Nothing Left to Lose: A Look at Oregon’s Fight for Same-Sex Marriage

By Renée LaChance, Special for PQ Monthly

Editor’s note: LaChance, former and founding Just Out publisher, penned this in light of recent developments surrounding same-sex marriage in Oregon–which seem to have accelerated to dizzying speeds. –DB

In the early 90s, I joined a group of lesbians and gay men applying for licenses to marry in Multnomah County. While video cameras rolled, same-sex couple after same-sex couple stepped up to the counter, asked for a marriage license application, and were told they could not get married in Oregon. It was all carefully orchestrated and it was a brave and radical act for each of us who participated. Though I knew we were only there to make a political statement, the rejection and the overt discrimination broke a piece of my heart.

Fast forward to 2004. Multnomah County commissioners decide to allow same-sex couples to marry on the heels of San Francisco having done the same. I will never forget standing in line with my beloved outside the Multnomah County offices with other gay couples waiting to be issued licenses to marry. This time, the clerk would say yes. The atmosphere was euphoric.

My beloved and I drove to Portland from our home in Yachats to be part of history. We knew Multnomah County’s decision to allow gay people to marry wouldn’t stand, but we were determined to be counted. Joined by good friends and hundreds of other couples, we were embraced by an aura of camaraderie seldom experienced. After hours standing in line watching others say “I do” and cheering each newlywed couple, it was our turn to walk up to the counter. As we stepped into the clerk’s office we started singing the chorus of Bette Midler’s song, “Going to the chapel and we’re going to get married.” The dozens of people in the room sang with us and the song was carried person by person out into the hall until everyone within earshot had joined in. There was not a dry eye in the house.

It had been just over a decade since Ballot Measures 9 and 13 waged war on our community. When San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses, everything seemed possible again. Oregon’s queer community had finally healed enough to be optimistic. Day after day for the two weeks San Francisco allowed same-sex couples to marry, we saw images on the news of lesbians and gay men standing in line, cheering, singing, getting married—who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones watching what happened in San Francisco. One week after Mayor Gavon Newsom allowed city clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and two weeks before Multnomah County did the same, The Defense of Marriage Coalition banded together and filed a ballot initiative in Oregon to add a clause to the constitution limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

As news of the filing of the DOMA initiative came to light, the director of Basic Rights Oregon, Roey Thorpe, took a brave step. She asked Multnomah County commissioners what they would do when a lesbian or gay couple came up to the counter asking for a marriage license. That set a series of events into motion that led to that brief, yet electric, celebration of freedom. Predictably, shortly after they began, the marriages were halted.

Ballot Measure 36, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, made it to the ballot that year and ultimately became law. Basic Rights Oregon was prepared and ready to lead the fight. Our community would endure attacks spurred by the rhetoric of the right that bashed and bullied us. Supporters of the freedom to marry who lived in rural areas took the brunt of the flack, just as they did during Ballot Measure 9. (Watch the video, see links below.) We lost the fight on Ballot Measure 36.

Over the next decade, as our community healed once again, Basic Rights Oregon focused on educational campaigns to build support for LGBTQ equality, legal fights challenging Ballot Measure 36, and working on social justice for all. It built coalitions among allies of religious communities and communities of color. It secured health care for transgender people and worked to pass anti-bullying legislation. Basic Rights Oregon never stopped working for Oregon’s LGBTQ community.

In 2012 it looked like Oregon voters might be ready to rescind Ballot Measure 36. Sure we could handle a win, but was Oregon’s queer community prepared in the event of defeat? Rural Oregon certainly wasn’t and liberal Portland and Eugene were just barely recovered from the fight of 2004. The decision was made to wait.

It has been 10 years since Oregonians first tasted the freedom to marry. We have the signatures necessary for a ballot initiative and months to turn them in. We have a lawsuit in the federal courts. We have polls indicating a win at the ballot and multiple federal court cases have been decided declaring DOMA laws unconstitutional. Whether it is decided by the federal court or by state ballot, our time has come. Same-sex couples will be able to marry this year in Oregon.

News media and individuals may question the necessity or wisdom of every step to this victory. In Oregon we have certainly learned that creating change that lasts requires multiple strategies working simultaneously. We must remember every hour volunteered, every dollar donated and every conversation about the freedom to marry was necessary to reach this end.  We must keep working together because there is still much work to do.

I am grateful Basic Rights Oregon and its legions of supporters will be there leading the way as the fight for social justice for all people continues even after we secure the legal right to say “I do.”

ShowLetterRenée LaChance is a native Oregonian, the founding publisher of Just Out and has been around the block a few times. She is a serial entrepreneur with several businesses including a construction company called Sustainable Adaptations.

Editor’s note: We implore you to take the time to watch the videos LaChance links to below.

Photo credit: Beverly James Neel


Streaming documentary Ballot Measure 9: 

A timeline chronicling the long journey to where we are today:

1993 (filed) – 1998 (decision) —Tanner v. OHSU: Landmark Legal Decision Establishing Relationship Rights in Oregon
Filed in 1993, the ACLU of Oregon assembled this case which marked the beginning of the legal conversation on the rights and recognition of same-sex couples in Oregon. The Tanner case was the first in the nation to decide that government is constitutionally required to recognize domestic partnerships. The Court ruled the Oregon Bill of Rights (Art. I, sec. 20 – Equal Privileges and Immunities) required all public entities to provide the same benefits to the domestic partners of their gay and lesbian employees that are provided to the spouses of married employees. Basic Rights Oregon was not involved in the case.

1999—Proposed “Defense of Marriage” Amendment Referral
Basic Rights Oregon led the lobbying effort to defeat a proposed Constitutional Amendment for the November 2000 ballot with the help and support of the ACLU. HJR 4 passed the House and was narrowly defeated in the Senate thanks to a bi-partisan coalition that opposed it.

1999—Basic Rights Oregon Legal Group is Established
A group of volunteer lawyers begins to meet with Basic Rights Oregon and two ACLU staff members to develop legal strategies to achieve relationship rights and marriage based on the Tanner decision.

1999—Proposed Ban on trans-inclusive health care coverage in Oregon Health Plan
Basic Rights Oregon worked with 3 moderate Republican legislators to successfully kill this bill in committee.

1999—The City of Ashland Enacts Domestic Partnership Registry

2000—The City of Portland Enacts Domestic Partnership Registry
Basic Rights Oregon Legal Group works with the City of Portland to establish a domestic partnership registry. (7/27/00)

2000—City of Portland Updates Non-discrimination Ordinance
Basic Rights Oregon Legal Group works with the City of Portland to add gender identity to existing non-discrimination ordinance. (12/21/00)

2003—Legislation to Add Gender Identity to the State Hate Crimes Law
Basic Rights Oregon introduced legislation after Loni Okaruru, a trans woman, was murdered in Washington County. The bill was granted a public hearing. Speaker Karen Minnis killed the bill in committee.

2003 —The City of Eugene Enacts Domestic Partnership Registry

2004—Start of San Francisco Marriages
Feb 12 to March 11, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allows same-sex marriages and spurs national debate. Timing drives (Oregon) Defense of Marriage Coalition into action. One week later they file Marriage Ban in Oregon.

2004—(Oregon) Defense of Marriage Coalition Files DOMA Initiative(s)
Feb 19, 2004 IP 146 Defense of Marriage Amendment
Feb 19, 2004 IP 147 Affirmation of Marriage Constitutional Amendment
Feb 19, 2004 IP 148 Affirmation of Marriage Act Feb 19, 2004 IP 149 Defense of Marriage Act
Mar 2, 2004 IP 150 Constitutional Definition of Marriage (future M 36)

2004—Multnomah County Marriages Begin

March 3, 2004, Multnomah County legal counsel determines state marriage statute unconstitutional; Legislative Counsel makes similar finding. Benton County temporarily stops issuing marriage licenses to anyone gay or straight until the legal issues can be determined.

2004—Li and Kennedy v. State of Oregon
March 24, 2004, the ACLU, on behalf of nine same-sex couples and Basic Rights Oregon, sued the State of Oregon in Multnomah County Circuit court challenging the Oregon marriage statute that discriminates against same-sex couples by denying them marriage and the rights and protections that come with it.

2004—Measure 36 Qualifies for the Ballot
June 30, 2004

2004—Measure 36 Passes and Oregon’s Constitution is Amended
November 2004 Oregon and ten other states pass bans on marriage at the ballot box, in addition to two other states who did so earlier, making a total of 13 states banning same-sex marriage.

2005—Oregon Supreme Court Voids Oregon Marriages
April 14, 2005 the court declared the case moot based on M36 and invalidated the marriages.

2005—Omnibus Non-Discrimination and Civil Union Legislation
Basic Rights Oregon introduced SB 1000, which was a trans-inclusive omnibus non-discrimination, as well as, civil unions for same-sex couples. The bill passed the Senate but was killed in the House by Speaker Karen Minnis.

2006—Parman v. Oregon
Basic Rights Oregon worked with a lesbian couple treated differently under state law establishing parentage and accurate birth certificates for their children. Case was won.

2007—Oregon Equality Act and Oregon Family Fairness Act
Basic Rights Oregon worked with the Governor’s Office to establish the Oregon Equality Taskforce who forwarded a recommendation to draft legislation on non-discrimination and relationship recognition. Basic Rights Oregon led the lobby effort with a broad coalition (including the ACLU) to pass these two bills into law and the Governor signed them.

2007—Adams v. Edie; Pinkerton/English v. PERS
Basic Rights Oregon Legal Group volunteer attorney represented parties to challenge the Public Employee Retirement System for treating their relationships differently than employees with spouses.

2008—Martinez v. Kulongoski
May 2008, this case was filed via Basic Rights Oregon’s Legal Advisory Group and ACLU filed an amicus brief seeking to invalidate Ballot Measure 36. Ultimately the case was refused a hearing by the Oregon Supreme Court and the amendment was allowed to stand. (2009)

2009—Expand Oregon’s Anti-Bullying Law
Basic Rights Oregon led the effort with the Safe Schools Coalition to update and improve the state anti-bullying law adding sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill passed both House and Senate and was signed into law.

2010—Groundbreaking Marriage Research
Basic Rights Oregon conducts groundbreaking research that shapes a new message for the marriage movement. This effort is credited by state and national groups as “cracking the code” and is adopted by successful marriage campaigns around the country.

2011—Oregon’s Marriage Public Education Campaign
Basic Rights Oregon continues ongoing statewide education program to build public support for marriage, but state and national leaders determine Oregonians are not quite ready to vote for marriage. Basic Rights Oregon decides to extend its education campaign.

2012—Four States Win Marriage at Ballot Box
Using the messaging playbook developed in Oregon, marriage campaigns in four other states are able to secure victories at the ballot.

2013—Oregon United for Marriage Launches
Basic Rights Oregon convenes state and national partners and creates the Oregon United for Marriage campaign, kicking off signature gathering for the 2014 ballot.

2013 – U.S.A. v. Windsor, Hollingsworth v. Perry
(June) The US Supreme Court rules in the ACLU’s Windsor case that section 2 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the federal constitution. In Perry, the Court allows marriages to go forward in California but does not address whether state bans on marriage violate the 14th Amendment, leaving each state to determine whether same-sex couples can marry. While the Perry and Windsor cases, were dramatic victories for the marriage movement, many legal experts cautioned that the Supreme Court was clearly reluctant to interfere with – or foreclose – the ongoing political debate over marriage in the states.

2013 – Geiger lawsuit filed
October 15, two same-sex couples file a federal lawsuit challenging constitutionality of Measure 36.

2013 – Oregon Attorney General Opinion
October 16, The Oregon Attorney General issued an opinion that the federal constitution requires state agencies to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples performed in other jurisdictions.

2013—Rummell and West v. Kitzhaber filed
December 19, following the A-G opinion and in light of a rapidly changing landscape of legal challenges across the country, Basic Rights Oregon and the ACLU of Oregon file a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Measure 36 on behalf of two more couples and Basic Rights Education Fund.

2014—Heightened Scrutiny Ruling…Game Changer
In January, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rules that sexual orientation discrimination warrants “heightened scrutiny,” giving the marriage litigation another monumental boost. Within weeks, Attorneys General in Oregon and Nevada (both 9th Circuit states) announce they will not defend their respective marriage bans. The Oregon United for Marriage campaign decides it will hold on to marriage petition signatures for a few months in order to allow the court to weigh the pending challenges to Measure 36.