WE'VE ARRIVED. After decades of hopeful starts and gut-wrenching political battles, marriage equality—the current brass ring of the gay rights movement—has finally come to Oregon.
It looks sturdy, too. Unlike a quickly toppled push for legal marriage in 2004, the federal court decision that came down May 19 shows every sign of withstanding attempts to interfere. Three separate tiers of the courts system—most recently the US Supreme Court—have refused to halt same-sex marriages in Oregon at the request of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). The group still has arguments scheduled before a federal appeals court, but their effort is widely considered a long shot.
With more couples being married in the state every week—Multnomah County issued 274 marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the first three weeks—advocates say Oregon is beginning to shed a dark past that includes dozens of efforts to abridge gay rights via ballot measures since the 1970s.
"I've done this work for 20-some years, and I have been astonished [by] the events over the last 18 months," says Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. "Things have happened at a rate I would never have imagined."
But the fight's not done. Probably the most stinging of those anti-gay efforts was 2004's Measure 36, with which voters lodged a definition of marriage as "between one man and one woman" in the Oregon constitution. That definition's now been ruled unconstitutional. But it's still there, and many people are plotting its death.
It won't be this year, though advocates say they have the signatures to force a vote. And it won't be next year. But at some point, Oregonians will have a chance to vote—once again—on the state's definition of marriage.
"There are some big reasons not to do it in 2014," says David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
The biggest, Fidanque says, is cash. When same-sex couples were being prevented from marriage, it was possible to attract donations from groups all over the country. Now couples are getting married. Oregon's seen as a success story, not a battleground like other states. Advocates say it would be hard to corral the $5 million estimated cost to run a campaign.
"At this point it's a race against the clock to get as many states in the win column as possible," Fidanque says.
The same sentiment applies to volunteers who have been counted on to collect signatures, knock on doors, and spread the word. In an Oregon where same-sex couples can already marry as they please, those people might have better things to do.
"Imagine the organizing staff trying to mobilize volunteers and the person says, 'Wait a minute, don't we already have the freedom to marry in Oregon?'" says Frazzini. "Or the person says 'No, I won't come to canvass this weekend. I'm getting married.'"
It's not just potential apathy setting in. Fidanque and Frazzini—who lead two of the organizations that have pushed this issue the hardest—worry foes of gay marriage would welcome a ballot fight, that they would use it as a way to stir up their base.
Recent polling by Portland polling firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midgehall suggests 58 percent of Oregonians favor doing away with the state's definition of marriage. That's up from 49 percent last April, according to John Horvick, DHM's vice president and director of research. What's more, 44 percent of voters in the most recent poll said they strongly support same-sex marriage. And a majority of both independents and Democrats favor marriage equality, Horvick says.
"The support there is quite strong," says Horvick. "It's not the type of support I'd expect to see slip because of the court case."
But gay rights advocates think pushing a November vote to overturn Measure 36 would be overly chancy.
"Their ranks are falling, their resources are diminishing, and they're losing," Frazzini says of opponents. "Why would we give them an opportunity to rev things up? They could sell that from one end of the state to the other."
A better tack, she says, is to wait until Oregonians have some time to get used to same-sex marriage and see it as an inevitability. That way, Frazzini says, a vote abolishing the state's unconstitutional ban will seem obvious—like doing away with some old racist law that's managed to stay on the books while society's moved on—and not an issue that should be debated.
When that moment comes is up for discussion.
Fidanque is eyeing the November 2016 ballot. He says the US Supreme Court will issue a ruling on one of the many recent court decisions overturning state marriage bans over the next year or two. It's unlikely, but that decision could have bearing on Oregon marriages.
"Obviously it's one of the major reasons that all of us want to repeal Measure 36," Fidanque says. "I think most of us want to do it sooner rather than later."
Frazzini's hesitant to adopt that strict of a timeline. She's not worried about the Supreme Court—all of the people whom Basic Rights Oregon has consulted have found little legal threat to same-sex marriage here, she says.
She is worried about losing a vote.
"Imagine the impact on a community that has fought so hard to get to this day, then has the majority of their state tell them, 'We don't agree,'" she says. "That is a rejection of a magnitude no community should be subjected to."
In the meantime, there are other battles. Same-sex couples may have the right to marry, but gay Oregonians still face enormous challenges. Even winning the marriage fight poses problems.
"We can achieve legal equality, but what happens when you try to implement laws?" says Barbara McCullough-Jones, executive director of the Q Center. Matters like shared property rights, custody issues and foster care policies may have to be tweaked, McCullough-Jones says. And there are still problems with bullying in schools, access to health care for transgender people, and workplace discrimination—issues that have been around for long years, but that have been swept to the side in the rush to win marriage equality.
"There are many places in this community where couples don't feel comfortable walking down the streets hand in hand," Frazzini says. "Part of our work is conveying to folks what's next."