Twenty years ago this month, the Washington Legislature passed the first of two bills “defending” marriage from gay people.
Five years ago this month, the Washington Legislature became the first state in the country to repeal its Defense of Marriage Act and pass marriage equality. Voters affirmed that legislation in a referendum later that year, and counties began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Within three years, the Supreme Court established marriage as a right for all people.
“It took a long, long time,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, “but when change happened, it happened very fast.”
Murray was the only openly gay member of the Legislature when the original DOMA bills were being debated and passed. At that time, though he was working to legalize same-sex marriage, he was not all that optimistic.
“Marriage was not something I saw happening, probably, in my lifetime,” he said during an interview this week.
Now, Murray is married – to Spokane native Michael Shiosaki. They’ve been together for 25 years, and married since 2013.
What changed between those legislative battles was not a softening on the part of opponents, but a widespread change in society, bubbling up. As more and more LGBT people came out, it gradually erased stereotypes and replaced them with real people, one relationship at a time. This change rippled powerfully through networks of families and friends, rising upward in measurable shifts in public opinion.
“As people got to know who gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people were, particularly in the case of marriage equality, and as we were slowly able to tell the story of what our relationships were about and the insecurity we faced because we didn’t have the financial or personal security of being able to visit your spouse in the hospital or inherit your partner’s property or the home you built together – people began to understand those things,” Murray said.
“As more and more people came out – to legislators – the world changed.”
Public opinion toward same-sex marriage essentially reversed course during those years. In 2001, 35 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center supported marriage equality and 57 percent opposed it. By 2016, 55 percent supported it, and 37 percent opposed it.
Voters in Washington went through a similar change: It was about evenly divided – 46 percent in favor, and 44 against – in a 2011 poll. Voters in 2012 passed Referendum 74, legalizing same-sex marriage, by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
Since then, thousands of same-sex couples have married all over the state. Between December 2012 and 2015, nearly 16,000 same-sex couples have been issued licenses statewide. In Spokane, 795 same-sex couples have been issued licenses through the end of 2016 – about 7 percent of all marriage licenses issued during that time.
A recent Gallup poll estimated that roughly 126,000 same-sex marriages took place in the year following the Supreme Court decision.
Such figures might have seemed impossible in 1996, when Murray was first appointed to fill a vacant House seat. Lawmakers began debating and passing DOMA bills in those years, which Murray describes as a “dark time” for gays and lesbians.
“It wasn’t immigrants that people were being stirred up about, it was gays and lesbians that people were being stirred up to hate,” he said.
Murray recalled an unusual feature of those floor debates.
“When they decided to debate it, they removed the pages from the floor … because the subject was considered too X-rated,” he said. “And one of the pages they removed from the floor was my nephew.”
When DOMA first passed, Murray took it hard.
“Of the 147 members that made up the House and the Senate, it exactly impacted one person: Myself,” he said. “It was a very demoralizing moment personally.”
The Legislature passed a DOMA bill in 1997, and Gov. Gary Locke vetoed it. Another bill landed on Locke’s desk the following year, and he vetoed it again – but the Republican majority, joined by Democrats, overrode it.
Fifteen years later, Democrats held the majority in both houses, and lawmakers had begun to sense the social changes that were sweeping the nation. It was still a tough battle, but when proponents secured the key swing vote in the Senate, it was symbolic: Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat who had voted in favor of DOMA, changed her position.
“She said it was her grandchildren who had convinced her,” Murray said. “She took a risky vote – and she lost her election that year.”
Haugen wrote a blog post defending her vote later, and in retrospect her words stand as a fitting tribute to the evolution Washington went through as it moved toward allowing all of its citizens the right to marry.
“For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is what I believe, to this day,” she wrote. “But this issue isn’t about just what I believe. It’s about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It’s about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed.”