How Oregon Eloped

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ROBBIE MCCLARAN FOR TIME

The First Couple: Newlyweds Mary Li and Rebecca Kennedy at home with their daughter Ava in Portland

You'll see gays kissing each other all week. Producers from the big networks will be in Massachusetts to broadcast what are billed as the first legal gay marriages in the U.S. But the stories won't be totally accurate: gay couples have already legally wed in the U.S., here in Oregon. In a little noticed decision last month, overshadowed by the news from Massachusetts (not to mention Iraq), Oregon Circuit Court Judge Frank Bearden ruled for the first time in U.S. history that a state must "accept and register" marriages of same-sex couples. In March and April, Multnomah County issued marriage licenses to 3,022 gay couples, some of whom sued after the state then refused to recognize those marriages. Bearden's ruling in their favor means that until a higher court says otherwise, those 6,044 lesbians and gays are as married as any heterosexuals who have tied the knot.

It was easy to miss the Oregon gay marriages. They began during a bewildering period earlier this year when four other localities — San Francisco; Sandoval County, N.M.; Asbury Park, N.J.; and New Paltz, N.Y.--also began recognizing same-sex marriages in one way or another. But the Oregon unions differ from the others significantly: no judge has authorized the other marriages, and in the four other states, authorities have intervened — in most cases swiftly — to stop the ceremonies. But in Oregon, a unique ruling upheld by the state supreme court in 1999 says government officials must meet an extraordinary burden to treat gays and straights differently — the same high burden required to justify disparate treatment of blacks and whites, or men and women.


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Recognizing that the state supreme court and the legislature need "time to make reasoned decisions" on the divisive marriage issue, Judge Bearden has postponed any further gay marriages. But he gave the legislature just 90 days after it next convenes, as soon as next month, to come up with a solution that protects gay couples' rights. (Bearden suggested civil unions.) If no action is taken, Multnomah can resume marrying same-sex couples.

The past few months have brought soaring comparisons between the recent gay weddings in Multnomah and elsewhere and the civil disobedience of the '60s. The Boston Globe called the U.S.'s 2004 gay marriages "acts of disobedience [fueling] the engine of social change." But the story of how Oregon managed to sneak ahead of Massachusetts in the marriage drama is not a story of outsiders fighting the system but of insiders using it. It is a story of how favoritism and influence work in politics just as well when liberal women run the show — the four Multnomah commissioners who orchestrated the gay marriages are female Democrats — as when bourbon-soaked men lorded over smoky back rooms.

But the victory may come at a cost. Oregonians are so angry at the commissioners that they could lose their jobs: the daily Oregonian has already endorsed the foes of two who face re-election May 18, and the other two are battling recall efforts. In the meantime, gays are celebrating. While it took Massachusetts activists three long years to win their marriage case in court, gay marriage was achieved in Oregon after just a few weeks of behind-the-scenes scheming.

The story begins not in Oregon but in Canada, where last July the top court in British Columbia — just an afternoon's drive from Multnomah County — legalized same-sex marriage. Hundreds of gay Oregonians began traveling north to wed. When they returned, flush with emotion, scores called Basic Rights Oregon (B.R.O.), the state's biggest gay group, demanding to know what it was doing to win marriage rights at home.

The answer: nothing. Though a few B.R.O. members had been pushing marriage for years, until British Columbia's decision, same-sex marriage didn't seem to be a viable possibility to many gay activists. But now some gay Oregonians had actual marriage licenses — Canadian ones, but still. And everyone knew the Massachusetts high court was wrestling with its marriage decision, one that many activists were predicting would be favorable. They knew their constitution, like the one in Massachusetts, included sweeping guarantees of equal protection. So while Multnomah gays had won health benefits and other rights through domestic partnership just four years before, now they wanted full-on marriage, and the task of getting it fell to Roey Thorpe, B.R.O.'s executive director.

Thorpe is a warm, Falstaffian 41-year-old who paints her nails fire-engine red. She has a mop of frizzy, streaked hair and a tree-of-life tattoo above her enormous left breast. Even adversaries acknowledge that Thorpe runs a shrewd, deeply entrenched organization. "B.R.O. has usually been on the defensive, but they have also been persistent," says Kevin Mannix, who chairs the state G.O.P. "This is an example of persistence paying off. Then again, nobody should expect to have the kind of secret access to public officials that occurred here."

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