Kara Bertsch and Christine Pearson picked out wedding rings at Saturday Market in 2001, six months after meeting at a lesbian bar, the Egyptian Club. In those days, the idea of two women getting hitched struck many people as incomprehensible. "We were still having to argue with people about why it was important for us to get married," Bertsch says. She and Pearson wondered whether the government would ever allow them to marry.
Then, for a brief moment, Oregon did. It ignited hopes of gay couples everywhere, stunned even the most progressive citizens, and so alarmed many Oregonians that voters slammed the door on marriage equality for a decade.
In early 2004, four Multnomah County commissioners hatched a plan to make same-sex marriage legal. Roey Thorpe, the then-executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, had asked county officials what would happen if a same-sex couple applied for a marriage license. County Chairwoman Diane Linn and Commissioners Lisa Naito, Serena Cruz and Maria Rojo de Steffey consulted county counsel Agnes Sowle. Sowle concluded the Oregon Constitution required the county to grant licenses to same-sex couples.
Emboldened by this opinion, the four commissioners met in secret to discuss how to roll out the change. (They excluded the county's fifth commissioner, Lonnie Roberts, who opposed same-sex marriage.)
But the commissioners rushed into it March 3 after word of their plan leaked to the media. Couples lined up outside county headquarters before dawn. The county issued 400 licenses that first day—including one to Bertsch and Pearson. They got married on the sidewalk outside by a minister offering to perform ceremonies on the spot.
"It was raining, but no one really cared," Bertsch says. "It was like a big party."
Protesters also descended on the county building, and commissioners got death threats. "There was incredible jubilation and incredible stress," Linn says.
Oregonian columnist Steve Duin crystallized sentiment among a hesitant public blindsided by the commissioners. "Four women on the Multnomah County board just declared war," he wrote. "Not just on the opponents of gay marriage, but on the undecided, unsolicited, unnerved mass in the middle."
In April, a Multnomah County circuit judge declared the county couldn't issue same-sex marriage licenses without the Oregon Supreme Court or Legislature weighing in.
By then the backlash was in full force. Polls showed a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. President George W. Bush, seeking re-election and looking for a conservative rallying cry, had earlier called for a ban in the U.S. Constitution. In Oregon, the Defense of Marriage Coalition was already pushing a ballot initiative that would put a same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution. Seven months later, voters approved the ban, Measure 36, by 57 percent to 43 percent.
"We were on the right side of history," Linn says today, "and the wrong side of politics."
For Bertsch and Pearson, history has come full circle. They were on vacation in Hawaii on May 19 when they heard a federal judge had overturned Oregon's ban.
Their destination that day? A Hawaii marriage license bureau. Four days later, in a ceremony on Maui, they got married for the second time.
"We don't think it's going to go away now," Bertsch says.
From the Archives:
March 10, 2004: Kara Bertsch's first wedding in 2004
August 14, 2013: Cover feature on Oregon rural attitudes toward same-sex marriage
May 19, 2014: "Judge Rules Same-Sex Couples in Oregon Can Marry"
May 19, 2014: "We Do!: Same-Sex Couples Begin Marrying in Multnomah County."
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