PORTLAND, Ore. - Watching the parade of gay couples lined up in Portland for marriage licenses last week, a single, straight woman leaned over to a friend and made a rueful observation.
"You see," she said, "even gay guys can't commit."
Roughly two-thirds of the gay couples obtaining marriage licenses in Portland are female, according to an Associated Press analysis.
One reason is demographics: Portland's growing reputation as a tolerant, lesbian-friendly city has attracted high numbers of lesbians over the past few decades. But gender studies scholars said the imbalance could also be due to larger sociological and financial differences between men and women.
Ann Mussey, 53, an assistant professor of women's studies at Portland State University, was among the gay women who lined up for their licenses. She said she was struck by the number of lesbians who were there with children, and said their offspring might be one reason for the imbalance.
"Marriage is a really important protection for children," Mussey said. "I would suspect more lesbian couples have children, and many have adopted children as well."
But Mussey also said research has shown that there is some truth to the old joke about what a lesbian brings on the second date (punch line: a moving van).
"Some research has supported that notion that gay women were more able to commit to long-term monogamous relationships than gay men," she said.
Ellen Scott, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, also noted that lesbians, like heterosexual women, tend to make less money than their male counterparts, and so might seek to get married to get access to each other's health benefits, or to get tax advantages.
The AP reviewed the names and addresses of the 1,983 couples who obtained marriage licenses in Portland's Multnomah County between March 3 and March 12, the last date for which data were available. At least 1,252 of those licenses appeared to be for female couples, or about 63 percent.
At least 494 male couples got licenses, or 24 percent of the total, as did at least 12 male-female couples. The gender makeup of the remaining 225 couples could not immediately be determined from their names.
In San Francisco, a city analysis showed that 57 percent of the 4,037 gay couples married in the four weeks before California's high court put a stop to the practice were lesbians.
Portland is now the only major U.S. city where gay couples can get a marriage license. Benton County, home to Oregon State University, announced Tuesday that it would begin issuing licenses next week.
Some said the male-female imbalance in Portland is largely explained by the city's status as a lesbian haven.
"Do you have Just Out?" asked Holly Mulcahey, a lesbian who has lived in Portland for years, referring to Portland's gay alternative newspaper. "There are two to three pages of fine print on different groups - lesbians who hike, lesbians who garden, lesbians who have dogs, lesbians who eat brunch together on Sundays. This is a very lesbian-friendly town."
Census numbers from 2000 underline Mulcahey's point. Multnomah County ranks third among 212 large urban counties for female-female couples as a percentage of overall households, behind California's Sonoma and San Francisco counties. Multnomah County ranked 11th in male-male couples.
Overall, the census found 5,086 female-female households in Oregon in 2000, and 3,846 male-male households. And of those all-female homes, 35 percent of them are in Multnomah County.
The city also consistently ranks high on a top 10 list of cities for lesbians to live in, published by San Francisco-based Girlfriends Magazine.
The lesbian community in Portland grew over the years by word of mouth, aided by a strong network of female politicians such as former Gov. Barbara Roberts and Portland Mayor Vera Katz, said Donna Luckett, a board member of the Lesbian Community Project, a Portland organization.
"I brought along about 10 to 15 people myself," said Luckett, a Knoxville, Tenn., transplant. "A friend of mine helped me to move. She liked it so well, she went back to Knoxville and sold her home. If you find a safe place to be, you let other people know that."
Although Portland does not have its version of San Francisco's heavily gay Castro neighborhood, Portland lesbians have tended to congregate in close-in, urban neighborhoods that have been revitalized over the past 15 years or so.
Luckett, who said she never expected to end up staying in Oregon, said the strong lesbian network now makes it almost unthinkable to leave.
"We have traveled across the country looking at other places to live, and we just can't find another place," she said. "We have just decided that Oregon holds all the ingredients we want in our home."