Basic Rights Oregon’s Push for Marriage Equality and Equal Legal Rights

Marriage Equality

The first time Victoria Hanic had to explain to her 5-year-old daughter what hate meant was a moment she will never forget.  She and her partner Nicole had taken their daughter to the park one afternoon to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.  A group of young men were sitting on the opposite side of the park and watched as the couple played with their daughter.  The men started yelling things at the couple about their sexual orientation in front of their daughter, things so hurtful and offensive that Hanic cannot bring herself to repeat them.

“It takes a really hard heart to scream at someone with a young child,” Hanic says. “It always surprises me when some people are so full of hate.”

Hanic remembers other moments of discrimination for her sexual orientation that occurred in front of her young daughter, including a day when someone yelled something at the couple and threw a full can of Coke at their heads.

“The discrimination that really stands out in my mind were those moments when I had to try to describe to my daughter why people were trying to harm us in a way that she could understand,” Hanic says. “It’s scary.”

For years Hanic has worked as the spokesperson for Basic Rights Oregon, a non-partisan, grassroots organization that fights for marriage equality, trans justice, and racial justice since 1996. She says that currently Basic Rights Oregon is launching its campaign in the hopes of getting marriage equality put on the ballot in November 2014 by overturning the constitutional amendment, something no state has ever done. Unlike states like Iowa or New York, Oregon can only change its constitution with a vote of the people, not by going through courts or legislature. They recently obtained the 2,000 sponsorship signatures they needed to send the title language of the ballots to the courts.  Next will be the collection of over 160,000 signatures in order to get marriage equality on the ballot.

If the measure passes, Oregon will have to take out the discriminatory language from its constitution and replace it with nondiscriminatory language that will allow same sex couples to marry.  The measure also would include religious protection, so that religious organizations would have the right to exercise their religious freedom and chose not to recognize same sex marriage.

Oregon has a long history when LGBTQI rights are put on the ballot. According to Kathy Formella, a straight ally member of Basic Rights Oregon, in 1992 Measure 9 was voted on in concerns to gay rights and public education.  The measure would have added the following text to the Oregon Constitution:

“All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.” 

This was the first anti-gay ballot measure that Oregonians did not pass, and according to Basic Rights Oregon, was “a historic victory that galvanized the movement.”

Despite these movements towards equalizing rights for same sex couples, Hanic’s family still faces many forms of discrimination, though more obscure.  While the parents have the same worries for their 16-year-old daughter as any other parents would, one of their biggest concerns is something that does not affect married heterosexual couples: What would happen if something happened to their teenage daughter, and Hanic, who is the girl’s biological mother, was not able to get to the hospital?

The couple has been together for more than 14 years and are registered domestic partners, but if something were to happen to their daughter, Hanic’s partner could possibly be denied the right to make a medical decision for her.  She could even be denied access to be in the hospital room with her own child.

In 2010 President Obama released an executive order that required hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments to allow all patients the right to designate who can visit them and who can be consulted at crucial moments. These designated visitors are required to have all the same rights that immediate family members enjoy. This right cannot be denied to anyone on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

These vital situations are not uncommon for same sex couples in America. Hanic recalls several stories about a partner who desperately tried to get a hold of an attorney to be authorized to make a critical medical decision for his or her partner, or to even be allowed in the hospital room. These stories, however, should legally not be happening. For several reasons.

In Oregon, registered domestic partners have nearly the same rights as heterosexual married couples, so these situations are occurring only because those rights often go unrecognized.  As Hanic says, because many people do not know the differences or similarities between the two unions, the legal rights are often denied simply out of ignorance.

Hanic says that because Oregon has such broad rights for registered domestic partners, it commonly comes into question why there is the need to fight for marriage equality, and why the title of marriage is so important. “Being a registered domestic partner only buys a person as much as someone else knows what it means,” Hanic says. She continues to explain that a heterosexual married couple’s rights will never be questioned if, for example, there is a critical situation in which a medical decision needs to be made by the spouse. For Hanic, it’s not a matter of rights. It’s a matter of recognition of those rights. That’s why she is fighting for marriage equality, because even though the rights are technically there, whether or not people are able to exercise those rights is a different question all together. There is power in the word marriage because there is power in its recognition. Marriage means something more to society than registered domestic partners does, and this belief has motivated Hanic to fight for the opportunity to marry her partner and allow other same sex couples to do the same.

The next time marriage equality was put on the Oregon ballot was in 2004, titled Measure 36.  Jerry Jacobson, a Eugene resident, remembers when Oregon voters passed the measure, which constitutionally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  He describes the defeat as discouraging and unexpected, but says that he can sense a change in tides. “We have a president of the United States that thinks gay marriage is okay,” says Jacobson. “We have people in the military who are openly gay. People are starting to come out and see the writing on the wall. Things are going to happen.”

Basic Rights Oregon Campaign

According to Formella at Basic Rights Oregon, the organization has had two major accomplishments in the last few years.  Six years ago they helped pass two landmark laws to establish Domestic Partnerships and ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Formella says that while this was a great victory for the organization and for the community as a whole, it still kept a distinct line between the homosexual and heterosexual community, which is the next issue the group will be tackling.

Hanic says that there is a clear separation between registered domestic partnerships and marriage, as it assumes that same sex relationships are not as valuable, sacred, or equal to what heterosexual couples share.  This attitude is why Basic Rights Oregon postponed their campaign to put marriage equality back on the ballot after their 2004 defeat. Hanic says that the activists felt that they first needed to get a stronger support base, especially within the straight community, and believe the best way to do this is to have more conversations with Oregonians. “There’s an interesting statistic that if you are an undecided voter and you have had a conversation with a gay person about the idea of legalizing gay marriage you are 2/3 more likely to vote in favor of it,” Hanic says. So this time around, the campaign is more focused around education.

“There’s been an evolution of movement away from having a discussion about rights, and instead to move towards developing a sense that gay people are similar to everyone else,” Hanic says. The organization found that people weren’t responding to Measure 36’s legal jargon, and instead were more responsive to understanding the reasons gay people wanted the right to marry.

Another realization the leaders of the campaign had was that in order to be successful, they needed to become a more inclusive movement. Since the 2004 campaign, Basic Rights Oregon has been working with other organizations, such as groups focused on immigrant, race and union rights. Hanic says that so far the organization has found that by supporting minority groups, the favor would be returned.

Hanic thinks that a turning point in the campaign was when the group realized that the same people seem to work against minority groups to alienate and marginalize them. Basic Rights Oregon realized that by working together with these minority groups, all of their movements would be advanced.

“If we don’t engage with other minority groups, we won’t win,” says Travis Prinslow, a student at the University of Oregon and a Basic Rights Oregon activist. “We need their support, and as long as we proactively work with and engage with other minority communities, we will win this.”

Hanic too is optimistic about the campaign and the future of Oregon’s marriage equality laws. “The fact that we’re even able to name this issue aloud is an enormous shift,” she says. “Even if we’re not where we want to be, and even if they’re not all quite there with us yet, we know that they’re having the conversations… we didn’t recognize how quickly it would happen.”

Hanic expresses a concern that because things are moving forward and attitudes are changing so quickly in Oregon, the pace might work against the campaign.  She feels that there’s a sense the dominoes have already fallen, especially in a city as progressive as Eugene, and that because there’s a general feeling that no one opposes marriage equality, there is no longer a need to do any work to legalize it.

“I worry about apathy from the people who might otherwise be active in the campaign,” Hanic says. “Or just apathy from the community in general who feel that this issue is done and we don’t need to fight for it anymore.”

It’s a fear that members of the LGBTQI community and members of Basic Rights Oregon are wary of, and so they are pushing to keep the issue in the public’s realm of attention. “It’s going to take all of us fighting to make this happen in 2014,” Hanic says. The last thing the campaign wants to do is to assume that more people are supporting them than they are. There’s a big difference between people being okay with domestic partnership, or comfortable with gay people, but another entirely to vote in favor of marriage equality.

Discrimination

Travis Prinslow began working with Basic Rights Oregon when he was a 10-year-old kid, going door to door with his lesbian aunts to get petitions signed, and has been working on LGBTQI campaigns ever since. Prinslow faced little discrimination for his sexual orientation until he was fired from his job for reportedly being “too gay.”  Prinslow says that his district manager had received several customer complaints about Prinslow’s attitude as being too “flamboyant” and subsequently terminated his job. Since the county he was working in had a non-discrimination law, Prinslow threatened to sue the company and eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

Anti-discrimination laws vary state-by-state, and in 2007 Oregon enacted the Oregon Equality Act to protect all members of the LGBT community from discrimination. According to the act, it forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation of gender identity in all areas of employment, public accommodations, housing and financial transactions, jury service, state institutions, foster parenting and public school education. While this law has been enacted, Prinslow’s story is not an uncommon one. Hanic remembers a time when she and her partner had to leave a restaurant that refused to serve them, and of their difficulties obtaining insurance for each other.

If Jacobson is right, and the tides are truly changing in Oregon, Austin Powe would be a fitting example for anti-discrimination progress. As a closeted high school student, Powe never felt that he could come out to his friends for fear of being targeted by his peers.  When he finally decided to come out to his friends immediately after graduating, not only were his friends entirely supportive, but they also weren’t surprised.  When he first got to the University of Oregon he never hid his sexuality.  He rarely has to officially come out to people because as he puts it, “I present myself very honestly and openly, and at times flamboyantly. No one has ever reacted poorly to that.” As an openly gay student at the UO, Powe says he’s never really experienced any discrimination for his sexual orientation, and has generally felt accepted by his peers and the Eugene community.  Powe’s more positive experience as a gay man could be a result of many factors, but stories like his has kept the LGBTQI community optimistic that Oregonians are becoming more tolerant of varying sexual preferences.

For Victoria Hanic and her partner, it isn’t about being able to have a big white wedding.  The couple has already had a spiritual ceremony where they committed their lives to one another, though it was not recognized by the state. What they want is simply to be married so that their rights as a couple are consistently recognized and equal to a relationship between a man and a woman.  They want their relationship to be valued, and for them, marriage is how that can happen. Hanic is looking forward to the day she and her partner can not only be legally married in Oregon, but also for the day when the LGBTQI community has obtained equal legal rights in the state and can live their lives free of discrimination.

 

Sidebars:

As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. It also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, the related behaviors, and a sense of membership in a community of those who share the same attractions.

From a scientific standpoint, the determinants of sexual orientation are a continued debate, though many scientists are studying genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences. According to the APA, most scientists agree that it is a combination of both nature and nurture that takes on complex roles in developing sexual preferences.

Research has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from an exclusive attraction to the opposite sex, to an exclusive attraction to the same sex.  A scientist who questioned the exclusivity of hetero and homosexuality developed the Kinsey Scale in the late 1940’s. The results of his study, and of others in years to follow, have suggested that very few people exist on either end of the continuum. Most fall somewhere in the middle, and are then inclined one way or the other, influenced by a number of factors. The American Psychological Association affirms that most people experience little to no sense of choice regarding their sexual orientation.

Prop 8

This spring the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case on California’s ban on gay marriage, also known as Prop 8. Back in 2008 California legalized same sex marriage, and there was a short window of time where gay people could marry. Soon after, however, California voters passed Proposition 8 by a vote of 52.3% to 47.7% that banned same-sex marriage from the constitution, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper also wrote that the Obama administration has continued to endorse the constitutional right to marry for same sex couples and has urged the Supreme Court to strike down California’s Prop 8 law.

“Tradition, no matter how long established, cannot by itself justify a discriminatory law. Prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law,” the administration said in a brief filed with the high court.

According to KCRA News, the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are predicted to vote as followed: Jusices Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts are likely to vote against same sex marriage, while justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor are likely to vote in favor of it. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote will be a crucial swing vote in the case.

As Travis Prinslow says, “Justice Kennedy is often a swing vote, so we’ve carefully crafted this case to get his attention and get his vote on the pro LGBT side.”

As the news report discusses, the question the Supreme Court will have to decide is how broad of a decision they will make regarding Prop 8. It could go one of several ways. The court could decide that this case will only apply to California. They could go with the eight state strategy, which would give the states that have already legalized same sex marriage to not be allowed to retract those rights once they are established. Or, the courts could decide that it is a national decision and that every state would comply with marriage equality.

Prinslow says that while he believes the courts will likely at least strike down Prop 8 in California, he has a feeling they might apply the decision as precedent for the eight states that have legalized same sex marriage. He isn’t as optimistic about the ruling being applied on a national level and that it “would be shooting for the moon.”

Victoria Hanic is optimistic about what the Prop 8 decision could do to Oregon’s marriage equality campaign. She thinks that if the Supreme Court strikes down Prop 8, it would add momentum to Oregon’s campaign. “I really think people will rule against Prop 8,” Hanic says. “Between that and Washington, we’ll be sandwiched between the two states, so I’d be really surprised if we weren’t successful.”

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