Out of Stonewall and the celebration and power plays of the nascent Gay Liberation movement came openly gay and lesbian politicos who took on the difficult task of securing gay civil rights—the umbrella term for the LGBT community at the time – through the political process in their own state or hometown. Gerald (Jerry) K. Weller Jr. was one of those pioneers.
He died July 8 in Portland, Oregon at the age of 69.
Oregon decriminalized homosexuality in 1970, the third state in the country to abolish its sodomy law, just as Weller was graduating from Penn State University. He started his civil rights career in 1973 at age 25 when he helped organize Gays of Oakland for Bobby Seale for Mayor. Seale had co-founded the Black Panthers with Huey Newton and the two launched a number of social programs in Oakland, including the Oakland Community School for 150 poor children and a free breakfast program. In 1970, Newton officially called for all progressive movements –including the women’s movement and the gay rights movement to work together. Seale lost his mayoral race in a crowded field.
In 1975-1976, just as California decriminalized homosexuality, Weller became the Executive Director of the Portland Town Council, Oregon’s first gay rights legislative organization, and published the heralded booklet called A Legislative Guide to Gay Rights. In 1979, he helped found the Town Council Foundation, one of the first gay organizations to receive tax-exempt status, according Weller’s obituary in The Oregonian.
In 1982, as a mysterious new disease was claiming the lives of gay men, Weller co-founded the Right to Privacy political action committee serving Oregon’s LGBT communities.
With his political and lobbying experience, Weller left Oregon in 1983 to become the Executive Director of the Gay Rights National Lobby in Washington, D.C., whose members included Steve Endean, who founded the Human Rights Campaign Fund in 1980 to lobby and raise campaign funds for gay-supportive members of Congress and candidates as the political world turned more conservative under President Ronald Reagan. Weller was on the HRCF board.
“With Jerry Weller’s passing, our community has lost another giant. When few of us had the courage to be out and fighting the good fight, Jerry was there, ready to lead or simply to lend a helping hand. He was spirited, brave and selfless,” Vic Basile, HRCF’s first executive director, tells the Los Angeles Blade.
GRNL officially merged with HRCF in 1985, but Weller had already moved to Howard Brown Memorial Clinic in Chicago in 1984 to serve as executive director. There he fought the burgeoning AIDS crisis at what was then the largest health clinic serving gay men in the country.
But the AIDS crisis hit home in 1986 when Weller’s longtime partner Bruce Muller was diagnosed. Weller left Chicago and went home to Oregon to care for him until Muller died in 1991.
The following year came Measure 9, pushed by the intensely anti-gay Oregon Citizens Alliance. The ballot measure was described by civil rights attorney Charlie Hinkle as “the most vicious anti-gay and lesbian ballot measure that has ever existed in the United States.” Though the measure was defeated in the general election, the OCA successfully introduced numerous water-downed versions of the anti-gay initiative in several counties before being overturned by the state legislature. Efforts to repel OCA eventually led to the formation of Basic Rights Oregon.
Weller was working for Oregon OSHA in 1992 when Measure 9 hit the ballot.
“Jerry was very helpful in winning that campaign,” says his friend Bob Doyle, a fellow long-term HIV survivor who now lives in Palm Springs. “Jerry was a great help to me. I was organizing to get labor to come on board with us to fight the OCA and he had great connections to labor. He opened doors for me so I was able to get labor to get to see [Measure 9] as an issue for unions. I couldn’t have done that without Jerry.”
Wells also worked for the Oregon Health Division and the Oregon Bureau of Labor Civil Rights Division, ensuring there was no workplace discrimination against gays or people with HIV/AIDS. After he retired from government work in 2007, he went back into gay civil rights advocacy, serving on the ACLU/Oregon board and—having received a Master’s degree in journalism in 1986—became editor of the gay weekly City Week.
“Before Harvey Milk, Jerry was organizing in the state of Oregon. I first met him in 1976 when I was working on a primary campaign in Oregon, and he had organized Portland Town Council—and this was before we had more of a community—primarily a gay and some extent lesbian advocacy group for a civil rights bill in the state,” Doyle tells the Los Angeles Blade. “In the mid-70s, I was really struggling with whether I could become an activist or if I needed to be closeted. Jerry inspired me to become an activist. We stayed friends for all of our lives. He was integral to what happened in the state of Oregon. Jerry was a really key player in Oregon and in advancing our rights and protections.”