here come the brides! Here come the grooms! Almost as soon as the news leaked out, same-sex couples began lining up outside the county building on SE Hawthorne. By midnight, the line wrapped around two sides of the brick building. Last in line at midnight, couple number 110 had driven down from Seattle, debating along the way whether to hyphenate their last names.

On Tuesday evening, Multnomah County announced that it would begin issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. For the previous week, County Chair Diane Linn had been quietly eyeballing the state constitution, trying to figure out whether a policy not allowing same-sex marriages ran afoul. The country attorney decided it did. That opinion was seconded by Stoel Rives, a private law firm in town.

"It is discrimination to deny licenses," Linn plainly stated in a news conference the following morning.

The issue burst to the forefront of national debate nearly one month ago, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. For the weeks and months leading up to Newsom's action, the legal and moral outlines of the issue had slowly been taking shape. In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down their opinion that civil unions would not satisfy the equal protection clause of that state's constitution. Last week, President Bush threw his weight behind a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

The frenzy for licenses in San Francisco has caused a groundswell of civic enthusiasm for same-sex marriages. Last week, several small cities in New York also followed suit. (In Oregon, counties, not cities, issue marriage licenses.) At 10 am on Wednesday, Multnomah County became the first governmental agency in Oregon to issue a same-sex marriage license.

With an hour remaining before the first license was handed out, the couple ninth in line tried to contain their excitement and stay warm. John and Sean, co-owners of the Hawthorne restaurant No Fish! Go Fish!, stood out all night, as clear skies gave way to a chilly rain.

"In terms of our emotional relationship, it won't change anything," explained John. The couple has been together for 13 years.

"But the state sanctioning is very serious," added Sean. Legal recognition allows partners health benefits, visitation rights in hospitals, and inheritance privileges. "All the practical stuff," said Sean, "but also the intangible." PHIL BUSSE