By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
On Feb. 14, the newly-formed coalition Oregon United for Marriage launched a historic campaign aimed at putting marriage equality on the ballot in November 2014.
The “Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection Act” would overturn the voter-approved 2008 constitutional amendment limiting marriage in Oregon to heterosexual couples. It would replace that ban with language affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry while allowing religious institutions to opt out of marriage-related services that conflict with their beliefs.
“I think it’s a huge deal to every couple and every family who has been counting on the ability to legally marry,” Jeana Frazzini, executive director for Basic Rights Oregon and the initiative’s chief petitioner, said shortly after signing the petition committee paperwork on Feb. 11. “On a political level, we’ll be the first state to proactively write the freedom to marry into our constitution.”
The fight for equality in Oregon will build on 2012’s historic victories, including the approval of marriage equality ballot measures in Washington, Maine, and Maryland, the defeat of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and the increasingly vocal support of President Barack Obama. Still, Oregon is unique in that a ballot measure is the only remaining avenue to achieve marriage equality — and success would require voters to reverse their previous position.
But efforts by Basic Rights Oregon and its partners to change hearts and minds on marriage equality seem to be paying off. According to a December 2012 Public Policy Polling poll, the tide is turning in Oregon — 54 percent of those surveyed said they would vote to legalize same-sex marriage (versus 40 percent opposed). Among voters under 45, the gap widens with 68 percent in favor (versus 30 percent).
“I think its very clear that in the eight or nine years since the initial ballot measure, Oregonians have evolved in their view of marriage equity,” Gov. John Kitzhaber said at the Portland launch event. “No longer are Oregonians content to have a constitution that discriminates against people because they’re gay, because they’re lesbian, because they’re transgender.”
With the wind at their backs, LGBTQ rights activists launched the campaign with a kickoff steeped in symbolism — organizers held 14 events across the state on a day celebrating both love and Oregon’s statehood. The four-hour Portland event at the Monaco Hotel included three waves of speakers, cupcakes, and champagne.
“On this day we take a historic step toward making Oregon more welcoming to loving couples and families. Like the Oregon Trail, this journey will have some challenges, but if fair-minded Oregonians stand united, the basic fairness of the freedom to marry the person you love will become part of the Oregon story,” former Governor Barbara Roberts said at the launch. “When the freedom to marry measure reaches the ballot in November of 2014, it will hopefully have passed the point of simply being a political issue and have become an Oregon decision based on respect — respect for love, for commitment, for fairness, and for families. I stand for love, and I stand for marriage.”
Roberts put that pledge in writing as she became one of the first Oregonians to sign the initiative petition. She was followed by Kitzhaber and joined by a long list of elected officials, community leaders, and registered voters.
Among those speaking — and signing — in support of marriage equality at the Portland event were Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen and the Multnomah County Commissioners, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Portland City Council members, Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian, and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler. Also represented were the Urban League of Portland, CAUSA Oregon, Pride at Work, and a number of labor unions.
OU4M surpassed the 1,000 signatures required to sponsor the petition by the end of the day. Once the measure language is approved, another 116,284 signatures will be required to qualify it for the ballot.
Of course, the marriage equality campaign is about more than signatures on paper — it’s about stories of love and commitment. Basic Rights Oregon Board Chair Vanessa Usui, accompanied by her partner, Kimberlee Stafford, spoke to those gathered at the Portland event about why marriage matters to her.
“Kim and I want to get married for similar reasons as many Oregonians. It’s about making a commitment in front of family and friends. Having them support us in our relationship and hold us accountable to the promises we make to one another,” Usui said, fighting back tears. “With your help, someday, our relationship will no longer be a political issue. It will just be two people who found the person they want to spend the rest of their life with, who found their soul mate and got married.”
Tyrone Waters, 48, says he hopes this day will come soon. He’s in a long-distance relationship with a man in Denver, where civil unions are currently working their way through the state legislature.
“I’m going to be 50 in two years and I would like to least have the opportunity available to get married if I so desire,” Waters says. “We should all be treated equally.”
Frazzini says the time is right to win marriage equality, but it will take a committed effort, including many millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours.
“We’ve been working to build support for so many years, now we’re ready,” Frazzini said. “No matter what the price tag is, I know we’ll come together as a community as we have in every campaign we’ve faced.”
To get involved in the campaign to win marriage equality, visit oregonunitedformarriage.org.
Originally published in PQ Monthly.