Cold temperatures and driving rain could not keep hundreds of gay and lesbian couples from waiting outside Multnomah County headquarters for several hours Wednesday morning for their first chance to obtain a marriage license.
The crowds were prompted by the Multnomah County Commission’s decision to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Tuesday evening, making Portland the third city in the nation to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
By 9 a.m., the line of couples holding hands and clutching bouquets of flowers outside the building at 501 SE Hawthorne St. extended around three sides of the block. Many couples brought their children, who occasionally darted in and out of the crowd. People driving down Grand Avenue occasionally honked their horns or gave thumbs-up in support, prompting cheers from the crowd.
A sparse group of protesters shouted messages such as “God hates sodomites” from a an area cordoned off by police, but they were largely drowned out by the buzz of the couples who were caught up in the excitement, talking amongst themselves and taking pictures to document the day. One man offered them flowers.
Jennifer and Marico, who after Wednesday will share the surname Fayre, were among the couples waiting in line to obtain their license. The couple, who had an unofficial wedding two years ago, has been together for three and a half years, and owns a home together.
“It makes me so happy to know that this marriage to this person that I love can be recognized just as much as a marriage to a man,” Jennifer said with tears welling up in her eyes.
“I just want to make sure that she would be okay if something happened to me.”
“Its just ridiculous to have rights for some people but not others,” Marico added.
John Wise and his partner, Alan Laub, who have been together for 26 years, said they came to get their license because they were uncertain that the marriage license decision will survive opposition.
“For 26 years, any time I’ve filled out an application with a section asking for marital status, I’ve had to put ‘single’,” Wise said. “We’re not sure this opportunity will be here next week.”
Bonnie Tinker, director of Love Makes a Family, a same-sex marriage activism organization, was first in line with her partner, who she has been with for over 20 years.
“It has been very hard on our families that we haven’t had the social support that heterosexual couple do,” Tinker said. “This is strengthening the institution of marriage.”
The state’s first ever legally recognized same-sex marriages were held at the downtown Hilton hotel shortly after 10 a.m., in a ceremony arranged by Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), a non-profit organization that lobbies for rights of same-sex couples and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Mary Li, 40, and Becky Kennedy, 42, exchanged vows in a ceremony conducted by retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts while Kennedy held the couple’s nine-month-old daughter, Ava.
Following Li and Kennedy’s marriage was the marriage of Eric Warshaw and Stephen Knox, who have been together for ten years and have three children.
“I am honored to have been asked to oversee these ceremonies,” Roberts said after the wedding.
The Multnomah County Commission requested a legal opinion on the constitutionality of the County’s same-sex marriage policy after they were approached by BRO and the ACLU in January, according to commission Chairwoman Diane Linn
The ACLU and BRO decided to ask the commission to review its policy after the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared same-sex marriages to be constitutional, according to BRO Executive Director Roey Thorpe.
Linn then arrived at the decision to change county rules after the legal opinion issued by County Attorney Agnes Sowle indicated that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violates the Oregon constitution. The commission also sought a second legal opinion from the Portland law firm Stoel Rives, which agreed with Sowle’s opinion.
According to Sowles’ opinion, denying licenses to same sex couples violates Article I, Section 20 of the Oregon constitution, which states “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
Oregon is one of 12 states without laws explicitly defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Oregon law instead defines marriage as a “civil contract entered into in person by males at least 17 years of age and females at least 17 years of age.”
“The definition does not state specifically that the contract may only be entered into between partners of the opposite sex,” Sowle wrote in her opinion to the commission. “It merely identifies the qualifications of those who may enter the marriage contract.
Linn and three other county commissioners, Lisa Naito, Serena Cruz and Maria Rojo De Steffey explained their support of the decision at a press conference, Wednesday.
“It is our responsibility to legally recognize all of the families here in our community,” Cruz said. “I have taken an oath to uphold Oregon’s constitution, and that is what I am doing today.”
“Our actions today demonstrate our commitment to civil rights and respect for diversity in our community,” Naito said.
Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, who does not support the decision, was not included in the commission’s decision-making process, and declined to participate in Wednesday’s press conference. He did, however, say Tuesday night that he felt the decision had been made “clandestinely” without his knowledge.
Republican leaders also voiced their opposition to the commission’s decision.
“I’m very upset that this travesty is taking place in Oregon. It definitely is an insult to the voters and to the people,” Kevin Mannix, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, told the Associated Press.
Oregon has a turbulent history when it comes to gay rights issues.
Between 1988 and 2000, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, headed by Lon Mabon, put four statewide antigay rights initiatives on the ballot. Only one, which overturned an executive order by the governor prohibiting state government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, was approved by voters. The other three were defeated by narrow margins.
In 1998, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that state and local governments must grant spousal benefits to their employees’ same-sex domestic partners, and in 2000, Multnomah County began recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships.
This year, opponents of gay marriage have filed four versions of a proposed initiative that would prevent Oregon from recognizing gay marriages performed in another state.
The county’s decision has thrust Portland into the spotlight of a national debate on same-sex marriage that became more heated when the city of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a California state law defining marriage as an a union of one man and one woman. More than 3,400 same-sex couples have since been married in the city.
The events in San Francisco prompted President George W. Bush to call for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
“I am troubled by activist judges who are defining marriage. I have watched carefully what’s happened in San Francisco, where licenses were being issued even though the law states otherwise. I have consistently stated I’ll support law to protect marriage between a man and a woman,” Bush said at press conference in February.
In addition to San Francisco, the mayor of New Paltz, New York is facing criminal charges for marrying 25 same-sex couples without marriage licenses last Friday.
The issue of gay marriage will most likely continue to be a hot topic during the 2004 presidential campaign. While President Bush has stated staunch opposition to same-sex marriages, John Kerry, the Democrat candidate, has said that he opposes marriage for same-sex couples, but instead supports civil unions.