Meriel Darzen, a 30-year-old Bend attorney, is sitting behind her silver MacBook, finishing a business meeting with an older gentleman at Palate, a local coffee bar, when her partner, Kirsten Naito, walks in. Darzen introduces her partner as such—"This is my partner"—concludes the meeting and invites me to their table. Naito, also 30 and also an attorney in Bend, explains that she and Darzen are engaged and, come September, plan to be married in Washington, where voters approved same-sex marriage in the last election.
Together, Darzen and Naito enthusiastically outline the wedding-planning process (and the daunting list of what's left to be done), and talk about what the ceremony and marriage license will mean to them, and how they see Bend fitting into the Oregon initiative to legalize same-sex marriage. They listen intently, smile easily, and often finish each other's sentences (in an endearing, not annoying, way). Sometimes Naito places her hand on the shoulder of Darzen's green sweater to ask if she's done speaking. They've both been "out" for more than a decade, together for almost five years and were engaged last January while snowshoeing on Mt. Hood.
"It was supposed to be a little more romantic," says Darzen, "but it was a blizzard and our dog got really cold."
"It was going to be a mutual proposal," Natio adds.
"But our dog was barking at us and it was cold, and it was like, 'We're done, let's go down,' " Darzen says with a laugh. "So we put them on [the rings], took some pictures and ran down."
It is not an unfamiliar story for anyone who's planned an engagement (that is, to have a wrench thrown into the process). But what is unique is that Darzen and Naito are engaged in a state that constitutionally bans their marriage. They have talked with each other at length about the significance of marriage and what it means to them individually and as a couple.
"Our relationship is really strong—we've been through a lot together—so we're really emotionally strong, but what it does for us that's different [from a domestic partnership] is it makes us able to build strength in a more practical family," Darzen says. "And that's what we're missing right now."
"It definitely took our relationship to a new emotional level," Naito adds. "I didn't know that would happen before we started talking about it [marriage]. I thought that our relationship would stay the same. But instead it's grown a lot."
And that's just it: Darzen and Naito are just like any other young, recently engaged couple; they are balancing their work and play, and logging overtime hours to nail down their final wedding particulars. But the keen difference from heterosexual couples is that Darzen and Naito's private decision to get married is at the center of a very public debate about what marriage means—a debate that is about to become a lot more intense as Oregon voters once again consider whether same-sex marriage should be legal.
It's up to you, Central Oregon
At press time, the US Supreme Court had yet to issue a ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry, a case concerning the constitutionality of same-sex marriages in California.
Chief Justice John Roberts stated that the court would end its session on Wednesday with announcements about California's Proposition 8, as well as a ruling on the Clinton-era federal ban on benefits for same-sex couples. The California case is closely watched, as that state has yo-yoed between allowing and banning same-sex marriages. In June 2008, the State of California became the second state in the nation to provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples; but then, the following, November, 52 percent of voters approved Prop 8, which banned those marriage privileges.
But even if the Supreme Court were to rule that California may not limit marriage to a man and a woman, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would declare sweeping reform to other states' constitutional bans. In recent years, the Supreme Court has erred toward states' rights, largely giving deference to individual states to determine their own social agenda; meaning, more precisely, that even if the Supreme Court does make the bold statement that banning same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, it is likely that individual states would be responsible for the next step, to roll back any such enacted bans (27 state constitutions, including Oregon's, ban same-sex marriage.)
All of which is to say: As of press time, proponents of same-sex marriage in Oregon were planning to start collecting signatures to qualify a ballot measure supporting same-sex marriage for the November 2014 election. The number of signatures necessary to qualify is not daunting: Proponents need a few more than 100,000, a number that Basic Rights Oregon, the leading LGBTQ rights organization in the state and the organization spearheading the ballot measure, is confident they will gather.
Again, meaning: It is almost certain that Oregon voters, soon, will once again consider whether same-sex marriage can and should be legal.
What is not clear though is whether voters in Oregon will join the growing number of states permitting same-sex marriage and pass a ballot measure providing full marriage privileges to all couples.
The ultimate answer to that question most likely and largely rests in the hands—and ballot boxes—of Central Oregon.
Will Central Oregon swing history?
In March 2004, Multnomah County, which largely encompasses Portland, began to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Within one week, the county issued more than 2,000 marriage licenses to gay couples. It was national news. At the time, San Francisco also was making headlines issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
But, in a harsh rebuke, two months later, the Defense of Marriage Coalition, a largely conservative and church-based organization, began to campaign for an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that would define marriage as between "one man and one woman." And, although amendment supporters were outspent nearly 2 to 1, Measure 36, the voter initiative sponsored by the Defense of Marriage Coalition, won that November.
Measure 36, which remains ensconced in The Oregon Constitution, was part of an anti-gay rights attitude that fanned across the country. In November 2004, as President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry to win a second term, Oregon voters, 57 to 43 percent, overwhelmingly approved that marriage in Oregon can only be between a man and a woman—or, stated differently, constitutionally banned same-sex marriage. Likewise, 12 other states amended their constitutions that November to outright ban same-sex marriages, including Mississippi, which passed its voter initiative with support from 86 percent of voters. By 2006, eight more states passed similar resolutions. Only Arizona narrowly defeated such a voter initiative. By 2007 most states had some sort of ban on same-sex marriage. At that time, only Massachusetts, whose Supreme Court had declared such bans unconstitutional in 2003, allowed full legal rights and recognitions for same-sex couples.
Until recently, for supporters of same-sex marriage it certainly seemed as if whatever single step forward the Massachusetts Supreme Court had provided gay rights, and whatever brief hope Multnomah County and San Francisco had provided, actually triggered two steps backwards.
But more recently, momentum began to turn, as did public attitudes. In 2008, the Connecticut Supreme Court followed Massachusetts' suit. (Also, in June 2008, California began issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples; but, in November, voters approved Proposition 8, which constitutionally banned such marriages. The Supreme Court is expected to announce a ruling on that case on Wednesday.) And, a year later, in 2009, Iowa surprised gay-rights supporters by becoming the third state to allow same-sex marriages. At the time, public opinion in that Midwestern, largely rural state, was decidedly against same-sex marriage, with only 44 percent of the state's population supporting the idea. But in a unanimous decision, the Iowa Supreme Court made the gracious decision that denying six gay couples marriage privileges violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution. Since that decision, public opinion in Iowa has slowly softened, gaining an additional one percent of support annually.
Over these past few years, legal changes and public attitude have paced each other: In 2003, when Massachusetts first granted marriage privileges to same-sex couples, a measly 32 percent of Americans approved, and 58 percent opposed; a more recent nationwide poll found that voters now slightly favor same-sex marriage, with 49 percent supporting and 46 percent opposing. Furthermore, over the past four years, another nine states have enacted full marriage privileges to same-sex couples—and, importantly, as legal measures supported by wide-reaching public support rather than simply as a judicial action. In November, Washington voters approved Referendum 74. And, in May, state legislatures in Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota all agreed to allow same-sex marriages. (In November 2012, voters in Minnesota quashed a proposed ban on same-sex marriage, and legislators followed up with resounding approval for same-sex marriages.) All told, one out of five U.S. residents currently may marry his or her partner, regardless of gender, in his or her home state.
But, even with those victories, so far no state that banned same-sex marriage has rolled back those restrictions. Meaning: Oregon could become the first state to do so. (Again, this assessment depends on Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling on California's Proposition 8; even so, if the voter ban on same-sex marriage in that state is revoked, it would be done by the Supreme Court, while Oregon's potential revocation would come from voters.) And, perhaps that is why the political fight over same-sex marriage in Oregon could be such a big deal, one with national attention and implications. Legislatively speaking, it is potentially the tipping point for the debate nationally. If Oregon voters repeal their 2004 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, it may signal hope that other states, like Colorado and Ohio, which had similar voter splits, may also roll back such bans. Conversely, if Oregon voters fail to pass allowances for same-sex marriage, activists in other states may abandon hope for success elsewhere. (Although the voter initiative banning same-sex marriage in Oregon passed with a solid 57 percent approval in 2004, that was some of the lowest support shown among a dozen other states that have passed similar laws.) And that significance is why several political consultants cautioned that big money could begin rolling into Oregon to defeat a ballot measure. For conservatives, the vote over same-sex marriage in Oregon could be their Waterloo or their Gettysburg, depending on their success and your perspective.
Even more precisely, and geographically speaking—with public opinion in Oregon largely split down the middle, with Multnomah County and much of the upper Willamette Valley already soundly favoring same-sex marriage, and Eastern Oregon stubbornly against—the battle for votes to support or defeat same-sex marriage largely will depend on how Central Oregon makes up its mind; that is, Bend, Redmond and La Pine are the swing vote—the Florida, Michigan and Ohio—for same-sex marriage.
Looking for a leader
"I don't see local organizations taking a strong lead," asserts Cliff Cook. On a recent sunny afternoon, he is sitting at a back table at Strictly Organic, a bustling coffee shop near Bend's Old Mill district. "I think we will probably be followers."
Cook recently rejoined the Board of Directors for Human Dignity Coalition and is active in what he calls "all three LGBT organizations"—HDC; PFLAG, a support organization for parents of gay children; and, Stars and Rainbows, a loosely organized 300 member group that hosts bowling and social events in the area.
"But," adds Cook energetically, "we will help provide volunteers and the troopers who go door to door."
With a friendly round face and a white beard trimmed to close-cut stubble, Cook looks like a lean Santa Claus. He traces his Oregon roots three generations deep. For decades, he was a school teacher in Salem, but he clarifies, "in the closet."
At the time, even in progressive cities like New York City and San Francisco, with robust gay populations, the '60s and '70s were uncomfortable and even dangerous times to be gay. In 1969, gay men famously fought back against New York police officers who were harassing them at the Stonewall Inn, marking the first massive push back against such bullying. In 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, was killed by a former fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Such vitriolic attitudes have persisted in rural areas and smaller towns throughout America. In 1992, Cook retired from his job teaching in Salem and moved to Bend, where he finally came out.
Cook briefly talks about Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who, in 1998, was savagely murdered, beaten and left hogtied to a fence post in rural Wyo. Population-wise, conservative values and a touch of cowboy demographics, Central Oregon is certainly closer in demographics to Lamarie, Wyoming than San Francisco, or even Portland, for that matter. Five years after Shepard's death, a gay man was punched in the face at a bar in Bend, an incident which pushed Bend's city council to adopt an ordinance specifically outlawing gay bashing. Yet, even so, as recently as last year, the night before gay rights supporters marched in the Fourth of July parade in Redmond, a gay man reportedly was beaten outside a bar.
Cook wears a gold watch with a rainbow-striped outline of a bear on its face. He breaks apart a berry scone and leans back in his chair.
"I think it does matter," he says, speaking about the vote in Central Oregon. "It will be extremely close," he estimates. "We will need every vote we can get."
But beyond the vote and securing enough numbers to pass a same-sex ballot measure, Cook believes that equally important is acceptance.
"Preferably," he says, "it is all about education, and changing peoples' hearts and minds."
But it is precisely that lack of strong political support and well-organized grassroots networks in Central Oregon that worries some political observers. In 2004, voters in Jefferson and Deschutes Counties favored Measure 36 banning same-sex marriage nearly 2-to-1; surrounding counties Klamath, Crook and Lake voted 3-to-1.
While each asked to stay anonymous, an informal survey of longtime political observers and journalists consistently provided the assessment that the strength of local organizations—and their ability to educate voters and motivate passage of a same-sex marriage initiative—is less than hardy. More specifically, several political observers and gay rights activists remarked on their concern that support for gay rights in Central Oregon is financially generous, but lacks numbers and a wide-reaching base.
Within that assessment, the organization most often referenced—and really, the only organization of record in Bend for LGBTQ issues—is Human Dignity Coalition, a nonprofit formed in 1992 in reaction to a particularly hateful bill, Measure 9, which aimed to limit any education in public schools about homosexuality and went further to state that "all levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided." The bill was defeated by 57 to 43 percent, the same split of voters that approved Measure 36.
However, in spite of this 20-year history, Human Dignity Coalition remains somewhat feeble. One former board member, discussing his reasons for leaving the organization, used words like "disorganized" and "poorly managed" to describe its viability.
In February, the organization nearly disbanded as it failed to retain revenue from two major grants, and laid off its only paid employee, the Executive Director.
But in a recent interview, current board President Megan Stackhouse expressed exuberance for the organization's current condition—and pointed out that in the past few months the organization has added new board members, including Cook, and plans to add another two each month during the summer. She also pointed out that, despite the lack of paid employees, volunteers have managed to keep the office staffed during most business hours. Stackhouse was optimistic that Human Dignity Coalition will deliver strong support for same-sex marriage from Central Oregon voters. Yet the organization doesn't even have a formal website; its primary online presence is an anemic Facebook page.
Even so, in spite of the fledging political organizations for gay rights in Central Oregon, some political observers were able to point to several encouraging signs; although none directly support gay rights.
For example, Peter Zuckerman with Basic Rights Oregon provided two strong indicators: First, he pointed out, Central Oregon Community College recently ran its first ever voter registration and signed up more than 1,000 new voters in the first week. In surveys about LGBTQ issues, younger voters trend toward favoring same-sex marriage and other progressive social issues. Second, explained Zuckerman, organizations like Oregon League of Conservation Voters recently have added full-time staff to their Central Oregon offices. While OLCV focuses on issues like global warming and land conservation, there tends to be a traditional correlation between voters who support environmental protections and civil rights; more often than not, voters mobilized by OLCV, the theory goes, would favor a same-sex marriage ballot.
Also, more specific to same-sex marriage, local leaders have recently expressed their support for legal freedoms to marry. City Councilor Jodie Barram has publicly supported freedom to marry, and Mayor Jim Clinton spoke at an event on Feb. 14 announcing the pending signature gathering for the same-sex ballot measure.
It is possible that the Portland and Eugene-areas alone could carry the vote, say observers. But everyone who gave that assessment hastened to add that legislative change supported by such a geographically consolidated population shortchanges real, fundamental shifts in attitudes and acceptance; they want a statewide victory, and that means Central Oregon.
A lot has changed since 2004, when 57 percent of voters amended the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage. For that matter, a lot has changed in a year. Last spring, president Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to publicly support same-sex marriage. States from Rhode Island to Minnesota to Washington all have approved provisions allowing for full marriage privileges for gay couples. And Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay man to play professional sports, followed by a professional soccer player and the rumor that three NFL players will come out before regular season play begins in September. National polls have recorded radical shifts toward accepting and supporting same-sex marriage. All told, legal permission for same-sex marriage seems inevitable in the U.S. .
Oregon has missed its opportunity to be a pioneer in this civil rights movement, but hopefully it will not remain as one of the holdout states.
This weekend, Human Dignity Coalition will host the annual Central Oregon Pride event in Drake Park. For nine years, the flagship event has gathered friends and family of the LGBTQ community to celebrate equality with music, drinks, comedy and education.
Central Oregon Pride
12 pm-6 pm
Drake Park, Downtown Bend
A brief introduction of some of our favorite terms in the gay vernacular.
abigail (n.) Nickname for a closeted middle-aged gay man.
bear (n.) A large, hairy gay man who projects ruggedly masculinity.
brokeback (adj.) A word to imply that someone is gay, especially cowboys.
cottaging or bath house (v., n.) Referring to anonymous homosexual sex in public restrooms, also known as pulling a George Michael.
fierce (adj.) Tyra Banks' favorite alternative word for positive reinforcement. A term commonly used in the gay community that jumped the shark in the mid-2000s.
ghay (n.). A fun way to say "gay."
glitter bomb (v.) To publicly attack or humiliate an opponent of same-sex marriage. Started in 2011 by three Minnesota-based activists, who dumped cereal boxes full of silver glitter on Newt Gingrich.
Harvey Milk (n.) American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was assassinated. Harvey refers to a brave person universally exalted or liked.
hasbian/yestergay (adj.) A Hasbian is a lesbian who has chosen to live a heterosexual life. A yestergay is a gay man who has chosen to live a heterosexual life.
ki ki (n.) Sex between two drag queens.
lipstick (adj.) Girly lesbians. Straight men want them, Twinks want to be them, except for the vagina part.
moose (n.) A physically unattractive person.
Santorum (n.) Last name of former presidential candidate and vocal gay marriage opponent Rick Santorum. Repurposed by gay rights activist Dan Savage to be the name for "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."
shade (n.) Attitude, to throw shade is to trash talk or insult. Throwing shade is also referred to as reading.
Subaru Forester (n.) The perfect car for a family with two kids and two moms.
The Game of Flats (n.) Not to be confused with "Game of Thrones," Game of Flats is an 18th-century English term for sex between women.
twink (n.) A young, slender gay man.