03 Jul

Oregon waited on a long line for same-sex marriage

The line ran out of the Multnomah County office building on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, down the block and around the corner along Martin Luther King Boulevard. People at the end knew they would be waiting several hours just to register and get a form from a government office.

But unlike those waiting on similar lines – see: DMV – the people on this line seemed happy.

In the spring of 2004, a majority of Multnomah County commissioners, in a burst of well-meaning ineptitude, held a sudden vote to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The year turned into a national burst of backlash, with the Bush re-election campaign riding gay marriage constitutional bans in 11 states, including Oregon. It’s almost impossible to imagine how that line outside the county office building would, in just over a decade, snake around to last week’s gay marriage endorsement by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The line was long, but turned out to be shorter than anyone expected.

In 2004, same-sex marriage suddenly leaped to the front of American politics when the highest court in Massachusetts declared it legal in that state. The impact moved local officials in San Francisco and Multnomah County to issue licenses without judicial support – and in the case of Multnomah, without public hearings.

But not without a huge response, and a long line.

On the line, middle-aged men in jeans and work jackets explained they wanted the license in case a work accident put one of them in the hospital and only family members could visit. Mothers had flown in to help their daughters hold places in line. Hopefuls in line cheerfully accepted business cards from wedding suppliers working the crowd.

All for a marriage license suspected – accurately – to be legally fragile.

But, for conservative opponents, politically potent. Following the Massachusetts court decision, Bush political mastermind Karl Rove worked with local groups to get the amendments onto state ballots, part of a strategy to increase turnout by conservative religious voters. The Republican national convention in New York featured denunciations of gay marriage, and a platform supporting a constitutional amendment banning it – a position now limited to the furthest fringe of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. The theme ran strong through the Bush campaign that fall, and seems to have been particularly helpful to Bush in the decisive state of Ohio.

(Six years later, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, declared publicly that he was gay, and had not been pleased with the campaign theme. Two years ago, Mehlman helped gather friendly legal briefs on same-sex marriage for the Supreme Court case, and last week praised the decision as “historic.” Of everything about the issue that looks startling from the perspective of 2004, that may be the most stunning.)

In Oregon, the Oregon Family Council assembled an alliance of 1,500 churches and collected more than 244,000 signatures to put Measure 36 on the ballot. It was a painful autumn, partly because activist groups had been keeping Oregon voting on anti-gay rights measures regularly since 1988. Opponents of the measure put forward gay couples raising children, who wondered why the rest of Oregon wanted to vote on whether their household qualified as a family.

Because, the website supporting Measure 36 warned darkly, “The goal of most influential gay leaders who are spearheading this movement is not to broaden the benefits of marriage, but to strip it of any meaning. They see redefining marriage in this way as the first step toward abolishing marriage and the family altogether, thus eliminating the benefits of marriage for anyone.”
These days, that wouldn’t even be argued by Mike Huckabee – let alone Ken Mehlman.

By election day, same-sex marriage had long been stopped in Oregon, shut down by a court pointing out that whatever your position, the Multnomah County Commission didn’t get to make the decision by itself. Still, Measure 36 passed, although by a smaller majority than in any other state – 43.4 percent of Oregon voters refused to buy it. In 2014, a federal court threw it out.

From the perspective of 2004, from the lines outside the county building to the living rooms of alarmed gay families, it’s been a stunning journey to 2015 – and Oregon’s path had a particular bumpiness.

Late in the spring of 2004, before a meeting at The Oregonian, a staff member mentioned that the county commission, despite a stern warning from the state attorney general, had voted to continue issuing licenses. Another staff member immediately stood up and left the meeting, explaining she had something to do.

Just eleven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court followed her.

NOTE:This column appeared in The Oregonian, 7/1/15.