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How Reedies Helped Oregon Win the Freedom to Wed

By Peter Zuckerman ’03 on June 17, 2014 11:11 AM

Reed College alumnus Misha Isaak ’04 reads from a federal judge’s decision striking down Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage as couples react at the headquarters of Oregon United for Marriage.

Attorney Misha Isaak ’04 reads from a federal judge’s decision striking down Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage as couples react at the headquarters of Oregon United for Marriage. Photo by Gosia Wozniacka/AP

Some cheered. Others howled. A few were wearing go-go boots.

Together, we made up a crowd of 200 people. We were at the Oregon United for Marriage campaign headquarters in Portland, smashed inside a conference room too small to fit everyone. We listened to Misha Isaak ’04. He stood behind a podium, speaking to a swirl of television cameras, tape recorders, microphones, and notepads. It was noon on May 19. This was the historic moment we had been waiting for.

We had had won. A federal judge in Eugene had just struck down the Oregon law that excludes same-sex couples from marriage. Weddings started that afternoon. By that evening, hundreds of us were dancing in the streets of southeast Portland, joined by a marching band named LoveBomb Go-Go.

The victory felt sweet, but achieving it took thousands of people and decades of work. From Donald Wheeler ’35 to Aaron Rhodes ’71, Reedies have a long history of activism, and Isaak and I were among the alums who had the privilege of being part of the marriage movement during these last few years.

For Isaak, it started largely with a phone call. In 2012, he called me and said he had moved back to Portland. We met up at a vegan bicycle bar in northeast.

About a decade had passed since we’d last hung out. During that time, Isaak had completed his thesis on constitutional law, with former Reed president Colin Diver [2002–12] as his adviser; graduated law school at Penn; clerked for a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals appellate judge; married his husband David in California; moved back to Portland to start a job at the firm Perkins Coie; and now was buying house. I, meanwhile, was finishing a book tour.

As we spoke, Isaak mentioned an idea he’d been considering: He wanted to volunteer as an attorney to help defend the rights of gay and trans Oregonians. Could I help? I connected Isaak to my partner, Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland at the time, whose staff connected him to the legal advisory committee for Basic Rights Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Oregonians experience equality.

Soon after, Oregon United for Marriage hired me on as their press secretary. Our team grew to about 30 people, and our goal was to win in the only way possible at the time: through a direct vote of the people. The task seemed daunting. We first needed to collect 160,000 signatures by July 3—mostly through volunteers—to qualify our measure for the ballot. Then we had to persuade a majority of Oregonians to overturn a constitutional amendment they had overwhelmingly voted in 10 years earlier.

We launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day last year. Reed alumni were at our first events, and Reed students formed a Students United for Marriage chapter to lead the signature-gathering effort.

By December, we had collected enough petition signatures for what became known as the Freedom to Marry and Religious Protection Initiative, which Isaak had helped draft. But the opposition pushed back, filing their own initiative and launching their own signature gathering drive. Their countermeasure would have created an exception to Oregon’s anti-discrimination law so that businesses and corporations could turn gay and lesbian couples away for goods and services. Their goal may have been to split our campaigns’ resources, forcing us to work on two ballot initiatives at once.

To stop that from happening, we aimed to kill the opposition’s initiative before it qualified for the ballot. Along with other campaign staff and an army of volunteers, I practically moved into the office, which started to resemble the student union the day after Renn Fayre.

We worked ourselves to exhaustion seven days a week, powered ourselves with coffee and corn syrup, and had a blast staying up too late, working for a good cause. For the marriage campaign, we focused on educating voters about why marriage matters to same-sex couples. To defeat the opposition’s countermeasure, we emphasized the point that treating people differently because of who they are is discrimination. We hosted media events; met with reporters and editorial boards; penned op-eds; created advertisements; won endorsements; sent mailers; canvassed; phone banked; registered voters; and organized rallies and house parties.

It worked. The opposition gave up on trying to qualify their discrimination measure for the ballot, and the needle of support for marriage equality moved 14 points in one year. But as the campaign grew and public opinion changed, the legal landscape transformed.

In June last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, opening a legal route to winning marriage for gay and lesbian couples. At the time, nobody knew whether we could win marriage through the courts, and some considered the prospect farfetched. But I was excited by that possibility.

For me, marriage equality is personal. I want the freedom to marry the person I love in the state I am part of, and so do many of my friends. If we could win faster, without attack ads demeaning our families, it would save our movement a lot of pain and money. With Basic Rights Oregon as a plaintiff, Isaak and other attorneys filed a suit in federal court, arguing that Oregon’s ban on marriage equality is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit joined one filed by another team of attorneys, and the proceedings—at first—went smoothly. Judges considering similar cases in states like Utah, Kentucky, and Oklahoma were ruling on the right side of history; Oregon’s attorney general declined to defend the state’s unconstitutional marriage ban; the opposition stayed quiet.

But two days before what was to be the final hearing in Oregon, an anti-gay extremist group from Washington, D.C., swooped in. They made an issue of the judge’s sexual orientation, found some local opponents of marriage equality to represent them and tried intervene in the case.

On the morning of April 23, we drove down to Eugene and had our big day in federal court. Guards whisked us through security and escorted us into the courtroom. A few minutes later, the judge entered. He told us to sit down.

Isaak , wearing a pink paisley tie his husband had worn on their wedding day, was one of the first lawyers to argue the case. He spoke in a voice that carried to the furthest corners of the room. “Oregon's marriage exclusion tells loving, committed same-sex couples that their relationships are unworthy of equal recognition,” Isaak said during his opening. “It demeans same-sex couples, whom the Constitution protects. And it humiliates children being raised by same-sex couples.” By the time he finished, it was hard not to clap.

The arguments continued that day for about two more hours. It took an additional month of legal wrangling until the judge finally reached a verdict, granting same-sex couples the freedom to marry. Legal appeals continue. But love is now the law in Oregon, and we are confident that our victory is secure.

Peter Zuckerman ’03 is the author of the bestselling book Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day.