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Vestal: Witt has next civil rights victory scheduled

Retired Air Force Major Margaret Witt, right, and Laurie Johnson stand in their South Hill home on Monday. They are planning to marry Dec. 15 after receiving one of the first marriage licenses for same-sex couples this week. They are holding their dachshunds Bumpers, right, and Dachers. (Jesse Tinsley)
Retired Air Force Major Margaret Witt, right, and Laurie Johnson stand in their South Hill home on Monday. They are planning to marry Dec. 15 after receiving one of the first marriage licenses for same-sex couples this week. They are holding their dachshunds Bumpers, right, and Dachers. (Jesse Tinsley)

On Thursday, Margaret Witt will be first in line again.

Witt, the retired Air Force major who helped dismantle the misbegotten “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, is set to receive the first marriage license for two women granted in Spokane County, along with her longtime companion, Laurie Johnson. The actual wedding will come a little later, but in terms of public policy – the no-longer-discriminatory limits around the state’s issuing of a license – the achievement will have been achieved. The dream Margie Witt has only recently known to dream is coming true.

“I never grew up dreaming of marriage, and especially once I realized I was gay, there was just no reality of that during my lifetime,” said Witt, 48. “I never had the dream. It was never a reality.”

Starting Thursday, it is. By Sunday – following the required three-day waiting period – the first same-sex couples in Washington will be married. Witt and Johnson’s own nuptials will come a little later, in a private ceremony Dec. 15, where Witt plans to wear her formal Air Force “mess dress” and Johnson plans to wear a black cocktail dress.

“I think you should wear your White House shoes,” Witt told Johnson the other night as they discussed their plans.

Your White House shoes. The wild and dramatic road that Witt has traveled might be best summed up in the fact that she and Johnson – a very Spokane couple in many ways, living in a meticulously detailed old home near Manito Park – are no longer shocked when they see the gold-embossed return address of the White House in the mail.

Witt attended the bill-signing ceremony for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011. Later, a framed copy of the bill arrived from the White House in the mail. Then late last year, they were invited to the Christmas party at the White House – the reason for the shoes.

At the party, as they looked around and listened to a high school choir, Johnson wondered whether the Obamas would be there.

“Then I look out the window and Marine One is descending on the lawn,” she said.

Witt said she remembers gazing toward the front fence of the White House, where tourists gather and have their pictures taken, and thinking: “I don’t know how I got here.”

In sheer, factual terms, how she got there is well known. An Air Force flight nurse, Witt was investigated for violations of “don’t ask” in 2004 and formally discharged in 2007. She sued the Air Force and the Department of Justice, with help from the ACLU, and was eventually ordered reinstated in 2010 – a key piece of mortar falling from the edifice of a collapsing law.

Meanwhile, largely out of sight, there was the ongoing story of Margie and Laurie. A love story.

They’d worked together and known each other for a while as friends several years earlier.

Johnson had lived as a straight woman, marrying a man and having three kids. Initially, she said, she just thought Witt was a great person.

“I thought, ‘Wow,’” Johnson said. “‘You are really something. You are interesting. I’ve never met anyone like you.’”

Her “light bulb moment” – a very quiet one – came later, Johnson said, when she finally told herself, “‘I … think I’m gay. OK then.’ Then my soul started falling into place.”

Witt said, “I was quite surprised when she took my hand. And that was it. I never wanted to let it go.”

Still, the dream of marrying was distant. A couple of states approved marriage equality – then voters overturned it. When Washington’s lawmakers voted to approve it, opponents of the law quickly raised the signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. A campaign against gay marriage was mounted, but voters in this state defeated it.

What Washington voters did was historic. What Witt has done is historic. What she and Johnson – and scores of other couples – will do in the coming days is historic.

But it is also intensely personal. It is so personal, so individually conceived, so close to the source of what fundamental freedom is – the right to make the most crucial decisions about our own lives – that however happy we are about the change that arrives Thursday, it must come with the recognition that the change has been stubbornly late in coming and that the change is incomplete.

Margie Witt proposed to Laurie Johnson on Nov. 10, at a banquet in Seattle where she was receiving an award from the ACLU. The crowd of 500 or so erupted in joyous celebration; as has often been the case with their personal milestones, Witt and Johnson have been deluged with celebrations and congratulations.

“For us, it’s been that way all along,” Witt said.

And as for that dream that Witt could not imagine for so many years – she has it now.

“I’m thrilled to have the ability to marry my soul mate,” she said. “It is different. The language makes it different. Marriage is universal. Everybody knows what it means.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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