Next Tuesday, gay rights supporters across the country will be focused on the Northwest.
But it's not Oregon that's drawing attention. It's Washington, where residents will decide whether to keep the state's domestic partnership law when they vote on Referendum 71.
Polls for the group supporting a yes vote on 71 to keep domestic partnership show 53 percent of respondents favoring the measure and 36 percent opposing it.
Oregon's domestic partnership law—passed by the Legislature—went into effect last year. Gay rights groups on this side of the Columbia River see no challenge to Oregon's domestic partnership law on the horizon. In fact, activists are focused on getting full marriage rights for same-sex couples in Oregon. They're planning now for a 2012 measure that would ask state voters to reverse Measure 36, the ban on same-sex marriage that Oregonians approved in 2004.
So with Washington gay rights supporters fighting this week to preserve freshly acquired domestic partnership rights and Oregon activists starting the push for marriage rights, WW called Evan Wolfson to ask how this all looks from his perch in New York as executive director of Freedom to Marry.
What the Washington vote means nationally: Washington isn't the only state gay rights supporters will watch Election Night. Maine, one of six states that allow same-sex marriage, will decide whether to keep this right. "Washington is important because opponents want to strip away domestic partnership," Wolfson says. "They're both important. But in Maine, we actually have won the right to marry."
If marriage rights are the ultimate goal, who cares what happens to domestic partnership? "Every day that people are denied their rights is a harsh and unnecessary injustice," Wolfson says. "[But] to do the hard work of social change, you have to give people some time. That's what happened in so many other social movements."
How is it that ostensibly progressive West Coast states like Oregon and Washington lack same-sex marriage and supposedly stolid Iowa allows it? In Oregon, gay-marriage opponents pre-empted the discussion by getting Measure 36 on the ballot in 2004, Wolfson says. "People have had a chance now to see it [in other states]," he says, "and to see the sky didn't fall." There are other civil rights that gays and lesbians lack. Why focus on marriage? " Marriage has always been a battleground over whether government or individuals should be able to make personal decisions," Wolfson says. Among the historical examples he lists are interracial marriages, use of contraception and whether spouses must stay in abusive relationships.
Using the African-American civil rights movement as a historical parallel, where does the gay rights movement stand right now? In 1948, the California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on interracial marriage. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court also did so. Wolfson says the marriage-rights movement for gays and lesbians is at the equivalent of 1963 in that timeline. "We're not there yet," Wolfson says. "But we have momentum."
Notable Oregon donors supporting Referendum 71: Nike ($5,000), Basic Rights Oregon ($2,500), Fat Cobra adult video stores owner Patrick Lanagan ($1,000), state Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) ($100).
What Basic Rights Oregon is doing: Phone banking 6-9 pm Wednesday, Oct. 28, and Thursday, Oct. 29. To learn more, call 222-6151, ext. 109, or email email@example.com.
Wolfson will speak about winning marriage rights for Oregon same-sex couples, at SEIU Local 49, 3536 SE 26th Ave. 6 pm Monday, Nov. 2; and at St. James Lutheran Church, 1325 SW Park Ave. 9:30 am Tuesday, Nov. 3.