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November 4th, 2009 NIGEL JAQUISS | Special Section Stories
 

My PDX: Thalia Zepatos

The gay rights crusader cut her teeth in Portland.

     
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BUTTON PUSHER: Zepatos wearing a pin from the campaign that lit her fire.
IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

Today, gay marriage is a defining political issue and one of the movement’s key figures is Thalia Zepatos, an elite political organizer who’s called Portland home for three decades.

Zepatos, now 54, says it was the city’s sense of optimism that originally brought her to Portland in 1979. “I was looking for a community where things might get better, not worse,” says Zepatos.

Her first home was a cavernous Northeast Portland rental. Decades ahead of the two-wheel craze, she rode her bike “everywhere.”

Zepatos’ activism quickly brought her in contact with fellow fledgling politicians and community organizers like Bev Stein, who went on to serve as a legislator and Multnomah County chairwoman, and Rhys Scholes, now an aide to County Chairman Ted Wheeler. They remain friends today.

Zepatos downed dolmas at Alexis and chowed more domestic fare at Old Wives’ Tales—bastions of Old Portland dining that still stand today. After evenings dancing, she repaired to Quality Pie on Northwest 23rd Avenue, the now-defunct eatery immortalized in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy that catered to an era’s late-night cravings.

To her, the biggest difference between Portland of the late ’70s and ’80s and Portland today is affordability. “Writers, musicians and artists could support themselves with part-time work,” Zepatos says. But, she, adds, “whole sections of downtown were bleak—buildings condemned and empty, especially near the west end of the Morrison Bridge.”

Despite the city’s physical and cultural evolution, Zepatos says the ethic that drew her to Portland remains. “After 30 years, I still feel that willingness to engage and a sense of fairness and optimism about the future that makes Oregon a special place.”

When Zepatos first arrived in town, she was a statewide organizer for the abortion rights group NARAL. And like many of the activists who championed choice, she later gravitated to the gay rights battle.

In 1988, Zepatos helped to defeat Measure 8, an attempt by the anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance to overturn a gubernatorial order that barred state employees from being fired for their sexual orientation. In 1992, the OCA reared its hateful head again, this time pushing Measure 9, which proposed amending the Oregon Constitution to state that homosexuality was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” Veteran Portlanders may remember the purple-and-white “No on 9” stickers that proliferated on Portland bumpers.

“It was that campaign that really engaged me in gay-rights issues,” says Zepatos, who is straight and married. “Oregon’s polite veneer was peeled back, and a lot of ugliness was exposed.”

After Measure 9 was defeated, thanks in no small part to Zepatos, she took time out to write a pair of travel books geared to women, A Journey of One’s Own and Adventures in Good Company. (Bali and her ancestral home, Greece, are her two favorite destinations). In 1996, she also co-wrote Women for a Change: A Grassroots Guide to Activism and Politics with local political consultant Liz Kaufman.

Today, she’s firmly back in the fray, fighting to legalize gay marriage. In February 2008, the National Collaborative, a consortium of foundations and gay rights groups, hired Zepatos to boost the chances of gay marriage legalization in six states—California, Iowa (where same-sex marriages are now legal), Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington. For her, marriage equality resonates like no other issue. “Many of the people in my generation were raised not to talk about politics, sex or religion at the table,” she says. “And this issue combines all three.”

 
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