I joined a group of grannies, queer fathers, cross-dressers and elected officials last week on the steps of the state Capitol for a rally in support of two bills I want passed.
SB2 would amend Oregon's current nondiscrimination statutes to include sexual orientation. HB2007 allows for civil unions. That would let my partner, Juan, and I have the same legal benefits and responsibilities as a married straight couple, without the signoff of a judge or blessing of a priest.
For a time, during the headiest moments of the rally, I started to feel these bills would actually pass this session, especially after Gov. Ted Kulongoski demanded on the Capitol steps that the Legislature "bring him the bills."
Democrats, of course, now control both the state House and Senate. Many of them promised queers and straight allies, just a few months ago, they'd press for gay rights if we elected them.
The irony is that the success of these bills now rests squarely on the shoulders of the most powerful Democratic senator—who has rarely used his mojo before to expand the rights of my queer brothers and sisters.
Peter Courtney (D-Salem) has been Senate president since 2003. The longest-serving member of the Oregon Legislature, Courtney is also one of its most voluble members. Witty, talkative and affable, he's a reporter's dream. But he seems uncharacteristically quiet when it comes to the gay stuff. Maybe it's because he's a devout Roman Catholic. Maybe it's because he represents areas of Salem, Woodburn and Gervais that are more conservative than the safely Democratic wilds of queer-friendly Portland. Maybe it's because, as the Democratic leader of the Senate, he's worried pushing too hard on gay rights could jeopardize the Democratic majority if Dems in districts outside Portland tick off their more conservative constituents.
I wanted to ask him these questions. Too bad I didn't get the chance to speak to him last week; I was told he was busy in "kicker hell."
Whatever the case, Courtney, says Roey Thorpe, former executive director for Basic Rights Oregon, "was not a visible leader on gay rights."
Yet there Courtney was at last week's rally, gunning full blast for gay rights alongside fellow political heavies such as Kulongoski and House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D-Portland), talking about how the Leg was about to "make history, again."
I'd love to know what history he's talking about. There was one time in '97 where, as the House Minority Leader, Courtney convinced 29 Democrats to basically shut down the Capitol in support of an employment nondiscrimination bill in the house (it was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate). But that was a decade ago.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown (D-Portland) told me that just because Courtney seems quiet on this issue doesn't mean he hasn't provided powerful leadership. Brown points to SB1000, a bill she sponsored in 2005 that would've allowed civil unions and enacted an anti-discrimination policy for gays and lesbians.
Brown says Courtney risked Democratic seats in swing districts by bringing SB1000 up for a vote two years ago in the Senate (the bill passed the Senate before dying in the Republican-led House).
"SB1000 was a risk," said Brown. "And Peter was willing to take the risk."
Close Leg watchers such as Thorpe take a more jaundiced view.
"I was surprised, and moved, he spoke at the rally," Thorpe says. "This session it looks like he's stepping up."
That's nice. But in the 34 years since then-Reps. Vera Katz and Stephen Kafoury introduced the first gay-rights bill in the Oregon Legislature, we still have nothing to show for it. And now the clock is ticking on these two bills, and I'm worried Courtney will end up saying he's for gay rights but not taking his power out for a spin and actually getting something passed. This is the year Courtney—who started his Legislative career 25 years ago—can make up for lost time. Keep speaking up, Peter. Use the power we've given you to pass SB2 and HB2007.
Or, as Brown says, "if you're not there to do the right thing, then what are you there for?" ?