Light a Fire 2022: Lifetime Achievement

Civil Rights Advocate Valerie Whittlesey Is Someone Who Says Yes

From her time as a civil rights volunteer in Arkansas to campaigning against anti-gay Measure 9 in Oregon, Whittlesey has worked for equality for decades.

By Fiona McCann December 30, 2022

In 1992, Oregon voters were asked to weigh in on ballot Measure 9, which would have required that all levels of government, including schools, recognize homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” But the measure’s supporters hadn’t reckoned with Valerie Whittlesey, a diminutive lesbian who took on its chief sponsor, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, with characteristic fearlessness.

“Valerie was right on the firing line,” says Robin Will, president of the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, recalling that Whittlesey was asked to debate notorious anti-gay Holocaust denier Scott Lively over the measure, which voters ultimately rejected. That debate spawned fresh death threats, as Whittlesey recalls. It didn’t stop her.

“Brave and unflappable,” is how Will describes this New Jersey–born septuagenarian who has worked in gay rights, at a rape crisis center, supporting the houseless, in environmental conservation, and against racism all the way back to the civil rights movement. Whittlesey lived in different places growing up, and her recollection of Ku Klux Klan–controlled towns and segregation is vivid to this day. Her experiences led to volunteer work for a civil rights organization in Little Rock, Arkansas, parking in a driveway of a neighborhing home so the KKK didn’t know she was in the building.

In Portland she helmed Phoenix Rising, which provided counseling and referral services to Oregon’s LGBTQ youth in the ’90s. Now retired after a long career in public health, she still volunteers in the LGBTQ+ community, with Cascade AIDS Project, for GLAPN, and in environmental conservation. But with characteristic humility, she downplays the work she has done and continues to do.

“It was just natural,” she says, “if people asked me to help out or to do something, to do it.”

Portland Monthly solicits nominations for the Light a Fire awards, our annual nonprofit honors, every summer and makes selections with the help of a panel of volunteer advisers from the local nonprofit community.  

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