Editor’s note: PQ Monthly interviews former Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn and Commissioners Lisa Naito, Serena Cruz Walsh and Maria Rojo de Steffey—who answer questions together for the first time since 2004.
By Byron Beck, Special to PQ Monthly
On Monday, March 8, 2004, Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito issued a press release that included the following statement: “I will not permit my staff and the people that work for me to be verbally harassed by the hateful and vulgar words of those who oppose Multnomah County’s new policy to legitimately issue marriage licenses to same sex couples as required by the Oregon Constitution. We have received personal threats that no one should have to tolerate.”
At the time Naito, her fellow commissioners, Serena Cruz Walsh, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Chair Diane Linn—and several employees of Multnomah County—were on the receiving end of obscene and abusive phone calls and emails that resulted from the County’s decision to comply with the Oregon Constitution by issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. Said Naito at the time: “I understand and appreciate that the idea of marriage between two people of the same sex may make some uncomfortable; the pace of events may also be unsettling. Given time, I am confident attitudes will shift. In the meantime, my office will continue to welcome all genuine views regarding same sex marriage from the constituents I am elected to serve.”
Flash forward to April 2014. Oregon is on the verge of allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in this state and Naito’s comment that “given time, attitudes will shift” almost seems to have been prophecy. But it came at a price both personally and professionally for these four women—who were amongst the first elected officials in the country to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. PQ Monthly reached out to the former Multnomah County Commissioners and asked them to share their thoughts on the eve of this momentous occasion. Here’s what they had to say:
PQ Monthly: Did you ever think it would take an entire decade for same-sex marriages to become reality in Oregon? That is if the court rules in favor of it?
Diane Linn: I didn’t think we’d see true marriage equity in my life time, until the line around the Multnomah Building put a face on the number of families, relationships, kids and supporters. They wanted equal treatment—then I thought it was possible, but until every state gets there, there is still work to be done.
Lisa Naito: I recall knowing at the time the court ruled against Multnomah County that our actions were on the right side of history, but I never imagined this amount of time would pass before marriage equality would finally become legal in Oregon.
Serena Cruz Walsh: I always believed the arguments against equal marriage were nonexistent, so I am surprised it took 10 years to be on the verge of equal marriage in Oregon. On the other hand, since there were no rational arguments to oppose the right to marry, it really was an issue of prejudice against gays and lesbians. Seen from that lens, it is thrilling that it only took ten years. Racial and ethnic civil rights movements have taken many more years to see the same kind of advances. It makes me very glad that couples don’t have to wait much longer to marry whomever they love.
Maria Rojo de Steffey: Yes, actually after it was shot down in Oregon, I realized it would take some time. But, after it became legal in so many other states, I knew we could get there eventually.
PQ: What has it been like for you to watch other states allow same-sex marriage before Oregon?
Cruz Walsh: It breaks my heart to watch this right appear on a state-by-state basis. People who love each other are the same whether they are from Oregon or from Utah. Everyone deserves the right to marry wherever they may live. Though I do celebrate each step toward equal marriage, my happiest day will be the day when all Americans have secured this right.
Naito: I have been cheering and celebrating each state’s victory for equality!
Rojo de Steffey: Of course it makes me happy to watch it happen in other states but sad that we had an incredible opportunity to be the first.
Linn: It’s been exhilarating to watch other states pass laws, measures and accept judicial decisions that embrace marriage equality. The best experience for me was New York because of the bi-partisan way they won the support in the legislature. We could have benefited from their experience here—but it was a different time and place. I wish Oregon could have been at the forefront of the formal change but that’s not how it worked out.
Has the issue of same-sex marriage in Multnomah County been a defining moment in your career? If so, how?
Naito: The backlash against us from those opposing equality pretty much ended any future we may have had in higher elective offices. I recall that right after Multnomah County began issuing same sex marriage licenses, The Oregonian called us “unfit for public office.” All our work in other areas was ignored; areas such as criminal justice reform, mental health care services, early childhood, services for elders and affordable housing.
Linn: The same sex marriage decision/announcement was definitely a defining moment in my career —extremely dynamic—classic case of best of times and worst of times. I was so happy for the community of people who celebrated and so excited about the progress it represented. At the same time, it was devastating to realize that the moderate middle that I thought did believe in equity wasn’t ready and blamed their discomfort on “the process.” And the media was brutal. It has taken me years to recover from the impact of that period including having to leave town for six years and completely rebuild my professional (and personal) life. Still I wouldn’t have made a different choice.
Cruz Walsh: When I lost my race for City Council in 2002, I settled back into my second term at the County. I was grateful that I was still in office and continued to have the opportunity to contribute at a government that I loved. All of that changed the day we issued the marriage licenses—I knew I was in the right place at the right time. Yes, issuing marriage licenses as a Multnomah County Commissioner was a defining moment in my career. It, by far, had the biggest impact of any issue that I worked on and though the actual marriages did not last long, I know that our efforts were a key part of the overall effort to secure equal marriage in Oregon. I will forever by proud of my colleagues and my involvement in the movement.
Rojo de Steffey: Yes, when I think back to all the things that I was able to accomplish, they all fall after the joy and excitement that I experienced with all the couple that were married in 2004. I knew it was the right thing to do and that we (the commissioners) were on the right side of history.
What was it like for you to see 3,000 same-sex couples get married in 2004 and what was it like to see those marriages invalidated?
Rojo de Steffey: It was amazing! Walking through the men and women standing in line waiting was indescribable. You had to be me! So much joy, crying, yelling, loving, hugging. I can’t put words into the feelings I experienced and what I saw in the men and women. Of course, it was sad to see the marriages invalidated, but I hold on to that special time as I am sure all those that were there that day hold on to their special feelings.
Linn: To see/know that 3000 couple chose to marry—most knowing that it likely would not last—was amazing. I have always been enamored by the courage of LGBTQ people to have faced such tough circumstances. Most couples I knew during that time wanted the opportunity to bring their families into legitimacy and be among the first in the country to do so. It takes perseverance to be part of a movement for justice and I saw couples willing to ride the rollercoaster in the name of progress.
Cruz Walsh: Both things made me cry. I shed tears of joy as I watched couples take the simple, human step of publicly committing to the person they loved. I will never forget talking to folks as they waited in line at the County. I went up to one couple on a particularly wet and dreary day and asked them how long they’d been waiting—I was asking them how long they’d waited in line—but one of the women responded, “Twenty-two years hon, twenty-two years.” There’s not much else to do but cry in the presence of such love and hardship. I also cried when the Oregon Supreme Court so cowardly invalidated those marriages. They could have easily ended all of the drama by following in Massachusetts’ footsteps and declared that the marriages were valid.
Naito: It was an amazing experience to witness the joy of the couples that married. The courts may have invalidated their certificates of marriages, but the courts could not invalidate the love and commitment of the couples.
Have you kept in touch with any of the couples married in 2004?
Naito: Yes, a few.
Rojo de Steffey: Yes. And, not one of them says they regret what they went through.
Cruz Walsh: Sure. The couples that were friends of mine, stayed friends of mine.
Linn: I knew many of the couples that married and am honored to have them part of my network of friends and family. I only attended two of the weddings—the very first—Mary Li’s and the a sweet couple I knew from the coast, but I chose to stay away from the weddings and celebrations so they could be about the couples and their families and friends—not about politics.
Do you know if any of them are planning to get married in the near future if it becomes legal in Oregon? And have you been invited to any of those weddings?
Naito: Not necessarily from people who were married at the time, but I have friends that are planning on getting married as soon as it is legal in Oregon. Just yesterday one dear friend said he has to plan his wedding with my schedule in mind so that I can be there to celebrate with him and his partner.
Rojo de Steffey: Most of the ones I know have been married in other states. And, yes I was invited and attended weddings out of state.
Linn: I’ve been to weddings since and look forward to many more.
Cruz Walsh: The most meaningful same sex marriage that I have had the privilege to attend was Lisa’s daughter’s wedding this past fall in Washington. Kirsten and Meriel’s wedding was beautiful: their love (and deep admiration and respect for each other) bore out in their glances and words to one another. It was simply two people who love each other making a public commitment to love one another for the rest of their lives. In that sense it was like any other wedding. On the other hand, everyone in attendance knew we were witnesses to a commitment not allowed in Oregon. We felt privileged to be a part of their ceremony.
What has it meant to be one of the early leaders in the marriage equality movement? And how you would like to be remembered in the history of this movement?
Rojo de Steffey: I don’t think about it that way—as an early leader. I think about those that were married in 2004 and look forward to a validation of their marriages in Oregon. I would like to be remembered as a woman who cares for social and economic justice for all, one who through love and bravery stood up to support people. I believe that we, the Commissioners, experienced one of the most amazing events in our tenure. We suffered for it but as you think about historical events, people do suffer for their beliefs and for doing the right thing.
Cruz Walsh: (It has meant) everything. My colleagues and I simply did the right thing: we stood up and were counted in the civil rights movement of our generation. I will forever be grateful that I got to play a very small part in the movement. People who love each other ought to be able to make their commitment to each other legal—it is a simple concept, so small and yet when it means that our society acknowledges your love, it is so very big.
Linn: Equity and justice for the LGBTQ community, women and people of color has been important to me for a long time and I was honored to have played a role. Leadership comes with a price and I hope more people are willing to participate going forward because we still have so much more to do. Frankly, I hope that what happened in Multnomah County in 2004—specifically BRO’s (Basic Rights Oregon) role, will be recognized in the chapter of movements so more people can see how important tough decisions made way before their time for important—it’s not a game, real lives are affected. For me, the people in my life I love—especially my kids (now young adults) know what I did and that’s all that matters. I also hope to be able to continue to contribute into the future.
Naito: The hardest thing for me has been to witness the discrimination and hatred that has been directed at same sex couples, their children and their families. (I would like to be remembered) as part of history, because that will mean that we have achieved full equality in Oregon.