Two-year-old Emmett is a blond streak tearing through his North Portland living room. He drives toward a plastic basketball hoop before being denied by the quick reflexes of the mother he calls Meema, K.D. Parman.
Emmett squeals with delight as the ball rolls toward the mother he calls Mama, Jeana Frazzini.
An observer would never know that Oregon law doesn't view Emmett and Mama as related.
Frazzini has no legal right to be in the emergency room with the toddler if he gets hurt. And she has no claim to Emmett if something bad happens to his biological mother, Parman, who has been Frazzini's partner for nine years.
The couple hopes a lawsuit they expect to file Wednesday, April 5, against Gov. Ted Kulongoski and state officials will give same-sex couples the same automatic parental rights as straight couples.
Their suit seeking those rights would eliminate the need for adoption procedures, which could run up to $8,000 for Emmett and a baby brother Parman is expecting to deliver in July.
Following the failure of gay marriage and civil-union efforts in Oregon, the lawsuit marks a major step in Basic Rights Oregon's larger campaign to chip away in the courts at legal disparities between gays and straights.
Other suits planned by the gay-rights advocacy group deal with retirement and healthcare benefits for same-sex couples. One suit was quietly filed in January, while others will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months.
The couple's attorney in the parental-rights case, Mark Johnson, likened the strategy to that of African Americans in the civil-rights movement.
Referencing the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling against "separate but equal" schools, Johnson says, "That case said no, it's not constitutional to have a caste system in America.
"We're engaged in a similar struggle over a system that is at bottom designed simply to draw distinctions between people for the purpose of drawing distinctions between them," Johnson says.
The couple had initially planned for Frazzini to legally adopt Emmett. But just before Emmett's birth (Parman got pregnant by artificial insemination), Multnomah County started allowing gay couples to marry. Parman, 31, and Frazzini, 33, were married literally on the way to Providence Medical Center.
When Emmett arrived, both women's names were entered on his birth-certificate application. Then, when the state Supreme Court undid their marriage and 3,000 others, away went Frazzini's legal rights as a mother.
Johnson says the case is one of gender and sexual discrimination because Oregon law gives the husband in a heterosexual marriage legal rights regardless of who fathered the child.
"It's a question of the state giving certain couples a benefit and their children a benefit because they're married and telling other families they can't get married," he says.
The lawsuit looks back to a landmark 1998 state Court of Appeals ruling called Tanner v. Oregon Health Sciences University. The court ruled that OHSU illegally discriminated against same-sex couples by allowing only married couples to receive health benefits since gay couples don't have the option of marrying.
After that ruling, Basic Rights approached then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and later his successor, Ted Kulongoski, asking for an executive order that would apply the Tanner decision to other parts of state government. That never happened.
"It's impossible to address a lot of these changes they've specified without changing statutes," says Kulongoski spokesman Lonn Hoklin. "One governor can issue an executive order and another governor can undo it at the stroke of a pen."
Kulongoski—who's up for re-election this year—is finalizing appointments this week to a task force charged with making recommendations about legislative changes to provide basic equalities for same-sex couples.
Basic Rights spokeswoman Rebekah Kassell says the courts have already ruled in the Tanner case and the governor could be doing more.
Frazzini says whether or not folks approve of her life with Parman and the kids, "people like us are going to be together raising families forever. We deserve the same rights as everyone else does."