Ballot Measure 9 (1993): Heather MacDonald’s Provocative Docu (LGBTQ Cinema)

Sundance Film Festival 1993 (Documentary Competition)–Ballot Measure 9, Heather MacDonald’s provocative documentary, provides an intriguing chronicle of what happened in Oregon during the 1992 campaign for the anti-gay ballot initiative.

Though the results are known, this important account also works effectively as a suspenseful tale, one that goes beyond gay rights to encompass such timely and broader issues as human rights, cultural diversity, and the American political system. Informative docu should get wide exposure on Public TV and video and could also be used as classroom material in schools.

There’s a lot to be learned about grassroots democracy and the American political process from Ballot Measure 9. Along with Colorado, Oregon served a test case for a statewide referendum by “family values” groups fighting to amend the state constitution in order to prevent and revoke laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.
In fact, Oregon’s measure went further than Colorado’s in its aggressive attempt to establish a link between homosexuality and pedophilia, dangerously labeling homosexuals as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, perverse.” The OCA (Oregon Citizen’s Alliance), which initiated the anti-gay ballot, even mandated that educational and other agencies teach and expose homosexuality in a denigrating way.

Producer-director MacDonald represents the hot issues from various perspectives, allowing equal voice–and time–to gay activists as well as to Lon Mabon, OCA’s chair and Measure 9’s sponsor, and other “Moral Majority” groups. Result is a balanced, if alarming account of deep prejudices–not only along sexual orientation–and growing divisiveness (“a culture war”) based on moral polarization.

MacDonald follows the different factions of the heated debate during an eight-month period, from April to the November elections. She records rallies, in which coming out is propagated as “the most important act of our lives.” Through truly grassroots campaign, in Oregon’s urban and rural communities, pic documents the support of parents of gays and lesbians and straights.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, OCA used its connections to powerful national organizations to propagate its cause, sending anti-gay videos that, as one lesbian says, “took stereotypes and made them grotesque caricatures.”

As the elections got closer, the campaign got nastier and nastier, with “a barrage of negative verbiage” that resulted in a tremendous increase in anti-gay violence, bashing and harassment. Says a straight woman, “the scariest thing is that we got used to be scared.”

In the end, Measure 9 was defeated (57 to 43 percent), but some alarming statistics are presented. The largest group voting “yes” were ages 30-44, citizens likely to have children in school, fearing that “homosexuality might be taught and transmitted.” Even more annoying are interviews with straights that reveal deeply ingrained homophobia based on ignorance. Says one: “If you talk about homosexuality in the open, people will become homosexuals.” And a senior citizen is afraid that “they can persuade my grandchild to be a lesbian.”

Docu’s treatment is appropriately serious, but there is also humor and comic relief. Blamed for every possible sin and crime, one lesbian says: “It’s not because I sleep with women that the world is falling apart.”

Though the arguments are moral and even intellectual, what makes Ballot Measure 9 particularly engrossing is its ability to engage the viewers viscerally in the lives of its central personae.

Despite the 1992 triumph, the docu’s urgency is still undeniable, as its issues are far from being resolved.

Note:

Please read my book if you are interested in LGBTQ cinema: