ALTHOUGH THE 2012 election is over a year away, Oregon is already facing a decision point on a major measure: legalizing same-sex marriage. The numbers show support for gay marriage is increasing in Oregon, but LGBT campaigners aren't sure whether the tables will have tipped enough by 2012.
According to a 2011 poll by political group Public Policy Polling, 48 percent of Oregonians are in support of gay marriage. That's a massive turnaround from 2004, when 57 percent of Oregonians voted in support of Measure 36, a state constitutional amendment cementing marriage as "a union only between one man and one woman." Additionally, 2010 Census numbers crunched last week by think tank the Williams Institute show that Oregon is the fifth gayest state in America, based on our per capita number of same-sex partnerships.
"My gut tells me that this is absolutely the right time to bring the issue to the table," says State Representative Jules Bailey (D-Portland).
But statewide LGBT advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) is taking it slow. They won't announce until the end of October whether they'll make the push for the 2012 ballot.
"We're so close to having a strong majority of support," says BRO Executive Director Jeana Frazzini. "But close just doesn't cut it."
BRO has been canvassing door to door to gauge support for gay marriage since 2009, but last week launched a series of Spanish radio ads targeted at Oregon's increasing number of Latino voters.
The stakes are high. Thirty states have constitutional amendments like Oregon's Measure 36, but none have passed amendments legalizing gay marriage. The one-man, one-woman definition in our state constitution rules out options for legalizing gay marriage through the courts, as Iowa did, or the legislature, as in New York's recent victory.
Before BRO comes out in support of same-sex marriage on the ballot, they want to have 100,000 people they can bank on to support the new constitutional amendment. Losing at the ballot will push the campaign back further than they are now, says Frazzini.
Meanwhile, conservative organization the Oregon Family Council, is gearing up to fight any push for approving gay marriage in the state.
"Our country should be focusing on jobs and the economy, not this," says the Family Council's Teresa Lucas. "But if we have to fight, we're going to fight hard."
One of the other states considering a pro-gay marriage constitutional amendment is Maine. That state has roughly the same percent of voters supporting gay marriage, but their LGBT advocacy group, EqualityMaine, has already announced that they will definitely pursue a 2012 measure. Executive Director Betsy Smith has had conversations with BRO's strategists and says she sees next year as the best time for getting the measure on the ballot, since presidential elections typically attract younger voters.
"Gay marriage is becoming a mainstream issue across the country," says Smith. "Its time has come."
Representative Bailey also sees the country becoming increasingly open to same-sex marriage, specifically right-wing debaters whose focus is elsewhere.
The only roadblock Bailey sees between now and a successful election day are the ever-looming economy woes. With their mind on their pocketbooks, many voters may not want to discuss anything that isn't linked to the economy.
"But that's why these one-on-one conversations are key," he says. "People hear, 'Hey this isn't scary, this isn't abstract, this is about real people. That's it.'"