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MailTribune.com
  • 'We've Come a Long Way, Baby'

    When Fanda Bender and Sheila Gam first met, they were afraid, sometimes, even to be seen together; now, after 29 years, they'll have a chance to be recognized as a couple in the eyes of the state — and, they hope, its residents
  • When they fell in love 29 years ago, they were afraid to hold hands in public, worried that their relationship could prompt the loss of their jobs or even physical violence against them.
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  • When they fell in love 29 years ago, they were afraid to hold hands in public, worried that their relationship could prompt the loss of their jobs or even physical violence against them.
    But on Monday, Fanda Bender and Sheila Gam of Talent plan to register as domestic partners, part of what they hope will be a wave of gay and lesbian couples around the state acting on a state law and federal court decision that cleared the way for such partnerships.
    "We've come a long way, baby," Bender said.
    Bender, 67, a social worker, and Gam, 74, an educational psychologist, have worked for years on diversity training and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. They were especially pleased when a federal judge on Friday suddenly lifted an injunction he had placed late last year, just days before the domestic partnership law approved in Oregon's 2007 legislative session was to take effect.
    "It feels like a miracle," Gam said.
    U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman had blocked the law, known as the Oregon Family Fairness Act, from taking effect Jan. 1, but Friday, he reversed that decision. He rejected arguments made by attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group that advocates for Christian legal issues, who claimed that county elections clerks had improperly disqualified voter signatures collected during a drive to refer the domestic partners law to the November 2008 ballot.
    With the ruling, Oregon becomes the ninth state to approve spousal rights in some form for gay couples.
    "We're so happy that this is happening here," Gam said. "It is an Oregonian thing, but I think it has to be an American thing."
    Couples who register as domestic partners will be able to file joint state tax returns, inherit each other's property and make medical choices on each other's behalf, along with a host of other state benefits given to married Oregonians. They won't yet be able to file joint federal income taxes or share Social Security survivor benefits, and the protections are available only in Oregon and would not be upheld in another state or country.
    "This is the issue of our time," Bender said.
    Her mother advocated for women's rights to vote and her father was a union organizer. Gam's father was an undocumented immigrant from Poland, who fought for fair treatment of all people throughout his life.
    "This is a continuation of fighting for the rights of others and for our own rights and those of the next generation of gay and lesbian couples," Bender said.
    Busy caring for her two daughters and one son, Gam said she always regretted that she couldn't travel to Selma, Ala., during the Civil Rights Movement.
    "But we are at the front line this time," she said.
    Through the years, Gam and Bender, who has a son and daughter, have seen the challenges same-sex couples face.
    When they met at a class at Cal State Northridge in using theater techniques in counseling in 1978, they were both divorced and dating men. As their new relationship blossomed, they worried that colleagues or students would recognize them.
    "It was so scary," Gam said.
    She remembers feeling judgmental eyes on them when they met for coffee and their discomfort at visiting gay bars in bad neighborhoods where they feared both a criminal presence and police raids.
    More recently, when Gam was hospitalized in Pasadena, one doctor refused to let Bender be in the room with her.
    "As we get older, that's very important, as is inheritance," Bender said. "Now, overnight, we are protected in that."
    Bender, Gam and other couples who worked with Basic Rights Oregon to advocate for the domestic partnership law plan to go to the Jackson County Clerk's office first thing Monday morning to register. The Rogue Valley Peace Choir will perform.
    Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or at aburke@mailtribune.com
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