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April 18th, 2007 Byron Beck And Henry Stern | Rogue of the Week
 

Basic Rights Oregon and Rep. Tina Kotek

     
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Tina Kotek (left) with her "domestic partner," Aimee Wilson
IMAGE: Byron Beck
The Rogue desk would love to join Basic Rights Oregon in celebrating the House's passage of House Bill 2007 on Tuesday.

The bill, which would give gay couples similar rights to those of married hetero couples, and Senate Bill 2, which would bar discrimination against gays, are the principal goals this session of BRO, the state's leading gay-rights lobby.

But pardon us if we don't join BRO and its legislative partner, Rep. Tina Kotek (D-North Portland), when they pop the bubbly at the group's annual business leaders luncheon on April 18.

Why? Because they succumbed to poll-driven pressure to change language in HB 2007 that, in our minds, was just fine the way it was.

Five weeks ago, HB 2007 was a civil unions bill. But last week Kotek amended the bill to use the more poll-proven domestic partnership, borrowing a phrase from our neighbors to the south (California) and north (Washington passed it last week). New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont call their same-sex couples civil unions.

"No matter what we call it, the reality is that we are getting a package of rights we've never had before,'' says Aisling Coghlan, BRO's interim executive director. "It's a historic victory that will change the lives of thousands of Oregon families."

Rebekah Orr, communications director for the House Democratic Majority, strongly agrees that the name change doesn't matter since the bill's effect remains the same and that name-change critics totally miss the point. At the same time, Orr, a former communications director for BRO, and others insist HB 2007 would have passed the Legislature if it carried the original civil-unions label.

So if the contents of the bill are the same and it would have passed anyway, why change the term? Here's a clue: A statewide poll taken in February showed 41 percent of respondents would vote to repeal a change in same-sex law if the change was termed a civil union, versus 23 percent if it was phrased as a domestic partnership.

Kotek, who's a lesbian, wrote supporters that "it has become increasingly clear to me that the language of 'Domestic Partnerships' is far more understandable than 'civil unions,' which is a relatively new term...while the term 'Domestic Partner' has been around a long time."

But extend the "what's in a name" logic for a second to when Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1964. How about if lawmakers had still given African-Americans their long-denied rights but called them "middle of the bus" bills, so Southerners could sleep easier believing the legislation didn't really do anything for civil rights.

And just imagine the "gay bait-and-switch" campaign ads in Oregon from gay-rights opponents next year, when they'll get to say bill backers swapped the language.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown (D-Portland) was asked specifically about a civil unions bill in a Q&A with WW that ran on March 7. Brown said then, "I think there are the votes in the Legislature" for that, and that the measure would come up in April. Brown this week echoed other bill supporters, saying "it doesn't matter what you call this" because the bill is a good one.

Well, it does matter. And the Rogue desk isn't alone in being pissed off in its gut about the change.

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, who's openly gay, says he'll defer to BRO on the political strategy but adds, "My human reaction is, it's very disappointing."

 
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