When I drove my little MINI Cooper from Connecticut to Seattle 16 months ago, I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. I had left my job in the executive compensation department at PepsiCo and decided to start over in the Northwest, specifically in Seattle. With two degrees in Geography to my name, I have been well-trained to be conscious of a 'sense of place' on a regular basis. Place, in all that can mean, was the primary in my decision of where to move. Without a doubt the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest was a strong draw, but a very particular, if also vague, conception of urban Seattle culture was a key determinant as well.
My home state of Connecticut achieved marriage equality in 2008. I got my undergraduate degree at Macalester College, ranked the most LGBT-friendly school in the country in 2007. Gay marriage was legalized in Spain while I was studying abroad there in 2004. I volunteered with Basic Rights Oregon to help out with the first day of domestic partnership registrations at the Lane County Courthouse in Eugene in the first year of my Master’s program at the University of Oregon. Despite all this, I never planned to work at an LGBT organization or be professionally involved in the fight for civil rights and equality.
Which is all the more reason why I am so deeply appreciative of the experiences I have had over the last several months. When GSBA brought me on staff in February, it was just in time for this historic 10-month campaign that we’ve all just been through. 48 hours after she signed the marriage equality bill, Governor Gregoire would be the keynote speaker at our Business & Humanitarian Awards Dinner. GSBA took a leading role in mobilizing the small business community to endorse and contribute to the Washington United Campaign. Senator Patty Murray held a roundtable forum on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in our offices last April, which included testimony from Margaret Witt, whose story I knew long before moving to Washington.
The last week has been unforgettable. I had the privilege to wait for a few hours with some of the first couples to apply for their marriage licenses in King County, listening to and spreading their stories online. Couples like Dawn Rains and Heather Laird, who talked about how they had to sign 39 pages of legal documents to approximate the legal protections of a marriage at their commitment ceremony 11 years ago. Couples like Pam Keely and Claudia Gorbman – Pam lost her first job 40 years ago for being gay, but on election night she received news of R74’s results while treating victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York as part of her job with WA-1 DMAT (a federal medical disaster team). Couples like Gabe Verdugo and Adam Forcier who will be moving back to Spokane, where they met nearly a decade ago. The chance to stand in the recorder’s room to watch these first couples stand in line to receive the legal recognition of their love and commitment was incredibly powerful. Even this typically bureaucratic procedure, which seemed relatively emotionless for most of the straight couples in the walk through a few days before, was truly celebratory at midnight on December 6.
For the rest of that Thursday I tried to keep up with the deluge of stories from around the state. John McCluskey and Rudy Henry in Tacoma, together for 53 years. Col. Grethe Cammermeyer in Langley and Maj. Margaret Witt in Spokane, two of the most important figures in the fight against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Paul Harris in Camas, who after issuing marriage licenses as a Clark County Clerk for decades, was finally able to getone for himself and his partner of 40 years, James Griener. In Bellingham, Michael Butler said "It's a chance to be just like everyone else. What's really nice about this is that our fellow Washingtonians voted for this. That makes me so proud to say I'm a Washingtonian."
I keep reading and hearing interviews from the couples who say, again and again, that this is Seattle. This is Washington. "I don't even have words for this,'' said Caren Goldenberg, who married her partner of seven years, Casey Evans, at City Hall. "It just makes me really proud of my city.'' This city and this state voted for the first time in the United States to grant marriage equality at the ballot box. Not only that, but Washington State had the highest voter participation rate in the whole country (registered voters, that is. My Minnesotan friends will quickly point out that they have the highest rate of eligible voters participating). These facts only reinforce my mental image of Seattle, of Washington, of the Northwest – these are places where this once-in-a-lifetime campaign was not only possible, but successful.
That's not to say that the journey to this momentous week wasn't long and full of frustrating obstacles and setbacks. But when we have a Republican from Walla Walla standing up for marriage equality alongside legislators from Capitol Hill, unions and businesses of all sizes, faith groups and community groups from all corners of society... that is what I hoped Seattle and Washington could be. Whereas there was little to no business opposition to the anti-gay constitutional amendment in North Carolina in May, in Washington our business community came out with vocal support for equality, not only because it was good business but because it was the right thing to do. Saracristina Garcia, waiting to marry her partner Teri Bednarski, told us that “The passage of marriage equality is an example of an extremely diverse community standing together to protect a minority as well as the well-being of everyone’s children. Washingtonians at their best.”
This social and political reality is integral to my sense of my new home as a place, and I couldn’t be prouder to be here.