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Gay Couple Awaits Legal Parity in Oregon - 2004-04-28

There've been some new developments in the gay marriage arena. In Massachusetts, same-sex couples will be able to get marriage licenses next month and state justices of the peace have been told by the governor's top legal counsel to issue those licenses, or resign.

On the other side of the country, where some 3,000 same sex marriage licenses were issued earlier this year by county officials in Portland, Oregon's Attorney General is expected to appeal a judge's order to recognize those unions. If the appeal is denied and the order goes through, Oregon would be the first U.S. state to officially accept gay marriages.

Kelly Burke has been up since 5 a.m. Her toddler Avery has a cold. "I love Sesame Street. Some morning I find that he's left the room and I'm still watching it. One of the perks of being a stay at home Mom," she says.

Now, Kelly Burke is hoping for the perks of being a married stay at home mom. Nearly two months ago, she and her partner of 16 years Delores Doyle rushed down to the county license office to be one of the first gay couples in Oregon to get a marriage license. "I mean, even after 16 years of being together, I find myself walking around saying, "Oh my gosh, I'm married." And it was really exciting to be able to do that. Really what this is about is the ability to become a family. And in our society, being a family carries legal protections and rights," she says.

That fact hit Kelly with full force a few years ago, just after Avery was born. She developed a potentially life-threatening blood clot in her leg before her partner had officially adopted him. So she worried whether Delores would get custody if anything went seriously wrong. "You know what should have been kind of a health crisis quickly turned into a real panic our family's legal status. It was actually more stressful than the actual medical problem going on and really terrifying," she says.

The two women are hoping that legal ambiguity will end, now that they're married, especially when it comes to employment benefits.

Delores Doyle is coming on break at her job as an electrician. She's the sole breadwinner for the family. "I would say the majority of the guys I work with are married," she says. "I don't think they're actually aware of the legal benefits of being married. Many of the benefits of marriage are sort of this social safety net. If I were to die, Kelly has no legal recognition."

That means her spouse doesn't qualify for family health insurance, workers compensation payments, or the pension benefits provided by the local electricians' union. So the couple has to shell out $200 a month for private insurance while being buffeted in the wind by the controversy over gay marriage.

A day later, Kelly and Delores enjoy a visit to the park with Avery. They're distracted, though, by their latest call to the electricians' union about getting medical benefits for Kelly. They don't have an answer yet.

Delores says the union now wants to see a copy of the certified marriage certificate. "Right now, the status is that we're still pending. I'm starting to believe that I'm getting the runaround. You know, Kelly and I are a family. Here again we have someone questioning the legitimacy of my family. And that's tiresome. So we'll see. We're still waiting," she says.

It's difficult for couples like this one to plan for the future given the legal haziness over gay marriage. But Kelly and Delores are still hoping Oregon will be the first state in the nation to legalize their union for good.