alternative press serving the lower columbia pacific region

How Basic Rights Oregon and rural campaigns across the state are building a majority for marriage equality

“This is an amazing time in history for the Pacific Northwest and the cause of equality,” say Jeana Frazzini, the Executive Director of the statewide LGBT organization, Basic Rights Oregon.  “For the first time ever, a sitting president has endorsed the freedom to marry, support is spreading across Oregon as we expand our majority for marriage, and Washington voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether to uphold legislation passed this year granting the freedom to marry to gay and lesbian couples.”

Basic Rights Oregon’s education campaign, Frazzini says, has led to a double-digit increase in support for marriage equality in Oregon.  “Each day, more and more Oregonians are looking into their hearts and deciding that treating others as you wish to be treated includes extending marriage to all caring and committed couples.”

The Astoria-based Clatsop County Marriage Equality Project, in over a year and half’s efforts, collected over 500 signatures in support of a marriage equality bill, setting up tables in numerous locations and events such as the Astoria Sunday Market, and Second Saturday Art Walk. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” says committee member Dinah Urell, and furthers, “the group did a lot of outreach work to make it happen and the results were inspiring – so many people who care about their LGBT family member’s health and welfare.”

But despite these national and local successes, the effort to win the freedom to marry in Oregon—and across the country—is not a slam-dunk.

While more Americans are becoming comfortable with the idea of allowing civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples—some national polls say support is now over 50-percent—no state has yet to pass marriage equality at the ballot.  Every state that has enacted marriage for same-sex couples so far went through their legislature or courts.

That’s simply not an option in Oregon. Because voters here passed Measure 36 in 2004, our constitution bans same sex marriage. The legislature cannot amend the constitution on its own, and courts have refused to take up the case, so it will take another vote of the people to remove the ban.

Basic Rights Oregon made the hard decision last fall to continue building support for the freedom to marry rather than going to the ballot in 2012. A few months later, voters in North Carolina approved a measure banning gay and lesbian couples in that state from civil marriage. And just over a month ago, marriage equality opponents in Washington gathered enough signatures to force a vote on the state’s recent freedom to marry legislation.

“Every day without the freedom to marry is hard,” says Frazzini. “But going to the ballot before we are confident we can win would be devastating. We heard overwhelmingly from our supporters this past fall that we should continue and deepen that education work to build a majority for marriage before heading to the ballot, as early as 2014.”

“I think it was the right decision to wait,” says Jeanne St. John, President of the Oregon Central Coast Chapter of Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). “As we have more conversations, we’re building more support across the state.”

President Obama’s recent public announcement, in which he came out in support of same-sex marriage, makes him certainly the most high-profile person that has changed their mind, but he’s not alone. All across Oregon and the nation, people are changing their hearts and minds as they come to realize that treating others as you wish to be treated includes allowing civil marriage for caring and committed same-sex couples.

“Three years ago, when BRO started doing events (in Lincoln County) around it, we had a good turn-out, but now we see much greater support for marriage equality,” says St. John.  She and others continue to collect pledges in support of marriage equality at Newport’s Saturday Market and other venues. “We now have seven welcoming churches that are also collecting pledges and last summer, we published an ad in the local paper that had the names of 400 residents of Lincoln County who supported the freedom to marry. We turned that into a poster that was displayed all over the county.”

While Oregon does not have a measure at the ballot this year, supporting Washington and other states is important to supporters of the freedom to marry in Oregon and across the country.  “With each state victory, we build a climate that empowers elected officials, judges and voters across this country to look into their hearts and decide to support the freedom for all caring and committed couples to marry,” says Frazzini. “That’s why we’re spending this year expanding support for the freedom to marry.”

According to Basic Rights Oregon, it is not enough to win marriage on the state level.  It is also important to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act at the national level. DOMA prevents same sex couples (even in states with marriage equality) from accessing any federal marriage rights. Winning at the federal level will not provide freedom to marry in Oregon until we change our state laws, and winning in Oregon will not provide Oregon couples with any federal recognition until DOMA is gone. It is necessary to do both—win in Oregon and overturn DOMA—and Basic Rights Oregon is making strides toward doing just that.

“Basic Rights Oregon is currently engaged in an ongoing, nationally-recognized education campaign to build support for the freedom to marry in Oregon,” says Frazzini. “We’re committed to having a dialogue with our friends, family and neighbors and, ultimately, winning the freedom to marry as early as 2014.”

BRO has been traveling Oregon, hosting a series of community conversations about marriage and working to expand community support for the freedom to marry.  Their mantra is: “One person at a time, one conversation at a time…expanding the majority for marriage in Oregon.”

BRO kicked off the summer with a marriage road trip. Field staff traveled the state, meeting with community-based volunteers about how to expand the majority for marriage in Oregon. In May and June alone, Basic Rights Oregon staff held community conversations in: Ashland, Astoria, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Newport, Eugene, Corvallis, Pendleton, La Grande, and Bend. One of those community conversations was held in Astoria on June 2nd.

“Basic Rights Oregon has met with folks in towns from Ashland to Pendleton to talk about how they are working to build a majority for marriage in their community and how to talk to our friends and neighbors about why marriage matters,” says Basic Rights Oregon Field Organizer Mike Grigsby. “We had a great meeting in Astoria…where we heard from local community members about how they’re working one conversation at a time to expand support for the freedom to marry.”

And what is the most important message that Grigsby wants to deliver? “My advice to anyone who wants to win the freedom to marry in Oregon is to talk to the people in your life about why marriage matters to all caring and committed couples. Many of the people we talk to across Oregon are slowly reconsidering their position on marriage equality as they talk to gay and lesbian couples they know.”

One of those couples having those conversations is from Astoria. Mindy Stokes and Katie Rathmell, who were present at the June 2nd meeting, appreciate the opportunity to discuss the issue with those in and outside their community.

“I think we are having the same conversation in rural areas as people are in bigger cities like Portland,” says Stokes. “We are in it for the same reason, to win over hearts and minds.”

Stokes said what she personally realized from the meeting was that some people like President Obama, go through an actual process before making up their mind about this issue.

“For some (undecided voters), marriage is something they take for granted,” says Stokes. “It’s something they don’t have to worry about it. It’s like the fact a fish in water doesn’t know its in water. It just swims along. That’s why it might take some people longer to realize we want to marry for similar reasons as other couples – to make a lifelong commitment to the person we love.”

Stokes learned something else from the meeting, something that has had a profound effect on her.  “When we talk to (undecided voters) about civil rights they get turned off,” says Stokes. “But they bond with us when we discuss the issue of ‘love.’ We really do have to win over people’s hearts before we can win over their minds.”

St. John agrees, and can’t wait to get the issue out in front of the voters in the coming months. “We need to get beyond theory and take action. I think people in Lincoln County will support us,” says St. Johns. “I think people here will work hard for it.’

It’s something St. Johns and her partner Kae Bates—both 69-years old they have been together for 30 years—have waited a lifetime for. “I didn’t think I would live long enough to see this but now I know it will absolutely happen,” says St. Johns. “It’s just a matter of time.”

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