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Same-sex marriage a year later: For better or worse?

Supporters and opponents of gays and lesbians exchanging legal vows are fighting in courts of both law and public opinion.

Along with nearly 3,000 other couples, Cristina Caravaca, 33, and Sandra Naranjo, 32, of Lake Oswego seized marriage the moment Multnomah County offered it to them a year ago.

They dashed to the Multnomah Building in Portland on March 2. They stood third in line all night. They exchanged vows on the sidewalk as morning passers-by held umbrellas over their heads and police fended off protesters, including a man waving a sign that said "Repent Pervert."

They rushed to marry before anyone could stop them. And now they're prepared to fight for what they gained, even though Oregon voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"I am married, and it's valid right now, and I'm going to use it, and I'm going to say it and be it and not let Measure 36 put me back in the closet," Naranjo says.

Still, Multnomah County same-sex marriages face a fragile and uncertain future. They are not recognized by the federal government, remain in legal limbo in Oregon and could be nullified by an upcoming decision of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Opinions vary on whether the rush to marry gay and lesbian couples in Portland, San Francisco and other cities early last year produced a political backlash or victory for same-sex marriage.

Tim Nashif, political director for the Defense of Marriage Coalition and sponsor of Measure 36, says approval of his measure and similar initiatives in 10 other states on Nov. 2 set back gay activists.

They show that "the people of America and Oregon do not want same-sex marriage," he says. "I don't think public opinion has changed at all."

Americans have become more solidified against same-sex marriage and more willing to support measures to prohibit it, says the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a Christian group based in Washington, D.C. Seventeen states are considering constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

"We will continue to take it on the chin with these marriage amendments," says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, based in Washington, D.C. "But, ultimately, history is going to judge them mean-spirited, divisive and prejudiced."

The gay-rights movement saw victories that, on balance, advanced the push for same-sex marriage, he says. The flurry of gay and lesbian marriages a year ago forced people to confront the issue, which eventually will lead to better understanding and broader support, he says.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York group, points out that same-sex couples can now marry legally in Massachusetts and most parts of Canada. What's more, five state legislatures are weighing civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay couples, 15 face proposals to ban discrimination against gays, and California, Maine and Connecticut are considering legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.

"Of course, the movement is further ahead now then a year ago because we now have marriages; we now have couples getting legally married on U.S. soil," he says. "This wasn't true a year ago in the U.S., and it wasn't true a few years ago in the rest of the world."

It became true in Portland on March 3, when the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners -- deliberating secretly and without the knowledge of one of its own members -- followed San Francisco's lead and directed county officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The county, arguing that denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples violated their constitutional rights, issued licenses through April 20, when a lawsuit forced it to stop.

The commissioners were criticized for abruptly issuing licenses without public debate.

"We could have done the process better," says Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn. But, she adds, extending marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples was "an important step for this community."

A year of marriage
Most of the 2,968 gay and lesbian couples who married in Portland had been together for years. They were, on average, 42 years old. Two-thirds of the couples were women, and one-third were from out of state.

In random interviews, couples say marriage did not bring dramatic or practical changes in their day-to-day lives. Because the legality of their marriages remains unclear, most do not qualify for spousal health insurance, tax breaks or other legal benefits of marriage.

But some say marriage brought subtle shifts in the way others look at them and in how they look at themselves. Many couples say they were stunned by how emotional their weddings were.

"It took me some time to figure out that it wasn't just that people were getting married, but people were experiencing equality, and it was transformative," says Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, a gay-rights group, and one of the people who married a year ago. "It was about status -- equal status -- and people feeling like they were equal in the eyes of their community. . . . It was profound."

Caravaca and Naranjo, the Lake Oswego couple, met while working as nannies in Greenwich, Conn. They ventured to Oregon in 1996 in a "Jeep with $700, a diaper box full of CDs and a change of clothes," Caravaca says. A year later, they adopted their daughter Alex, now 10.

Marriage has not changed their busy lives. Naranjo is finishing her studies this spring at Lewis & Clark Law School, and Caravaca commutes each week to Eugene, where she is pursuing a master's degree in museum studies at the University of Oregon.

But "the way our family and friends see us has changed," says Naranjo, daughter of Colombian immigrants. "The entire family is coming for my law school graduation. I believe it has a little to do with law school, but has more to do with Chris and I being permanent now and a family."

Their daughter says their marriage has made a difference for her, too.

"I feel safer," she says. "If something were to happen to one of them, and if they weren't married, I could be taken away. When they are married, that won't happen."

For Chris Bidwell, 41, manager for an Internet stock brokerage, the value of marriage snapped into focus on May 6, the day David Bocci, 43, his spouse, suffered a stroke. Because they were married, Bidwell's signature was accepted by doctors seeking approval to treat Bocci with an emergency clot-busting procedure. Bocci is now back at work as a graphic arts manager.

Marriage has brought less dramatic changes, too.

"David's sister calls me her brother-in-law," says Bidwell, who's been with Bocci for 16 years. "That may sound small, but, in essence, it shows you are part of the family with a very simple statement."

Marty Beaudet, 47, a freelance writer, and Chuck Kisselburg, 45, a security expert, from Damascus, have been together a dozen years. But their marriage, both in Canada and Multnomah County, has changed the way they present themselves to the public, Beaudet says.

"It is a relief to be able to simply introduce my husband and go on and... They treat us like they would any married couple."

Lawmakers and the court
The Oregon Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks whether the Multnomah County marriages are legal. It also may rule on whether same-sex couples are entitled under Oregon's Constitution to some form of civil union, a government pact that would give them the many legal benefits of marriage.

Some lawmakers are waiting for the court ruling to introduce proposals for a civil union law. They have already introduced several bills to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians. Gov. Ted Kulongoski has called on the Legislature to rise to Oregon's "great moral challenge" and extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians.

Gay-rights issues have a higher profile in the Legislature this session because of the battle over same-sex marriage in Oregon last year, says Rebekah Kassell, spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon.

Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, says he has researched other state laws, including Vermont's 4-year-old civil union system, and is drafting a bill to make civil unions legal in Oregon.

"It's simply the right thing to do," he says.

But opponents are pushing back.
Anti-discrimination bills that would make it illegal to deny a job, apartment or table at a restaurant to gays or lesbians are drawing strong opposition from groups that argue there's no need for such laws. Sen. Gary George, R-Newberg, is sponsoring a bill, at the request of the Christian Coalition, to bar same-sex substitutes for marriage, including civil unions.

Leaders for and against same-sex marriage say their war will rage on, no matter what happens in the Legislature or courts. Gay activists say the nation is going through a patchwork period in which some states are moving toward legalizing same-sex marriage while others are resisting.

Opponents say they expect more court battles and, ultimately, support for an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution. Once a federal court rules in support of same-sex marriage, "you'll see a push for a national marriage protection amendment," predicts Bill Maier, vice president and psychologist for Focus on the Family, a Christian group in Colorado.

Despite what might happen in coming weeks, Caravaca and Naranjo, the Lake Oswego couple, expect their marriage will prevail.

"I have no doubt that when I'm an old woman, I'll be an old married woman," Naranjo says. "It is going to happen, and I will see it happen."

The Oregonian, Bill Graves

Staff writer Michelle Cole contributed to this report. Bill Graves: 503-221-8549; billgraves@news.oregonian.com
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