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Gay Marriage in the Pacific Northwest? All Eyes on Washington State

by Shaun Knittel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 24, 2012

In a spirited and impassioned speech, Gov. Chris Gregoire recently announced a 180-degree turnaround in her policy concerning same-sex marriage in Washington State. Previously, she supported only efforts to expand the state's current law on domestic partner rights for LGBT couples. The Jan. 4, 2012, press conference made national headlines because it was the first time the governor moved further on the issue from tweaking domestic partners to out-and-out marriage equality.

In fact, Gregoire apparently had a road to Damascus -- an apparently genuine conversion. She announced that she was going to introduce the bill in the next state legislative session herself. -- which so happened, just began this week in the capital of the Northwest state, Olympia.

"It's time, it's the right thing to do," Gregoire told a room crowded with reporters, LGBT advocates and same-sex marriage advocates, some of whom came from as far away as Spokane and Vancouver to witness the speech. "Some say domestic partnerships are the same as marriage," she said. "That's a version of the discriminatory separate but equal argument of the past.

"Our gay and lesbian families face the same hurdles as heterosexual families," she added. "Making ends meet, choosing what school to send their kids to, finding someone to grow old with, standing in front of friends and family and making a lifetime commitment. For all couples, a state marriage license is very important. It gives them the right to enter into a marriage contract in which their legal interests, and those of their children, if any, are protected by well-established civil law."

For many LGBT advocates in Washington State, the governor's endorsement of gay marriage is seen as a key piece in securing marriage equality in the Evergreen State in 2012.

Washington United for Marriage, the broad statewide coalition of organizations, congregations, unions and business associations working to obtain civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples in the state, applauded Gov. Gregoire for her landmark comments and endorsement of marriage equality.

"Governor Gregoire made crystal clear why marriage equality matters and why the legislature should pass it this year," said Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage. "She has shown tremendous leadership on this issue which affects so many of our friends, family and neighbors.

"Thousands of families in Washington State will be impacted by the legislation," he added. "Currently, these couples may register for a domestic partnership which confers most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but does not recognize the love, commitment and devotion to family that marriage conveys."

Governor's Journey Reflects Society's

The verdict on Gregoire's speech was near unanimous: especially powerful because she was not only speaking an elected leader, but also as a mother, wife, and member of the Catholic faith. Her words were backed by what she called a journey in which she battled her own uncertainty on the issue. Gregoire says she was uncomfortable with the position she previously took, but that she "came to realize, the religions can decide what they want to do, but it's not OK for the state to discriminate."

Just as LGBT people have been asked to tell their story, gay marriage advocates have asked straight allies to do the same. Gregoire did just that, explaining that she had to work through her religious beliefs and listen to friends and family that had asked her to change her views.

"Governor Gregoire's personal journey parallels that of many people in Washington. The public has been moving toward greater acceptance of differences among individuals and recognizing there is not a good reason to treat people unequally under the law simply because of their sexual orientation," Jennifer Shaw, of the ACLU of Washington, told EDGE. "We applaud the Governor for her open-mindedness and willingness to change her opinion about who should have access to civil marriage."

A release from the Human Rights Campaign points up how Gregoire's evolving views on gay marriage reflect the larger society.

"From coast to coast, more and more Americans are coming to appreciate the values they share with committed gay and lesbian couples: the desire to love, honor and protect the person they love," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in referring both to Gregoire and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo. "By voicing their strong support for marriage equality, Governors Gregoire and Cuomo propel this issue forward. They confirm what most Americans already believe: committed gay and lesbian couples deserve the ability to marry and establish families protected by law."

Then There's the Catholic Church

New York State passed same-sex marriage legislation last year. On Jan. 4, Cuomo listed it as one of his top accomplishments for 2011 in his annual "State of the State" address. Cuomo said that prior to the passage of this legislation, gay and lesbian New Yorkers were treated as "second-class citizens by the government."

One of the biggest obstacles in New York was the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which has many adherents in the Empire State. The Church has been vocal and active in opposition to same-sex marriage across the country. But HRC's Somonese believes that the church hierarchy doesn't reflect the views of the faithful in the pews any longer.

"It's notable that both Governors are Catholics -- a group that supports legal recognition of Gay and Lesbian couples by wide margins," said Solmonese. "According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Catholics are more supportive of legal recognition of gay couples than members of any other Christian tradition. On the issue of allowing lesbian and gay couples to get a civil marriage license at city hall, 71 percent of American Catholics say they are in favor."

In Washington State, the church also wields some influence (Gregoire herself is a Catholic.) Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Seattle Archdiocese, said the church would be "looking for the Legislature to uphold the current legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The position of the Catholic Church is clear."

Sharing Stories

Still, the march towards full marriage equality in Washington State is gaining ground. Thalia Zepatos, director of public engagement for Freedom to Marry, attributes that to gay activists as well as straight allies such as Gregoire sharing their personal stories instead of constantly talking about benefits. "For so many LGBT people and their closest friends and relatives, the denial of benefits has been a strong message that has helped build support for domestic partnership, as well as marriage," Zepatos concedes. Still, that may be too legalistic and abstract an approach for such an emotional issue.

The argument about benefits has also worked against us, Zepatos adds. "For many of those well-intentioned people, talking about marriage as a collection of legal rights has two outcomes. First, it shores up the case for domestic partnership or civil unions. Second, it reinforces their concern that same-sex couples really don't 'understand,' or share, their values around marriage," she said.

"For that reason," she concluded, it's important for us to share our own values, and get to the heart of why marriage for same-sex couples is so important." In order to address people's concerns about marriage for gay couples, we must keep in mind the potential internal conflicts they will face and that such conflicts can take time and engagement to resolve."

When asked what marriage means, most people immediately mention "commitment," according to Zepatos. "The best way to connect around the freedom to marry is to show the commitment of gay couples that are already doing the work of marriage in everyday life," she said. "We can demonstrate the power of commitment by telling the stories of long-term couples, by highlighting acts that show such couples taking responsibility for each other, taking care of each other, putting their partner first, taking care of their children, their elderly parents, and their community. Luckily, there are so many stories in the community that make these very points."

Next: A State Senator's Fascinating Backstory


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