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Gay marriage: one year later

Oregon's debate over gay marriage has thrust same-sex families into the spotlight

It is a typical Tuesday night for Stephen Knox and Eric Warshaw, just days before they and hundreds of other Multnomah same-sex couples celebrate what could be their first and last wedding anniversaries. At their home in the affluent Forest Heights area of the western Portland suburbs, the couple of 11 years sits around a kitchen table strewn with construction paper, glue and multi-colored glitter, helping their three adopted children with art projects.

"You can use the grown-up scissors when we're using the grown-up scissors," Knox, 44, tells four-year-old Isaac. Meanwhile, Adam, six, complains that his four-year-old sister Tillie scribbled on his homework. A Spongebob Squarepants video game plays on television nearby. Alex, the family dog, lounges by their feet.

A year after Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of gay marriage in Oregon-and for that matter, the rest of the nation-is far from being resolved. However, the debate has dramatically increased the public profile of same-sex couples with children, such as Knox and Warshaw.

In many ways, Knox and Warshaw are the poster couple for gay marriage in Oregon. And it is not just because they were officially the first gay male couple to be legally married in the state one year ago.

Knox, and Warshaw, both 41, celebrate their first wedding anniversary today along with hundreds of other gays and lesbians who married March 3, 2004, just hours after Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The county issued over 3,000 licenses before a Circuit Court judge halted their issuance April 20.

Knox and Warshaw, both medical doctors, say that like most parents most of their time revolves around their children. When the couple is not working, they are probably busy driving their three young children to gymnastics or swimming lessons in their minivan.

This typical suburban Portland lifestyle was a big reason that Basic Rights Oregon, the state's most prominent gay rights group, asked Knox and Warshaw if they were interested in turning their wedding into a media event last March, according to Basic Rights Oregon spokeswoman Rebekah Kassell.

Still, when the couple arrived at the downtown Hilton hotel for their marriage ceremony on the morning of March 3, 2004, they had no idea that they would be stepping into one of the biggest media events of the year.

"We knew there would be some [reporters], but we had no idea it would be that many," Knox said. "We thought it would be this sort of secret thing. Then all of the sudden, it was like, wow, a lot of people know about this."

Dozens of reporters and photographers packed into the penthouse suite to witness Knox and Warshaw's wedding. They shared their ceremony with Mary Li and Rebecca Kennedy, the first lesbian couple to be wed. Li and Kennedy also have a daughter, Ava, who was nine months old at the time of their wedding.

The video of Knox and Warshaw slipping their wedding rings onto each other's fingers, with all three children in tow, along with a similar one of Li and Kennedy, would soon become the standard teaser clips for television news stories on same-sex marriage, aired hundreds of times over the following months.

Though same-sex couples with children have been around for years (more than half of same-sex couples in Oregon are raising children, according to Kassell) the issue of marriage has drawn them into the spotlight for the first time.

Many proponents of same-sex marriage say they hope exposure to gay and lesbian couples with children will help opponents better relate to same-sex couples' desire to marry.

"We want Oregonians to understand that these families are not much different from their own," Kassell said. "There are many people out there who don't think of gay families as families."

Many opponents of same-sex marriage, including the Defense of Marriage Coalition have argued that families headed by same-sex couple are not truly families at all, insisting children require parents of the opposite sex for a healthy upbringing.

The Defense of Marriage Coalition, often used the argument in support of Measure 36, the ballot measure the coalition created that constitutionally bans same-sex marriage in Oregon, approved by voters in the Nov. 2, 2004, election.

In the next few weeks, the Oregon Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the Multnomah County marriages are still legal as a result of the measure's passage.

Oregon has always been volatile territory when it comes to the battle over gay rights. Between 1988 and 2000, the Oregon Citizen's Alliance, led by Lon Mabon, put four measures targeting homosexuality on the ballot. Three dealt with preventing the state from providing civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. One of them, Measure 9 in 2000, dealt with teaching about homosexuality in public schools. However, only Measure 8 passed in 1988, but it was later overturned by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

On campaigns for ballot measures prior to Measure 36, proponents of the measures, including Mabon, usually focused their arguments on moral or religious objections to homosexuality in general.

Opponents of those measures focused on discrimination against individuals and denial of civil liberties.

While similar arguments certainly are not uncommon in the debate over same-sex marriage, the issue has highlighted doubts about same-sex families more than ever before.

Many supporters of Measure 36 claimed growing up in a same-sex-parented family is bad for children, Some touted psychological studies often produced by religiously affiliated institutions that indicated children fare better with parents of the opposite sex than with same-sex parents.

For many same-sex couples with children, the decision to get married was aimed directly at countering the idea that they are not a family. Some hoped marriage would help reinforce the sense of family for their own children.

Knox and Warshaw's children were a major factor in the couple's decision to get married, Warshaw said. Though their children are probably too young to understand the complexities of marriage now Warshaw and Knox wanted to instill in them the belief that it is OK to marry whomever one wants.

"It's more for the future," Warshaw said. "To know that you didn't just stand on the sidelines, that you actually tried to make things better."

Sellwood residents Kelly Burke, 35, a stay-at-home mom, and Delores Doyle, 39, an electrician, who also married last March, share a similar perspective to that of Knox and Warshaw. The couple has a three-year-old son, Avery.

When Burke and Doyle met while attending Lewis and Clark College 16 years ago, she had no idea that she would end up where she is now.

"When I met Delores 16 years ago, if you told me that at 35 I would be a married, stay-at-home mom, I would be laughing," Burke said.

After dating for 10 years, Burke and Doyle held a commitment ceremony in Portland, attended by over a hundred friends and family members. For years, that seemed like enough, but the couple started thinking about legal marriage after Avery was born in 2001.

Avery is Burke's biological son, but because they were not married, Doyle had to formally adopt Avery to ensure that she would be recognized as the boy's legal guardian as well as Burke.

In addition, because Burke is not employed, the couple relies on Doyle's employee health insurance. At first, Burke was denied coverage under Doyle's plan because the employer does not extend health benefits to domestic partners. After their marriage, the company agreed to provide Burke with coverage "unless the courts rule otherwise."

"I sleep better at night knowing that if anything happened to us our family would be better protected," Burke said.

Burke says that she also enjoys the symbolic family reinforcement that marriage provides for Avery.

"It's especially powerful for my son," Burke said, "at three years old, for him to know that legally we're a family."

Portland landed on the same-sex marriage map when four of the five Multnomah County Commissioners announced March 2, 2004, that the county would begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples the next day.

Well before dawn on March 3, gay and lesbian couples were already lining up at the county headquarters their first chance at a legal marriage.

By the time the headquarters opened in the morning, hundreds of couples had joined the line, which extended around the block.

Oregon was thrust overnight into the center of a national debate on same-sex marriage, as Portland joined San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., as one of the first cities in the country to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

When Circuit Court Judge Frank Bearden ordered the county to cease issuing licenses April 20, 2004, more than 3,000 couples had already been married.

Then the legal challenges, on both sides of the issue, began piling up.

Two lawsuits aimed at legalizing same-sex unions are still awaiting decisions by the Oregon Supreme Court. Basic Rights Oregon also filed a legal challenge to Measure 36 Jan. 31, arguing that the measure violates a state law barring ballot measures from making more than one change to the Oregon Constitution at a time.

Also, court may soon rule on whether same-sex couples are constitutionally entitled to civil unions, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Basic Rights Oregon last March. Knox, Warshaw, Burke and Doyle are all plaintiffs in the case.

Story by Matt Petrie
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