Social Sciences

Voice of Conscience

She fought for gay rights. She fought for civil rights. At 77, she’s just recorded her first album. Kathleen Saadat ’74 tells us the inside story of her remarkable life.

By Romel Hernandez | December 3, 2018

Portland’s Pride Parade has evolved into a (mostly) family-friendly affair in its 40+ years. Every June, rain or shine, tens of thousands throng downtown to cheer on stiletto-heeled drag queens on festive floats, rainbow-tutu-wearing marching bands, and dykes on bikes. It has become a major civic affair as well, featuring an array of politicians and community leaders.

It’s a far cry from the city’s very first gay pride march back in 1975. Kathleen Saadat ’74 helped organize the event, which drew fewer than 200 marchers. The event also brought out a crowd of protesters from the religious right wielding signs warning “Turn or burn!”

“I remember being scared to death,”  she says. “We were considered radical!”

While proud to see a cause once considered radical going mainstream, she is concerned the event seems to have become more of a party. She asks, “Where are the poltics?”

Now 77, Kathleen has spent four decades speaking truth to power as a social justice activist in Oregon. An outspoken advocate, she has championed the rights of women, communities of color, and LGBTQ people before that acronym even existed. In addition to marching in the first gay pride parade, she spearheaded the state government’s affirmative action agenda in the 1980s and the campaign to defeat the virulently antigay Measure 9 in 1992. More recently she led community oversight of police amid a public outcry over police violence and racism.

Oh, and she just released her first album as a singer. Love for Sale is a collection of jazz and pop standards recorded with internationally acclaimed big band Pink Martini. She also sometimes performs onstage as a guest of the company, led by old friend Thomas Lauderdale.

“Kathleen has been one of Oregon’s most dynamic and important civil rights leaders, and you can’t really separate her experience from her music,” Lauderdale says. “Her voice is so rich with the years she’s lived—you can hear heartbreak and joy and everything in between.”

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Kathleen has been rummaging through boxes in her basement, rediscovering long-forgotten letters and photos and newspaper clippings, even her 1973-74 student identification card from Reed. After a lifetime spent restlessly pressing onward to new challenges, she has decided at 77 that it is time to sort through the past, an exercise that is making her wistful. She’s trying to be practical about what to toss out and what to keep, but it’s not that easy.

“I’m a paper junkie, but there are memories associated with everything in those boxes,” she muses. “It brings back old friends, old loves, places you’ve lived, things you did or didn’t do.”

She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1940, growing up there as well as in Tennessee and Illinois. Those early years spent growing up in the Jim Crow-era South and Midwest, attending segregated public schools and sitting in the blacks-only sections of the movie theaters, would forge her social conscience. She says that she grew up “shy but angry.”

She was back in St. Louis in 1970 when a childhood friend urged her to check out Portland. Encouraged to attend Reed by a professor she met, she enrolled soon after that. In her 30s, she was not a “typical” Reedie, and she found college both inspiring and exasperating.

Being at Reed, she says, taught her to think critically and to be a better writer. She also came face to face with white privilege, encountering peers who made offhand racist remarks or who stole simply for the sake of stealing—“for no apparent reason, they had money in the bank.”

Her Reed years were transformative. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” she says. “It was illuminating, uplifting, painful, frustrating. I learned about people who were dramatically different from me. Most importantly I learned not what to think, but how to think.”

Returning to campus to deliver the 2015 commencement address, she challenged graduates: “Our world is not a sequence of dichotomies strung together by arguments. . . . The ability to deconstruct is not creativity. To improve the world, one must do more than live abstractly.”

She graduated in 1974 with a psychology degree, writing her thesis on family and community social services in the historically black Albina neighborhood of Portland. She settled down in the city, going on to work with the Urban League and other community organizations.

She also started to make her mark as an activist on several fronts. In addition to organizing Portland’s first gay rights march, Kathleen held various jobs with city and state government before getting tapped in 1987 to lead Oregon’s affirmative action office, overseeing initiatives to promote diversity and inclusivity. “Human differences—race, gender, sexuality, income—was always the foundation,” she says.

Perhaps the defining moment of Kathleen’s career, however, was the fight against Measure 9.

Conservative groups in 1992 put forth a ballot measure for an antigay amendment to the state constitution. The blatantly homophobic amendment called for banning civil rights protections based on sexual orientation, and instructed schools to teach that “homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism are abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse, and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.” Oregon became a flash point for the gay rights debate nationwide.

Kathleen was one of the most visible spokespeople of the No on 9 campaign. As a member of the campaign’s steering committee that developed political strategy, she crisscrossed the state to spread public awareness. And when she deemed the campaign was not doing enough to relate to the community of color, she formed African Americans Voting No on 9.

Throughout the grueling campaign she pushed for greater understanding. She remembers speaking to a Measure 9 supporter who was walking out of a meeting in rural Grants Pass.

“I told him to stay. I told him we are both human beings, we get to live on the planet at the same time and because of that, he should stay,” she says. “Afterwards he thanked me and said he knew more than he did before. I don’t know if we changed his vote, but for me the moment illustrated the importance of speaking with people with whom we don’t necessarily agree.”

She faced anonymous death threats during the campaign, but did not waver. “I had to decide,” she says, “whether I was going to live my life, or let somebody compromise my life.”

In the end Measure 9 was defeated by Oregon voters, 56-44 percent.

“I am proud of the work we did,” Kathleen says. “At the same time the pendulum never stops swinging. We need to stay on top of the issues. We need to keep doing more to reach out.”

Cliff Jones, a Portland activist who has worked with Kathleen since the ’80s, calls her a “connector.”  No matter the issue, he says, she strives to “reach across differences.”

“I describe her as velvet and steel,” Jones says. “She’s incredibly compassionate and sees the humanity in everyone, even those with whom she vehemently disagrees. At the same time, her mind is a matrix, thinking down and across and over and under, seeing every side of an issue.”

Kathleen’s musical collaboration with Pink Martini has political roots; she met bandleader Lauderdale when he was an intern at City Hall in the 1980s, where he would hear her singing in the hallways.  They stayed in touch over the years, making music together occasionally.  A few years ago they started recording songs that eventually became Love for Sale. The tunes hearken back to her youth singing along to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Her favorite cut is “For All We Know,“ with its poignant lyric, “I will hold out my hand/ And my heart will be in it.”

She is proud of the album, and is even starting to enjoy performing onstage.  She says, “I never aspired to to fame and fortune in the world of entertainment, so it is all a bit mystifying.”

She adds,  “Music is magical, the way it takes you places and gives you feelings you haven’t felt in a long time. I have had a hard life in many ways, but I never let it make me cynical.”

Tags: Alumni, Diversity/Inclusion, Service