A brief history of Oregon’s freedom to marry movement

GLAPN picBy George T. Nicola, Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN), Special to PQ Monthly

I came out in 1970 through the Portland Gay Liberation Front (GLF), Oregon’s first politically-oriented LGBTQ organization. At that time, we were so demonized that we were largely in survival mode.  Before a criminal code revision became effective in 1972, almost any homosexual conduct was a crime. Our major goals in the early 1970s were to eliminate anti-gay bigotry and job discrimination, and to help those whose self-esteems were devastated by homophobia.

But even then, things were happening in Portland that created families headed by same-sex couples. Pioneering lesbian attorney Cindy Cumfer recollects details of Portland’s primarily lesbian “women’s community” that congealed starting in 1970: “These women began creating some of the first lesbian families with children from heterosexual unions, donor insemination, or in later years formal adoption. It was definitely a genesis of the modern gay family/gay marriage movement.”

As time went on, many in our community sought to share in a formal structure that sealed their commitments and aided their need for mutual care. Portland GLF cofounder John Wilkinson later moved to Seattle where in 1995, he and his partner Dave Davenport cofounded Washington State’s marriage equality movement. That goal was successful in late 2012 and they married soon after.

But between 1978 and 2000, Oregonians endured about 34 anti-gay ballot measures.  None of those involved marriage but probably could have been used against it eventually. We survived those legal assaults because we and our allies responded with dignity and persistence, and we became stronger for it.

In 1991, five lesbian couples filed for marriage licenses with Multnomah County. Their requests were denied. But much of the related effort in that period went into securing domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples in the workplace. In 1998, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that all state and local governments must offer spousal benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

In early 2004, Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was quite moving to see so many gay men and lesbians waiting in line cheerfully in the chilly rain.  However, the issuances were soon stopped by court order and the licenses already issued were declared invalid. Later that year, Oregonians approved Measure 36, a state constitutional amendment which defined a marriage as being only between one man and one woman.

Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), which has been Oregon’s major group advocating for LGBTQ equality—since 1996, was able to secure the statewide enactment of a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in 2007. At the same time, they managed to get passage of a domestic partner statute allowing same-sex couples most but not all the benefits of marriage.

Because domestic partnerships are not equal to marriage, BRO began a multi-year process educating the public on why marriage was important to so many in our community. Ads featured images of loving and committed same-sex couples. That very humanizing strategy was exported to other states. It eventually resulted in the 2012 four state freedom to marry ballot measure victories. At the same time, both the successes themselves and the very personal messages that made them possible have also benefited gay people like me and many of my friends who have no personal desire to marry.

By early 2013, polls showed that a majority of Oregonians might now support marriage equality. So BRO began plans to launch what at the time seemed the only way to win the freedom to marry—an initiative to amend the state constitution to legalize it. To manage the process, BRO and other equality groups set up an umbrella organization called Oregon United for Marriage (OR4M).

OR4M has done a spectacular job mobilizing over 4,000 volunteers, gathering signatures, obtaining impressive endorsements, winning hearts and minds, and helping to raise support for our freedom to marry in Oregon to 55%. But it would still be laborious and expensive to extend these efforts to the Nov. 4 election—costing an estimated $10 million.

keller newlyweds (1)In the meantime, federal courts began to strike down same-sex marriage bans in other states. Late last year, attorneys Lake Perriguey and Lea Ann Easton filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene asking a judge to overturn Oregon’s ban. As federal court victories began to mount, Basic Rights Oregon determined that marriage equality in Oregon might be achieved through the federal courts before Nov. 2014. Basic Rights Education Fund became a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit with the same goal. The judge has consolidated the two lawsuits. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 23.

Only the State of Oregon can defend the ban, and the state’s top law enforcement official Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum refuses to do so. In fact, Rosenblum filed a brief in federal court arguing why the prohibition on same-sex marriage should be struck down.  For this and many other reasons, we stand a good chance of victory.

As a result, Oregon United for Marriage is holding onto their initiative signatures, pending the outcome of the court decision. In the meantime, the campaign is working to create the climate where a positive court ruling is likely. On April 22, there are six statewide vigils planned to show the courts that Oregon is ready for marriage.

Oregon United for Marriage is also working against a proposed voter initiative that would allow businesses to refuse to sell goods or services to same-sex couples because of who they are and whom they love. Oregon does not need a 36th anti-gay ballot measure.