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Roll on, 2012! Er... 2016! 2020?

Will Divisions Hinder Oregon's Race to Marriage Equality?

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VERMONT, IOWA, MASSACHUSETTS, Connecticut, and now, Maine. So when is Oregon going to join the increasingly lengthy list of states to legalize gay marriage? Well, not so fast.

Right now Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) Executive Director Jeana Frazzini is focused on defending recent victories like Oregon's new statewide non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity, and domestic partnership for same-sex couples, she says. Sure, Frazzini is cautiously optimistic about putting marriage equality on the statewide ballot as early as 2012. There's just the small matter of first building support for the idea across racial and religious lines.

"This is a dialogue that takes time," she says. "And you have to give people the opportunity to change their views."

The last time gay marriage was on the ballot in Oregon was in 2004, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman, by a 57 to 43 percent margin, under Measure 36.

"The issue was a political football," says Frazzini. "We need to strike a balance between realizing that 2012 is right around the corner, but also that there's time for the dialogue to move outside the context of being a big political fight."

Frazzini wants to build a "multi-racial and cultural alliance that moves through communities of faith and of color." But is that going to be possible by 2012?

The November 2008 passage of California's Proposition 8, which overturned an earlier California Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, has hardly made BRO's effort to broaden the marriage debate any easier. A CNN exit poll conducted at the time suggested 70 percent of African American voters supported Proposition 8 in California, prompting huge divisions nationwide. The poll was later found to be misleading—subsequent research by progressive-leaning San Francisco-based David Binder Research shows religion, age, and party affiliation were the three dominant factors in deciding which way voters leaned on Proposition 8. But perceptions count, and the CNN damage is real. Now, it needs undoing.

"I'm a black man, I'm a gay man, and I have family members who would be in favor of me getting married if I want to," says Craig Tyson with the Unity Project of Oregon, an embattled nonprofit organization struggling to continue to provide services to the African American LGBT community (see pg. 3). "So I find it difficult to believe that the whole black community is against gay marriage."

Tyson and other groups organized a community forum at the Jupiter Hotel shortly after Proposition 8 passed, hoping to address and prevent community divisions. David Martinez, co-founder of Portland Latino Pride, says "the forum helped people to get some facts."

The forum attracted 50 people, and organizers promised it would be the first in a series.

"We had hoped to schedule more, but things just got busy," says Martinez.

Tyson acknowledges that the LGBT community's outreach to African Americans still faces challenges.

"I don't think the engagement is going on enough," he concedes. "I just think that the whole social network for the African American community can be challenging to get to. You have to engage us on our turf."

"I haven't seen as big an outreach in the faith community lately, but it could come in waves," says Pastor Lynne Smouse López, whose Ainsworth United Church of Christ in North Portland became "open and affirming" to LGBT members in 1996.

"When we got the domestic partnerships I think [BRO] took a breather and decided to re-group, but certainly the struggles aren't over," López says.

As for 2012, Frazzini says, "We'll know the time is right [to put marriage equality on the ballot] when the community is engaged in the conversation." To kick-start that conversation, BRO recently launched a public relations campaign, "Get Engaged," designed to get people talking about marriage equality again in Oregon.

When asked whether 2012 might be too early to overcome some divisions, Frazzini says she thinks "speculation about dates is sort of a futile exercise at this point," and declines to name a date for the ballot decision. "To go to the ballot with something that affects our community and our families," she says, "is not something we take lightly."

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