Will Wash. Allow Gays and Lesbians to Tie the Knot?
Even though Washington voters in Nov. 2009 approved a referendum that afforded same-sex registered domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities heterosexual couples receive through marriage, one question remains: When will marriage equality become a reality in the Evergreen State?
"The Approve Referendum 71 campaign has given us important infrastructure, alliances, and allowed us to test new technologies," Josh Friedes, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, told EDGE. "There is some exciting work being done at the moment in states such as Maine, Maryland, Oregon and Rhode Island. We’re looking forward to learning from their experiences."
Equal Rights Washington successfully advocated for the Anderson-Murray anti-discrimination law that passed in 2006, the creation of the domestic partnership registry, expanded domestic partnership protections, and the Healthy Youth Act.
"At this point the question is whether we try to secure marriage equality in 2012 or 2014," said Friedes. "The decision will be made largely by looking at polling numbers as time progresses. What we don’t want to do is lose and put LGBT youth and children being raised by LGBT parents through a nasty campaign that does not result in the legal right to marry."
He added one advantage he and other LGBT activists have in Washington is there are many paths by which they can achieve marriage equality-including the lack of a constitutional amendment that bans nuptials for same-sex couples that Oregon and many other states have.
"What is common to all the options is that we want to develop a marriage equality majority in the public," said Friedes. "This is especially true because even if the legislature were to pass a marriage equality bill without a referendum clause, our opponents would almost certainly place a referendum on the ballot."
Equal Rights Washington plans to pursue several strategies.
"The first is that you want to have your marriage equality majority developed well in advance of your traditional political campaign; voters don’t move in our direction in the course of a political campaign," said Friedes. "Our second conclusion is that movable voters move through conversations with people with whom they already have existing relationships or with whom they develop meaningful relationships."
He added Equal Rights Washington will urge marriage supporters to speak to their friends and family members about the issue, while providing information to undecided voters. "To date we really haven’t seen television or radio ads focused on explaining to supporters why they need to talk to people they know," said Friedes. "With the electorate equally divided at the moment between marriage equality supporters and opponents we need to get strong marriage equality supporters talking to their social networks."
Recent polls indicate nearly half of those who said they oppose marriage for gays and lesbians back comprehensive domestic partnerships.
"We’re meeting now with our allies in labor, communities of color, choice and faith to develop simultaneous campaigns that are appropriate for their constituencies," said Friedes
Mike Andrew of Pride at Work’s Martin Luther King County Chapter said he is optimistic about the prospect of marriage for gays and lesbians. "From the point of view of the labor movement, we have very significant support for marriage equality, in Washington and nationally," he said.
While noting 25 labor organizations signed onto pro-marriage equality amicus briefs in the Anderson case, he conceded some union rank-and-file remain opposed. Andrew added, however, he remains confident organized labor will continue to rally behind the issue.
"That’s not an accident, it’s the result of a lot of work by Pride at Work and many, many individual queer union members over many years," he said. "The problem is you have to get the bill passed by the legislature and signed by the governor."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna could thwart any marriage equality measure if voters elect him in 2012; a GOP-controlled Legislature could also have an adverse impact.
"It’s just idle talk to talk about marriage equality without talking about the bigger question of political power in this state," said Andrew. "Our issues - the issues that impact the queer community - are part of a bigger package of progressive issues that include labor issues, and a fair tax system, and access to health care and education, and all of them hinge on having the political power to pass the bills and get them signed."
Gay state Sen. Ed Murray [D-Seattle] recently introduced a marriage equality bill in Olympia, but he conceded to EDGE he doesn’t foresee any action on it this year.
"We’ve still got a lot of work to do," he said. "Most legislators still haven’t heard from their constituents on the marriage issue. It illustrates our ongoing need to organize outside of Seattle."
Murray remains optimistic, however, Washington lawmakers will pass a marriage bill in the near future. "It will be a few years," he said. "We have to be prepared to win an initiative campaign because the opponents of marriage quality will almost certainly file a repeal petition."