Author's note: Since we published this story, Basic Rights Oregon announced that after a careful study, their board has voted unanimously to not place a measure on the 2012 ballot. You can read more about their decision and see a statement from the board right here.
Bruce Morris knows that he might be one of the least likely people to be advocating for same sex marriage. For one, he's straight. Also, he's married and, between him and his wife, has four grown children and he's a big, bearded dude. Still, he's the new executive director of the Human Dignity Coalition, a Bend-based organization that advocates for, among other things, equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the community.
Again, he's an unlikely warrior for gay rights and he knows this. It's a question he gets a lot and one that might elicit a laugh from the former lawyer who first came to Bend in the late 1990s.
"I get that a fair amount and, my response is that I have seen over the course of my life a lot of injustice. It bothered me tremendously and I decided at some point that I didn't want to continue working in a way that was enabling at least environmental injustice," says Morris.
The "environmental injustice" he mentions refers to his time working as an attorney, primarily representing Texas oil refineries. With a law degree from Baylor and a master's of law from Columbia, Morris' legal career was in full swing while he was living in Austin, Texas, but the pull to work for social justice was nagging at him. When he and his wife moved to Oregon, he eventually made a career shift, working for Basic Rights Oregon, a statewide LGBT rights organization and, more recently, the Rural Organizing Project.
Now, Morris and HDC, along with Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), with which HDC continues to work closely, are at a crossroads as they seek support for a voter initiative for the 2012 general election that would make same-sex marriage legal in the state of Oregon. According to BRO, the measure would effectively nullify the state constitutional amendment (enacted through 2004's Measure 36) that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. The ballot measure process, which includes gathering thousands of verifiable signatures, can be a tough road, and that's why these organizations say they're carefully weighing the timing.
"If we don't [place a measure on the ballot in 2012] it's because the assessment is that we're not in a position to win," says Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
But for the LGBT community and their allies, like Morris, part of the plan is to encourage conversation about this topic, which although subject to a changing cultural perspective, remains controversial. The work for Morris and others at the HDC doesn't end at the issue of a marriage equality ballot measure. The HDC has been in existence since 1992 with Morris taking over at the helm this spring after longtime director Jenni Peskin stepped down. The nonprofit, with the help of its volunteers, continues to serve as a support group for our LGBT community, offering outreach with programs like the ongoing Queer Youth Space where high school-aged students can find support from their peers and also talk with mentors. HDC also puts on the annual Bend Pride festival in addition to a drag show and other programs.
Morris' reasons for working so tirelessly in this arena are quite personal. Over coffee on a cold fall day, Morris recounts a pair of stories. First, he tells about the time he and a group of friends arranged what Morris describes as a "classic intervention" not unlike what you might see on a television show for a friend who was struggling with cocaine and alcohol. After the friend agreed to accept help, Morris accompanied the man to his apartment where he said he needed to show Morris something. Unsure what he'd be seeing, Morris was apprehensive, but that soon melted into relief when the friend revealed a box including makeup and a wig. It turned out that this 6-foot-5-inch man had always secretly believed himself to be a woman trapped inside a man's body.
"That was an eye opener. My friend was suffering not just from alcohol or drug abuse, but from the fact that he knew he couldn't be the person he knew he was," says Morris.
He has another story, too. It's about how when one of his daughters was in high school in Bend around the year 2000 and told him about one of her friends who had run away from home after his parents and his church had come down on him for coming out as gay. His parents had tried to send him to a religious camp for gay teens and also attempted to have him committed to a mental hospital for admitting his homosexuality.
Morris and his wife helped the young man and eventually allowed him to move in with them while he tried to emancipate himself from his parents. The experience was an impactful one for Morris and a prime reason he's worked to maintain resources like the Queer Youth Space.
He's also a visible member of Bend's progressive community. While he laughs at the question of whether he'll ever run for office, he was quite present at the Occupy Bend demonstrations, and could be seen at the group's march in late October with a hat reading "Peace Keeper" across the front and his dog, draped in a rainbow flag, at his side.
SEVEN YEARS LATER
Seven years ago this month, almost 57 percent of voters in Oregon supported Measure 36, which amended the Oregon constitution to read: "It is the policy of Oregon, and its political subdivisions, that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or legally recognized as a marriage."
The ballot measure was brought forward by the Oregon Family Council, a Christian-based organization, in response to Multnomah County's decision in early 2004 to issue some 2,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Morris was working with Basic Rights Oregon in 2004 and helped organize the effort against the measure in Central Oregon.
Over the past two months, HDC has taken to the phones in an effort to reach out to residents to gauge the area's attitude toward, and potential support of, a ballot measure to establish same-sex marriage in Oregon. He says the latest round of calls gave him hope that things are changing, but he fully understands the perspective of those who oppose his efforts.
"It's part of a belief system that they hold in good faith. With a lot of people, [the change] comes down to the interactions they've had with gay and lesbian people. Those viewpoints can change over time," says Morris.
And there have been some tangible advances in Oregon in the arena of gender/sexuality equality since Measure 36 passed in 2004. On January 1, 2008, Oregon enacted legislation that prevented workers from being fired or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender. Then, two years ago, Basic Rights Oregon, along with other organizations, worked to pass the Oregon Safe Schools Act of 2009, which established laws to protect students from bullying.
Morris has seen a shift among some segments of the state's population, especially among younger residents, but says these sorts of changes don't happen overnight.
"These changes, social changes, take some time," says Morris, who sees the issue of same-sex marriage and other provisions to establish rights for the LGBT community as the next step in an evolution toward justice in our society.
"African American people, women getting the right to vote, immigrants who were excluded from basic rights, they've all had this fight. This is part of our evolution to allow equality in general," he says.
THE NEXT STEP
In 2004, the Oregon Family Council raised and subsequently spent more than $2 million to support Measure 36, according to OFC Communication Director Teresa Harke. And they're ready to do the same thing should a same-sex marriage measure make it to the ballot in 2012.
OFC has been tracking Basic Rights Oregon's efforts over the past year and were aware of the fact that they may be announcing their decision soon. "We'll give them the fight of their lives to protect marriage," the group's website says.
"This is an issue that divides us. There is never a good time to have a lengthy and spendy ballot measure, because our economy should be the focus right now," says OFC's Harke, whose organization refutes Morris' assertion that this is a basic rights issue.
"I don't think it's a basic rights issue in the sense that there's no real discrimination in saying that marriage is between a man and a woman," says Harke.
Morris and the people at BRO agree that there will be a need for a cash push to pass a ballot measure, and given the amount of money spent both for and against California's Proposition 8 (a move similar to Oregon's Measure 36), this seems likely. The decision by Oregon's supporters of same-sex marriage may ultimately be that this isn't the time, but not for the reasons Harke says. It might come down to whether such a measure could pass or not - rather than other economic or political issues that might be in the headlines right now, BRO's Frazzini says.
In conversation, Morris is constantly passionate about these issues, but he's also surprisingly realistic and hopeful - hopeful about continued progress here in Central Oregon.
"There is much more general acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in Central Oregon in general, and that's a really important part of people being more comfortable with the topic of marriage equality," says Morris.
To learn more about the Human Dignity Coalition and their efforts, visit humandignitycoalition.org.