put Westerling’s crisis-management skills to the test.
“There were so many cycles of ballot measure that that was a pretty long period of time that we went from crisis to crisis to crisis,” she says. The ROP also lost two of its organizers in 1995 — Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill — to a murder motivated, at least in part, by anti-gay bias.
Despite the onslaught of anti-gay attacks, the ROP maintained a broad vision rooted in democracy. Using experience gained as an organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Westerling built a network of independent human dignity organizations in rural communities across the state, united in their commitment to uphold the democratic values of majority rule, minority rights, an informed and educated public, and an adequate standard of living.
ROP found an early ally in the farm workers union PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) and newly-formed immigrant rights organization Causa.
“It behooves the queer community to look at who else is vulnerable for being scapegoated and say, ‘We remember what that’s like, that’s bad, and we have your back,’” Westerling says.
While the approach de jour of LGBTQ advocacy groups is “changing hearts and minds,” Westerling prefers to focus on advancing the values of democracy instead of pushing for acceptance. It’s easier to build a bridge when both sides are standing on common ground.
“It’s like, why should people be comfortable with what someone may or may not be doing sexually? It’s none of your business,” Westerling says. “We stick with what do we agree on and gradually try to get to the rest. Then [we] try to normalize things that people don’t have a familiarity with. Politically, we’re trying to frame it in terms of democracy.”
In that spirit of democracy, Westerling has committed herself to preserving the organization’s grassroots approach and serving on the frontlines alongside the organization’s many volunteers. (ROP’s paid staff fluctuates between three and five people.) Though she is no longer on staff, Westerling continues to dedicate herself to the cause of rural community organizing.
These days, however, her health requires that more of that work happen in an urban setting, often behind a computer. Westerling was diagnosed with metastasized ovarian cancer — considered a terminal condition — two years ago and moved to Portland to be closer to her doctors. She is straightforward about her declining health and her struggle to accept what that means for her organizing work.
“I’m kinda closing out my life. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean I’ll have to actually leave when my work is done,” Westerling says. “So much of my organizing has been about building relationships with people and saying, ‘If you will be your most courageous self I will be with you at all times.’ It’s hard when that promise becomes, ‘I will try to be by your side when I’m not puking my guts out and dying.’”
In 2010, Westerling was granted an Open Society Fellowship. She originally intended to use the fellowship to map rural progressive infrastructures in four states in an effort to build alliances and strengthen the individual efforts of isolated civic organizations. Because her health makes travel difficult, she has shifted focus to mentoring young organizers, documenting the history of ROP, and serving as an adviser to the organization.
With such a legacy of community organizing behind her, what words of wisdom does Westerling have for the next generation?
“I think one thing is to really really really be watchful of clique organizing — we find a pool of peers and feel like with this group of contacts we can get whatever we want,” Westerling says. “You don’t want to just build a movement with people who feel the same way. … Organizing is not about winning or losing, but staying in engagement.”
Learn more about the Rural Organizing Project by visiting www.rop.org.