After Election Day victories in four states, are Oregon voters ready to support same-sex marriage?
By Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
It was a refreshing — and historic — change. On Election Day 2012, supporters of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples found themselves choking back tears of joy rather than despair, and an unblemished record of over 30 hard-to-swallow defeats gave way to a clean sweep for marriage equality in Washington, Maryland, Maine, and Minnesota.
“I believe November 6, 2012, will be a date we remember,” Portland Gay Men’s Chorus Artistic Director Bob Mensel said during PGMC’s post-election town hall. Held Nov. 7 at First Congressional Church in Vancouver, the event served as an emotional and cathartic celebration of progress in the hard-fought battle for the right to marry.
Mensel likened the impact of the electoral victory to that of the Stonewall Riots and Harvey Milk’s assassination, adding that one day young people will ask: “Where were you when equality prevailed at the ballot box?”
With the passage of Referendum 74, a majority of Washington voters backed the pro-same-sex marriage law passed by the state’s legislators and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire earlier this year.
As a result, Kirsten Richter and Megan McDonagh’s nearly decade-long marriage will be legally recognized in the state they call home. The couple, who live up the street from First Congressional, came to the town hall the day after the election with already-forming plans to become legally wed in September 2013, on the nine-and-a-half-year anniversary of their church ceremony at a United Church of Christ in Oregon.
“I had no doubt that it would come in our lifetime,” Richter said of their newly-recognized civil right. “I didn’t quite expect it so soon.”
“I’m excited cause she gets to finally take my name,” McDonagh said, laughing as her wife flashed her a bemused smile.
The two agreed the victory also makes for a smoother path to another highly-anticipated milestone: “It makes it a lot easier for us now to have kids,” McDonagh noted before Richter finished her sentence, “now that we can protect them.”
“I also like that I’m able to breathe a little easier,” Richter added, “knowing that if something were to happen to one of us, we’re protected — at least in Washington and any other states that recognize us, we’re protected. Because that’s always a fear.”
OREGON’S TRAIL TO EQUALITY
Recognizing the level of support for Referendum 74 their neighbors to the south provided, Richter, who was born and raised in Oregon, and McDonagh, for whom the state became a second home and “refuge” after she came out, both enthusiastically pledged to aide in efforts to overturn the 2004 amendment to Oregon’s Constitution that resulted from the passage of anti-gay Ballot Measure 36.
Variations on “Oregon is next” were a frequent refrain throughout the town hall, and Basic Rights Oregon wasted no time in rallying the troops — sending its supporters a call to arms on Nov. 7 signed by Executive Director Jeana Frazzini.
“There were a lot of firsts last night,” the email read. “And we’re ready for more. Now it’s Oregon’s turn. Basic Rights Oregon is committed to leading the effort to be the first state to overturn a constitutional amendment banning marriage. The wins last night took monumental effort. In Washington alone, it took $11 million and more than 30 thousand volunteer hours. For Oregon to launch a 2014 ballot campaign, we need you to GET ENGAGED today!”
The message called for recipients to sign a pledge of support, help BRO raise $100,000 by year’s end, and commit to contributing 10 conversations toward a goal of 10,000 “about why marriage matters.”
“I didn’t in my wildest dreams expect all four states to prevail in these votes this year,” Frazzini told PQ Monthly during the town hall as the gay men’s chorus marked the triumphs with a love song. “It’s been such a long road, and to finally be in this moment is overwhelming and thrilling.”
Frazzini said she had “no regrets at all” about BRO’s decision not to push for a vote in Oregon this year.
“Every state has a different path, and it’s been important to have victories prior to today in the courts and in the legislatures, and now to have one proactively at the ballot,” she said, referring to Maine’s victory. “We’re right where we need to be to go forward and be the first state to overturn a constitutional amendment. It’s a tremendous undertaking, but the momentum is with us. I think having the opportunity to do the work in Washington state — with Oregon staff, Oregon volunteers, Oregon leadership right alongside Washington leaders — has prepared us like never before.”
NO ONE SAID IT WOULD BE EASY
Based on his observations of Oregon’s right wing and the divisions he perceives within the LGBTQ community, Cory L. Murphy is of the opinion that convincing the state’s voters to reverse Measure 36 might be more difficult than many expect. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a very personal reason to hope his reservations are unfounded.
Murphy and Matthew H. Helmkamp were married in Portland’s Old Church on Aug. 25, 2012, about a year after deciding they were ready to tie the knot.
“We knew we were right for one another and loved each other very much,” Murphy said. “One day I told him, ‘I’m not getting any younger and I am not waiting ‘til my 40s to get married.’ Of course I was joking, but it begged the question about why we were waiting and then it hit me: ‘Oregon isn’t going to pass marriage equality anytime soon. So why not solemnize our union now when we’re ready?’”
Murphy, a community organizer and advocate for Portland’s LGBTQ and African-American communities, as well as vice-chair of the Sexual Minorities Round Table, had witnessed too many defeats on the marriage equality front to be optimistic about Oregon’s timeline for progress.
“I was there in line at the [Multnomah] county building and witnessed for a friend’s marriage in 2004,” he recalled, “and I watched as the voters of this state took away our rights with Measure 36. I also was extremely disappointed that our community did not find relief from the Oregon Supreme Court in the ‘Li & Kennedy vs. State of Oregon’ case. Since then we have seen how electoral politics in Oregon have affected several issues — such as transportation, crime, job, taxation, and schools — which have led me to believe that more conservative elements in areas around the state are very well-organized and entrenched.”
In contrast with the far right’s strength, Murphy saw weaknesses in the pro-LGBTQ response. “When Measure 36 passed, it was completely obvious that the racial/ethnic — as well as socio-economic — divisions within Portland’s LGBT community suggest that the 1994 campaign did not build the requisite coalitions needed to run up totals in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties to block enactment of Measure 36,” he said. “These tangible divisions within our community along racial, gender, and class lines created alternate ‘queer’ universes in Oregon where some in our community can be part of coalition work and others are locked out. Why we lost Measure 36, among other tactical reasons, is because our base was divided — and until these universes come together, we will continue to lose.”
Murphy said he was consulted by community leaders as they deliberated whether to pursue an Oregon ballot measure this election year, and he agreed with their decision to wait. A victory this time around, he insisted, will require “all LGBT advocacy, pride, and service organizations becoming part of the narrative. Then we need to hold accountable the folks who keep expecting us to raise money and vote for them. I want to see the entire slate of Oregon elected officials on TV, radio, print, online, and in town halls across the entire state as part of an extended conversation with all Oregonians, not just the ones who agree with us. There is room in the electorate to get to a majority. We just haven’t done enough yet to reach these folks at home, work, at play, and in church.”
Individuals can get involved in the movement, Murphy continued, “by volunteering, as well as having conversation with their friends and family across the state. Also, everyone in the LGBT community that can safely do so should come out. Showing our numbers socially and politically and then using that power to elect legislators who will advocate for us is the best thing we can do to change hearts and minds.”