Review: ‘Ballot Measure 9’

"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 issues as human rights, cultural diversity and the American political system.

“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.

There’s a lot to be learned about grassroots democracy and the American political process from “Ballot Measure 9.” Along with Colorado, Oregon served as a test case for a statewide referendum by “family values” groups fighting to amend the state constitution 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, labeling homosexuals as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, perverse.” The 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 time to gay activists and 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 — concerning more than 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 gay-rights rallies in which coming out is called “the most important act of our lives.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, OCA used its connections to powerful national organizations to promote 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 and resulted in a tremendous increase in anti-gay violence and harassment. Says a straight woman, “The scariest thing is that we got used to being scared.”

In the end, Measure 9 was defeated (57% to 43%), 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.” Interviews with straights reveal deeply ingrained homophobia based on ignorance. Says one:”If you talk about homosexuality in the open, people will become homosexuals.”

Docu’s treatment is appropriately serious, but there is also 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 intellectual, what makes “Ballot Measure 9 ” particularly engrossing is its ability to engage viewers viscerally in the lives of its central personalities. Despite the 1992 triumph, docu’s urgency is undeniable, as its issues are far from being resolved.

Ballot Measure 9

Production

An Oregon Tape Project production. Produced, directed by Heather MacDonald. Executive producer, David Meieran. Regional producer, Linda Kliewer.

Crew

Camera (color), Ellen Hansen, others; editors, MacDonald, B.B. Jorissen; music, Julian Dylan Russell; associate producers, Jorissen, Esther Cassidy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Park City, Jan. 23, 1993. Running time: 71 MIN.
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