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10 years ago today, Washington marked a milestone in marriage equality

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, seated, raises her arms on Feb. 13, 2012, as legislators and supporters cheer behind her after she signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage in Olympia.  (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, seated, raises her arms on Feb. 13, 2012, as legislators and supporters cheer behind her after she signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage in Olympia. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Margie Witt remembers sitting in the front row of a crowd in the ornate State Reception Room with her partner Laurie McChesney, crying tears of joy as legislation was signed making same-sex marriage legal in Washington.

Nearby, Dean Lynch was sitting with his partner of nearly a quarter century, Michael Flannery, feeling the signing was “like a celebration that we had arrived.”

Ten years ago today , then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed one of the most controversial bills in the recent history of Washington, pushing the state into the forefront of a national debate of whether same-sex couples could marry. Passage of the bill was a major milestone – although not the end point – on a long road to extending the same rights that heterosexual couples had to Washington couples like Witt and McChesney, Lynch and Flannery.

Witt already had won a significant battle for equal rights. An officer in the Washington National Guard, she faced discharge under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in effect at the time. Rather than go quietly, she filed and won a federal lawsuit that helped topple that policy.

Lynch had been active in equal rights and issues around sexual orientation in Spokane since 1986. In 1999, he helped lead the fight to retain Spokane’s Human Rights Ordinance, which prohibited discrimination in housing and employment against race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin, marital status, disability and sexual orientation.

But in 2012, Washington was not among the handful of states allowing couples of the same sex to marry.

“It was one of the most memorable days of my public life,” Gregoire said last week of the signing ceremony.

Her Catholic faith held then, and continues to hold, that marriage is only between a man and a woman. But Gregoire said her resistance to same-sex marriage began to change when talking to her two adult daughters about equal marriage rights and realizing the conversations echoed ones she had with her parents about racial equality.

After some soul searching, she talked with her parish priest before going public with her support, telling him, “I didn’t believe I could be the Catholic governor of Washington. I had to be the governor of the whole state.”

A long process

“It did not happen overnight,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who was then a member of the House and the chairman of that chamber’s Judiciary Committee. Work began in 1995 and litigation worked its way through the courts in the 2002. The Legislature passed a domestic partnership bill – what some dubbed the “Everything But Marriage Bill” – in 2009, which was quickly challenged by opponents who filed a referendum asking voters to overturn the law.

Supporters were nervous about going to the ballot after an effort to add sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, Initiative 677, had failed in 1997.

Voters upheld that 2009 law with 53% of the vote, giving confidence to supporters to try for full rights for same sex couples, said Pedersen, who is now a member of the state Senate.

“I think if opponents had not taken the Everything But Marriage bill to the ballot, I’m not sure we would’ve got ‘Marriage’ in 2012,” he said.

During the first two weeks of February, the Legislature engaged in two contentious debates before passing the bill. The Senate went first, where a handful of Republicans from suburban districts joined majority Democrats in voting yes, and a handful of conservative Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.

That set up the final vote in the House, where the outcome wasn’t really in doubt because Pedersen had lined up 50 lawmakers – the majority needed for passage – as co-sponsors of that chamber’s version of the bill. But that didn’t stifle a passionate debate over a string of amendments, which all failed, and the bill itself.

Critics questioned why the Legislature was spending time on what one Spokane Republican called simply “a name change” to the state’s domestic partnership law when Washington was still struggling with the recession. Others said the law would discriminate against businesses whose owners had deeply held religious beliefs and would want to refuse service to same sex couples.

Going viral

Maureen Walsh, a Walla Walla Republican who cosponsored the bill, had spent several sleepless nights thinking about her upcoming House vote. She hadn’t planned to speak at all, but when someone suggested that the domestic partnership law was enough, she rose to be recognized near the end of the debate. As was her custom, the speech was extemporaneous and unrehearsed.

“I may be committing political suicide,” she said. “But I don’t care.”

Walsh talked about how she missed her late husband and the importance of finding a partner and being in a committed marriage. Her daughter was a lesbian, Walsh said, and some day, God willing, she hoped her daughter would be lucky enough to find someone like that to share a life with and she’d be able to attend their wedding.

“Domestic partnership sounds like a Merry Maids franchise,” Walsh said as the packed gallery erupted and the gavel banged down.

“I thought I had slipped out a curse word, which happens sometimes,” she said last week, recalling the debate. Instead, she had been gaveled for breaking the House rules against naming a business.

After the vote, Walsh walked outside and was mobbed by people who wanted to shake her hand or take a selfie with her. The speech became part of the coverage and a clip of it went up on the internet. When she came to her legislative office the next day, a staffer told her it had gone viral.

“I had no idea what going viral meant,” she said, adding she thought it meant she had done something bad to the internet.

A waiting game

After the signing ceremony ended, the crowd slowly left the marble-walled State Reception Room and Gregoire headed back to her office one floor below in the domed Legislative Building. A staff member told her she should return because there was something in the near empty room she needed to see.

Peering through the glass door, Gregoire looked in and saw two people at the spot where the signing took place.

“There was a marriage proposal happening, right where I had signed the bill. It was an unbelievably emotional day,” she said.

That young couple, and others who cheered the signing of the Marriage Equality Act, would have to wait for nearly a year before the law took effect. Within hours of the signing, opponents led by the Family Policy Institute, filed a referendum to put the bill on the ballot and require voters to uphold it.

Mark Miloscia, who in 2012 was a conservative Democrat who argued and voted against the bill in the House, said he had supported domestic partnerships but drew the line at marriage. He called the bill’s passage one of the most depressing days of his life.

“I was 80% certain things were going to get a lot worse,” Miloscia said last week, adding he believes they have. The country is moving away from its Christian roots and “it’s going to end extremely badly for everyone.”

Christians who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons are labeled bigots and “the sexual revolution has now accelerated into all aspects of life,” said Miloscia, who added he was “pushed out of the Democratic Party.” He was later elected for one term to the Senate as a Republican and serves as executive director of the Family Policy Institute.

Once the initiative was filed, the bill couldn’t take effect until opponents had a chance to gather the needed signatures to qualify for the ballot. When they did, both sides had to wait until voters had their say in the November general election. If voters said no, the law would be void; if they said yes, same-sex marriages still wouldn’t be legal until the election was certified in early December.

In ‘the beast’

About three months after Gregoire signed the Marriage Equality Act, President Barack Obama made a campaign stop in Seattle where she also appeared. Afterward, she was asked to take a ride in “the beast,” the armored vehicle in which the president travels.

Obama just a day earlier announced his support for same-sex marriage nationally. The two talked about how they had struggled with the issue and “he told me how proud he was about what I had done,” Gregoire recalled.

Walsh, meanwhile, received calls and letters from all over the country, and eventually all over the world. Among the most touching was an email thanking her from a soldier on duty in the Middle East. Returning home from a local GOP meeting where she was facing heat for the vote, she picked up a voice message from a caller who said he was a 92-year-old man who said, “You’ve got some cajones for standing up for what you believe in.”

She was invited to a summit in Washington, D.C., with then-Sen. Ed Murray, the prime sponsor of the bill. When the two of them arrived, she was the one mobbed, surrounded by people wanting to hear about Washington’s bill. She pointed to Murray, who was standing by himself, and said they should talk to the sponsor.

“Thanks for throwing me a bone, Walsh,” she remembers him saying. Later on at the summit she met Betty White and was on the stage with Cher, all because “I gave a speech on marriage equality in Washington … it was a crazy year.”

Opponents did gather enough signatures to get the referendum on the November ballot. But supporters had expected that, Pederson said, and hoped that 2012 presented their best chance for getting voter approval, something that had never happened before. All other states had legalized same sex-marriage by legislation or court decree.

It was a presidential election year, which meant a heavy turnout, with more young voters. Obama was running for re-election and was expected to easily carry Washington. One thing that hadn’t played into their calculations but may have helped it, was another ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, which was expected to bring out more voters of liberal and libertarian persuasions.

The voters decide

Millions of dollars from all over the country poured into the state in the battle over the referendum. Opponents of gay marriage raised about $3 million, while supporters raised about $14 million.

In the end, the bill got support from nearly 54% of the voters, passing by more than 200,000 votes. Witt recalls attending an ACLU banquet in Seattle that celebrated the wins on marriage equality and recreational marijuana.

She was asked to give a speech, and asked her partner, McChesney to stand as well.

In front of the gathering, she asked McChesney to marry her, and McChesney said yes. When the Spokane County auditor’s office opened in mid-December with the new forms allowing same-sex marriages, Witt and McChesney were first in line.

A few years later, Walsh’s daughter did find a partner to share her life with, and Walsh was able to attend the wedding she talked about on the floor of the House.

Lynch and Flannigan, who hadn’t signed up for a domestic partnership because it wasn’t full marriage, decided to wait on marriage until it was legal nationally, which happened in 2015 through a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“There was a time when it was beyond our belief it would ever happen,” Lynch said. “But when it happened, I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.”

Some people believe it was because the stars aligned, he said, and there may be some truth to that.

“But society itself was also changing,” Lynch said. When earlier reforms were made “the sky didn’t fall and that took away some of the opposition some people had to anything to do with LGBTQ issues.”

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