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Thursday, March 11, 2004  

News and analysis: Gay rights group grabs spotlight

The most important player in the movement to bring gay marriage to Oregon is a gay rights organization. Basic Rights Oregon was originally formed during the late 1980s to fight a series of ballot measures targeting any change in the status of homosexuals. A Christian fundamentalist leader, Lon Mabon, has devoted a decade and a half to fighting what he perceives as the imposition of the perverted goals of gays on the citizenry of the state. His main weapon has been use of Oregon's very liberal referendum procedure. However, that long confrontation is not what has brought the national spotlight to BRO. Instead, the development of a situation that not even the most avid opponent to gay rights is likely to have foreseen occurring with such alacrity did.

Oregonians turned on their televisions March 3 to watch live broadcasts of something they had never seen in their state: men marrying men and women marrying women.

Multnomah County officials had suddenly upended state law -- and centuries of tradition -- by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

And behind it all was a gay-rights group, Basic Rights Oregon.

The group first persuaded four county commissioners -- at great political risk to them -- to seek a legal opinion that opened the door for same-sex marriage. Basic Rights Oregon was kept in the loop about the county's secret plans, allowing it to orchestrate for the biggest media impact possible.

The county attorney, Agnes Sowle, decided barring gays from marriage violated the equal protection clause of the Oregon Constitution. She and the four county commissioners intended to withhold the opinion until March 10, but, by March 2, the news had leaked out. On March 3, homosexuals were issued marriage licenses.

Basic Rights Oregon is the result of a setback for gays in the state. In 1988, Lon Mabon's organization, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, was sucessful in winning a ballot measure that reversed a governor's decision that discrimination on the basis of sexual preference was illegal in state employment. Mabon would go on to author and place on the ballot several more anti-gay measures, including one that sought to have the Oregon Constitution define homosexuality as "perverse." However, by the early 2000s, the OCA was reeling. It had lost a lawsuit for harassment of opponents, including an assault. Mabon tried several maneuvers to protect his assets from being seized, most memorably declaring himself a church. Meanwhile, the gay rights movement marched on, both in Oregon and elsewhere. One of the achievements of BRO was preventing the passage of a Defense of Marriage Act by the Oregon legislature. That accomplishment became very important a week ago.

At the turn of the century, a new director took the reins at Basic Rights Oregon.

Behind this bold move is Rochella "Roey" Thorpe, the group's director. In 2001, Thorpe took over a battle-weary organization that nonetheless wanted to go on the offensive.

As recently as a few months ago, Thorpe didn't expect that same-sex marriage would be the defining issue for her organization. But as the national debate about same-sex marriage widened, she grabbed it.

Thorpe, 41, said she pushed the same-sex marriage issue believing a ballot measure to ban it was coming anyway.

"We could see the backlash coming no matter what we did," Thorpe said.

When the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that refusing gays marriage violated the state constitution's equal protection clause, Thorpe was ready. She lead an organization with more than 7.500 members, two political action committees and money in the bank. But, of most importance, she had the ear of local government.

Basic Rights Oregon's political clout comes not from traditional means of lobbying and campaign contributions. Instead, the group has persuaded many politicians that they can be part of the civil rights battle of this generation, an argument that has had wide appeal among Portland area leaders.

. . .She chose Multnomah County, where voters roundly voted against OCA measures and where she knew four of five commissioners were sympathetic.

"The people who are attracted to public office in Multnomah County are attracted to these kinds of issues," said Serena Cruz, one of the county commissioners who met with Basic Rights Oregon before the county announced its decision on same-sex marriage.

Thorpe describes the victory as the logical result of years of work by Basic Rights Oregon.

"I felt," Thorpe said, "like we were the right organization to take this on, and it was the right time."

Since there is no state Defense of Marriage Act to prevent gay unions, and the constitution does not explicitly say spouses must be of different genders, Oregon's legal circumstances were optimum once a decision was made to go forward.

It is still possible gay marriage in Oregon will be stymied, if not stopped. The California Supreme Court ruled that San Francisco, which preceded Multnomah County in allowing gay unions, must cease granting licenses to gays until legal issues are resolved today. If the Oregon attorney general issues a formal decision saying the applicable statutes implicity apply only to female-to-male unions, a temporary halt to gay marriages may occur in Oregon. Ultimately, the issue would be resolved by the Oregon Supreme Court.

11:30 PM