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Howdy, partners

Multnomah County logs more than 700 couples in first month of same-sex registry
by:  JIM CLARK, John “Jack” Ulmer (left) and Charles “Jerry” Liming are among the older couples to register under Oregon’s domestic partnership law, which took effect last month. In general, the new registrants come from an older demographic than newlywed heterosexuals.

Jack Ulmer and Jerry Liming finally have legal recognition of their relationship, 52 years after they met at a friend's party and struck up a romance.

The Portland twosome is among more than 1,400 gays and lesbians to register domestic partnerships in Multnomah County since Feb. 4, when a 2007 law took effect granting most of the rights of married couples under state law.

Ulmer, 86, has the distinction of being the oldest among all of them.

'With the law now in Oregon, we have something to say about one another's disposition (after death), or medical care, or visitation in the hospital,'said Ulmer, a retired insurance lawyer. 'We feel that we're finally being recognized for who we are, and we're not asking for anything different than anyone gets.'

Ulmer and Liming never marched in pride parades or frequented gay bars, and most of their friends are straight. But they remember the days when police harassed gay social gatherings, and Liming was fired from two jobs for being gay.

Both men lost friends to suicide when their buddies couldn't face their homosexuality in a society that would shun them.

'It's been a long battle, but inch by inch we're getting there,' Ulmer said.

Oregon voters banned gay marriage through a 2004 ballot measure, and the Oregon Supreme Court later annulled marriages permitted by Multnomah County that year.

But Democrats brought a sea change to gay rights in Oregon during last year's legislative session, after winning full control of the Legislature in fall 2006. House Bill 2007 provided some marriage-style rights to same-sex couples, and Senate Bill 2 banned discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.

Conservative Christians and four Republican lawmakers still hope to overturn both laws. Yet that hasn't stopped a stream of gay and lesbian couples from registering their domestic partnerships with county clerks to secure the new marriage-style benefits.

Previously, same-sex couples could win some of the rights of married couples via legal adoptions, power-of-attorney forms and other means. But domestic partnerships provide the first avenue for same-sex couples to gain several benefits, said Jeana Frazzini, executive director of gay-rights group Basic Rights Oregon.

Those include filing state taxes jointly, freedom from testifying against their partner in court, the right to sue for wrongful death of their partner, the right to share a room in a long-term care facility, and the ability to decide what to do with a deceased partner's remains.

Portland couple Hazel Hale and Janet Cowan, both 76, already had arranged alternative legal protections after being together 20 years. They didn't see much direct benefit from registering their domestic partnership, said Hale, a retired nursing instructor.

'Our relationship was so good anyway, I doubt that it would make any difference,' Hale said. Nevertheless, they were among those registering. 'We just thought it was a good thing to do,' she said.

Don Frueh, a Portland resident and United Church of Christ pastor in Salem, said he and partner Robert Barzler registered their domestic partnership for the 'legal, practical stuff.' But the benefits went beyond that.

'It's a comfort, with the fact that we're covered, that we're protected by the law, that our relationship is recognized as something that has some meaning in the culture,' Frueh said.

Frueh was touched by a wedding card sent by his father after they registered. 'My dad wrote a note at the bottom that said, 'You guys belong together.' '

Records show a shift

Multnomah County records on domestic partnerships filed so far, combined with recent census data, provide a glimpse into the gay and lesbian populations.

In the first five weeks of the new law, 728 couples registered domestic partnerships in Multnomah County, about one-fourth the number of same-sex couples who got married in the county during the seven-week window when it was legal.

A state report, however, showed nearly one-third of the couples came here from out-of-state in 2004 to seize the opportunity.

Many couples didn't think they had the luxury to wait long after Multnomah County commissioners started issuing licenses to same-sex couples, Frazzini said. Now couples are taking more time to make their commitment decisions, she said.

Census figures show Portland's number of same-sex couples has grown 45 percent since 2000, said Gary Gates, a demographer specializing in the gay and lesbian population for the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

Portland now has the fourth-highest proportion of gay and lesbian couples among the top 50 U.S. cities, up from eighth-highest in 2000 and 10th-highest in 1990, said Gates, who analyzed 2000 census data and follow-up American Community Surveys. The top three cities are San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis.

Gates theorizes some of the increase is due to greater willingness to acknowledge homosexuality to federal officials, plus increased job opportunities here and national migration patterns.

But American Community Survey data show Portland's same-sex couples jumped from 3,329 in 2003 to 4,368 in 2006. That may be evidence that some of the 900-plus gay and lesbian couples who came here to get married in 2004 wound up moving here.

It's more women than men

So far, 63.5 percent of the couples registering for domestic partnerships in Multnomah County are female, and 36.5 percent are male.

That's consistent with patterns in other parts of the country, Gates said, and partly can be explained by the desire to win legal protections for couples with children. 'Lesbians are more likely to have children than gay men,' Gates said.

Studies also show gay males are less likely to couple up than lesbians, but more likely to last longer when they do live together in a relationship, he said. As with heterosexual couples, women are more likely to want to get married and more likely to initiate a breakup than men, Gates said.

Liming said he hopes younger couples don't jump into domestic partnerships frivolously and wind up getting hurt.

So far, that doesn't appear to be the case.

Couples registering domestic partnerships in Multnomah County tend to be more mature than newlywed heterosexual couples. Relatively few are in their 20s, and a substantial number are in their 50s and 60s.

That's not surprising, given that many of the couples were denied the right to marry for so long, advocates say.

'You have to assume that most of these couples have been together a while,' said Bonnie Tinker, executive director of Love Makes a Family, a Portland group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and their families.

Couples in their 50s and 60s are starting to think about retirement and writing wills, Tinker said, and domestic partnerships can provide more legal security for such arrangements.

Multnomah County records also show the gay and lesbian population has expanded beyond traditional enclaves. The 97214 ZIP code, home to the Buckman and Sunnyside neighborhoods, once was the heart of the local lesbian community, Tinker said.

Among lesbian couples who registered as domestic partners, 97214 now stands as the eighth-ranked ZIP code in the county. Data show many same-sex couples living in North Portland, mid- to outer-Southeast and Northeast neighborhoods, and a sprinkling in Gresham and other more socially conservative communities.

It remains to be seen if the experience so far will make Oregonians more receptive to legally recognizing same-sex couples.

Tim Nashif, who led the Oregon Family Council's 2004 campaign to ban gay marriage, said he doubts people's positions are changing on either side of the issue. But Nashif said gay rights advocates were politically astute to change the name of civil unions in the initial 2007 legislation to domestic partnerships, to reduce public outcry.

'Domestic partnerships is a different name than civil unions, and they're both different names than marriage,' Nashif said.

The Oregon Family Council still opposes both new laws, Nashif said. Some of the group's concerns were addressed, however, when the Legislature added a clear exemption for religious institutions in the anti-discrimination law, and removed a reference to church solemnization of civil unions that was in a proposed 2005 bill, he said.

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By the numbers

• Multnomah County households headed by gay and lesbian couples, 2004-2006:

Female couples: 1,952

Male couples: 2,269

• Oregon households headed by gay and lesbian couples, 2004-2006: 13,608, fifth-highest per-capita

• Same-sex couples who got married in Multnomah County in 2004, when it was legalized briefly:

Female couples: 1,961

Male couples: 828

• In 2000, Portland had the third-highest share of lesbian couples among 50 largest cities, and the 12th-highest share of gay male couples.

Sources: Oregon Vital Statistics Report, 2004; U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 census and 2002-2006 American Community Surveys; Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law