Early in March 2004, I heard the news that Multnomah County would be issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I was as shocked as anyone—probably more so, given that less than a week prior, my partner and I had contacted Basic Rights Oregon in person and asked what they were doing to bring marriage equality to Oregon. We were moved by the marriages in San Francisco and wanted to know what—if anything—was being done in our own state.
Of course, there was no reason for Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) to spill all the details: that they were finalizing plans to get Diane Linn's approval for issuing marriage licenses and that within the week we could be having our own wedding.
But what they did choose to tell us still takes my breath away: BRO Executive Director Roey Thorpe told us herself that issues like same-sex marriage were very delicate, given Oregon's recent history with anti-gay initiatives. They were approaching the topic with extreme caution. In a second conversation with BRO, lobbyist Maura Roche told us the idea of pursuing same-sex marriage in Oregon was still being researched.
Just over a week later, my partner and I married, along with some 3,000 other couples.
As shocked as my partner and I were about that turn of events, friends with more experience with BRO were not so surprised. Secrecy seems to be BRO's habit. When my partner and I asked BRO about marriage, they could have remarked that they were working on it and might have some exciting news soon. Or, they could have outlined a few hypothetical strategies for winning marriage equality—which would have earned them our undying support. Instead, they warned us of the damage that could be done should we wish to press for equality on our own.
"You just don't understand," we were told by Thorpe.
I fail to see the need for such demeaning tactics when relating to the community they supposedly represent. BRO shouldn't be brushing off the gay community's questions and concerns. Rather, encouraging a cross section of opinions and ideas is necessary for any civil-rights organization to be viable and successful. Insular organizations don't achieve as much as ones that build a coalition among a broad range of groups and individuals, and hold regular meetings where supporters—the grassroots community they represent—can stay involved and give input and feedback. Two organizations which opt for this strategy come to mind: MassEquality and Equality California. Both have significant wins—marriage in Massachusetts, and ever increasing relationship protections in California—to show that community involvement works.
So far, attempts at building a healthy grassroots coalition and making gains in relationship rights here in Oregon have been miserable failures. One start-up coalition in Oregon, Equality Coalition—started by young people (our nation's future civil-rights leaders) at Portland Community College—attempted to bring the grassroots together with BRO and other civil-rights groups. BRO pulled out, after a BRO insider told Just Out that the coalition was "toxic."
We're frustrated by such an anxious defense from an organization that demands everything be done on its own terms, but won't take responsibility for failing to bring positive change to our community. This cannot continue. The future of GLBT civil rights in Oregon can no longer depend on the leadership of one insular organization. We must build a broad coalition of individuals and organizations from across the state of Oregon—like United Sexualities, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the good folks at Blue Oregon—working directly with groups from neighboring states and on the national level.
We must go after the rights we desire in a unified voice—a voice that seeks first to listen, then to understand, before it sets any plans in place.
As I read the opinions of bloggers on a variety of topics— from the Ted Wheeler/Diane Linn Multnomah County chair race to the Federal Marriage Amendment—I see just the sort of talent and energy our entire community can benefit from. My challenge to BRO is to bring these individuals and organizations together and leverage the one thing those who oppose us cannot: passion for equality.