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A letter from Roey Thorpe

Dear Friends of BRO,

Now, a year later, we all agree that March 3, 2004 changed our lives. It's hard to imagine that anything else we experience in our future work could ever have as huge an impact on us personally. I remember standing in the room as Mary Li and Becky Kennedy exchanged their vows, and all of a sudden I started to cry and realized that I couldn't stop. The emotion was overwhelming. Mary and Becky are a beautiful couple, with an adorable baby, and of course their wedding was touching. But what I was feeling was only partly about that. It was about something that I was to witness over and over, that day, the next, and the next, and it caught me completely off guard. I was watching people be transformed before my eyes, by taking their rightful place as equal citizens of our state, and I was equally changed. I spoke with hundreds of people, married couples and their friends and family, who were as overwhelmed as I was by their own joy and their pride and their gratitude to those four brave commissioners. In those first few days, the bar of our expectations and our sense of what we deserved was raised, and rightfully so.

It's hard to believe that it's been a whole year since the day that Multnomah County started issuing marriage licenses. As I write this it is March 2, the day before the licenses started being issued, and I remember what it was like to be in the BRO office on that day. At the time, we were a staff of 5, and we were madly preparing to help what we knew would be hundreds of couples get their licenses and get married the following day. Melissa was figuring out traffic patterns and recruiting volunteers for the Keller Auditorium, Jessica was making fact sheets and packing supplies for the lines outside the county office building, Dan was talking with couples who were planning to marry, Cathy was helping answer the phone and I was talking to the press and trying not to panic. All of us had our heads down, frantically getting the logistical questions answered, and none of us had any idea what the next day would mean for us personally.

For most married couples, the words "I Do" are the most memorable of their ceremony. But we had been saying "I Do" for years. The couples I witnessed grinned and cried and cheered at the words "By the power vested in me by Multnomah County," because those words were both new and decades overdue. Over and over people told me that they never thought they'd live to see that day. Others spoke of their grief over partners who had passed away before their dream could be reality. Through it all, what united us was love, joy, and the power of equality.

Eight months later, almost to the day, Measure 36 passed, by a margin that felt impossibly cruel. When BRO toured the state in December, we heard from people who felt that Measure 36 was a referendum on them as people, and who felt vulnerable and disenfranchised in their own communities. We heard outrage and pain and disbelief from people all across the state. Our office was deluged with calls from people who wanted us to help them understand how this could have happened, and others who wanted to express their sorrow. Others told us how much they wanted to get involved more than ever or for the first time.

The one thing we haven't heard much of is regret. Although the national press tried briefly to blame John Kerry's loss on GLBT people, and the Right continues to claim that we've learned our lesson and are retreating, that's just ridiculous. The bottom line is that even though we lost the ballot measure, and even though it hurt a lot! Most people I talk with believe that we are ahead of where we were a year ago. I agree. Think about it: same-sex couples have been getting married in Massachusetts for months, the California legislature passed a statewide domestic partner bill and is considering a marriage equality bill, and same-sex marriage has been spreading all across our nearest neighbor, Canada, and across many other countries in the world. Here in Oregon, legislators are discussing civil union legislation and Governor Kulongoski has made a nondiscrimination bill one of his top priorities this session. Our state has changed and our issues are now the mainstream, when at one time they were the fringe.

And even if all of that weren't true, the truth is that once you've changed the way so many of us did last March, there's no going back. There's no lowering our expectations, there's no settling for second class status. In the last legislative session, many of us, including me, would have been very satisfied with civil unions. Now, civil unions are simply one step in the right, and inevitable, direction. This is how it should be, because in order to change others, we ourselves must first be changed.

As we gather on the steps of the Capitol on March 3, we are celebrating our anniversaries in a very appropriate way. The modern first anniversary gift is a clock, which symbolizes the time that a couple will spend together. For us, it also symbolizes a movement whose time has come, and people who are unwilling to wait any longer for the rights they deserve. And it symbolizes this very special time, a momentous year in this civil rights movement of ours, and the courage and vision of all of those who took part in this historic moment. It is an honor to share this anniversary with all of you, in the spirit of love, justice, and equality.

-Roey Thorpe, Executive Director, Basic Rights Oregon
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