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One year later, gay couples say even legally hazy marriage is a leap forward

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Every morning before she headed out into the world, Evelyn Hall took off her gold ring and placed it on the kitchen counter. At night when she returned, she slipped it back on.

Last year, she put it on for good when she married the woman whom relatives assumed was her roommate, cracking open the secret life the two had hidden for 46 years.

A total of 2,968 couples wed in Oregon when the state's most populous county began issuing same-sex marriage licenses a year ago Thursday. Every one of those marriages is now in legal limbo — but one year on, gay couples say their legally hazy unions are nonetheless a giant leap forward.

"It was like an out-of-slavery experience. I know it sounds crazy, but we were so closeted," said Mary Beth Brindley, 65, who ran away from home to be with Hall, now 66, when she was 19. "It's a total relief not to have to lie anymore."

Gay weddings swept the country from coast to coast starting in San Francisco on Feb. 12, when Mayor Gavin Newsom flung open the city's wedding registry to gay couples. The movement jumped to Oregon in March, then New Mexico and New Paltz, N.Y.

By May, throngs of gay and lesbian couples were tying the knot in Massachusetts, following a ruling by the state's highest court.

While more than 13,000 gay couples married in all, only the 5,000 vows exchanged in the Bay State are still considered legal in the eyes of state authorities. Yet even in Massachusetts, the legislature is considering passing a constitutional amendment banning such marriages.

Last November, voters in Oregon and 10 other states passed ballot measures banning gay marriage. Voters in two other states — Missouri and Louisiana — banned gay marriages earlier in 2004.

In Oregon and in California, lawsuits are wending their way through the state's legal machinery to determine the legal status of the 7,000 some certificates issued to gay couples in the two states. And while an effort to pass a federal ban on gay marriage failed in the U.S. Senate last year, supporters say they will try again in the new Congress.

Opponents of gay marriage point to these and other successes to say they are winning the battle over the definition of marriage.

They say gay couples are living in a fantasy world, pretending to be married when neither state nor federal law has sanctioned their unions.

"They're basically lying to themselves," said Tim Nashif, political director of the Oregon-based Defense of Marriage Coalition, which backed the ballot measure here banning gay marriage.

"I think they're trying to spin this into something positive, but how do you spin something like this into something positive when you're 0-for-13," he said, referring to the gay marriage bans passed in 13 states last year.

Gay advocates contend that time is on their side.

"It's a case of two steps forward for every one step back, which means we're still one step ahead," said Rebekah Kassell, spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights group.

While the marriages are obscured by legal and legislative challenges, gay couples who married say they discovered a feeling of validation, a sense of equality which made it all worthwhile.

"You don't have to keep proving that you're a family," said Kelly Burke, 35, who married Dolores Doyle, 39, her college sweetheart last March 3rd.

Soon after, Burke — a stay-at-home mom who has been caring for the couple's 3 1/2-year-old son — stopped paying out-of-pocket health insurance, after Doyle's employer agreed to add her to Doyle's health plan as a "spouse."

And her relationship with relatives subtly shifted. One day last summer, Doyle's 19-year-old niece called Burke to ask for help with a project for her women's studies class. She had been instructed to interview a woman who was "not a family member" — and Burke had to tell her that she no longer fit the bill.

"How do you describe your aunt's life partner?" asked Burke. "Because we had become married she suddenly had the language to identify this person who had been in her life for so long. And it changed for me as well. I began to introduce her as 'my niece,'" said Burke.

Like other gay married couples, Brindley and Hall cherish their marriage certificate.

They ended a half-century of hiding by publicly marrying, and later appearing in a TV ad urging voters to vote "no" on last November's ballot measure.

They met in 1959 in Memphis, Tenn., Elvis' hometown, where Hall had attended high school with Presley. When family became suspicious, they ran off to Texas where for 37 years they lived as "roommates," hiding their rings.

"I don't care what 'pending' box they put our marriage in," Brindley said. The marriage certificate, she said, "means our relationship has a validation that it didn't have before."

By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
The Associated Press
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