When it was first introduced in the state legislature in 1977, Washington's gay civil rights bill was a nonstarter, too radical to merit serious consideration. That wasn’t surprising, given the times, but over the next three decades, as all of Washington's major cities came around to the idea that sexual minorities should be protected from discrimination, and as the national conversation on gay rights shifted from a debate over the need for basic protections to a debate over the need for gay marriage (a debate that now largely presumes the need for, and the existence of, basic discriminaton protections), Washington's gay civil rights bill remained stubbornly stuck. Until this year.
On Friday, state legislators finally passed a measure whose political toxicity had outlived the late Sen. Cal Anderson, the state's first openly gay legislator, who championed the bill from 1987 until his death from AIDS in 1995, and which took Anderson's heir, Rep. Ed Murray (D-Seattle), 11 more years to push through. Speaking to his fellow house members on Friday in a chamber that was soon to be filled with cheers from the expectant gay rights supporters packed into the galleries, Murray said that by passing the measure, the legislature "proved that democracy works."
But the historic victory also proved that at times democracy works with excruciating slowness, particularly when it comes to extending rights to minorities. And thus the big question hanging over the legislature on Friday was how much further lawmakers would be willing to go in an election year that is likely to see the gay rights question pushed well beyond the relatively tame issue of basic discrimination protections.
A decision on the legality of same-sex marriage is expected from the state supreme court soon, perhaps before the end of the legislative session in March, and when it comes it will put Washington's leading politicians, from the governor on down, in the strange position of having to deal with two major gay rights issues within the span of a few months. One, the civil rights bill, had been in a decades-long state of arrested development until now, but the other, the marriage question, is at the leading edge of the current gay civil rights debate. This raises a number of questions:
If the supreme court rules in favor of same-sex unions, and lawmakers in Olympia are asked by the court to create a legal framework for state recognition of gay relationships, will the same legislators who took so long to green-light the civil rights bill be able to quickly say yes to civil marriage for gays and lesbians? Will Republicans flog the gay rights issue in the lead-up to November, when the entire house and much of the senate will stand for reelection? Will Governor Christine Gregoire, who backed the civil rights bill and says she is eager to sign it into law on Tuesday, be similarly eager to back gay marriage? And will Tim Eyman succeed in his "Let the Voters Decide" effort to repeal the new gay civil rights law via a statewide vote?
We are about to find out, and likely soon. While the passage of the gay civil rights bill marks the end of a decades-long struggle, it also marks the opening of a new, fast-paced, and tumultuous era for political maneuvering around gay rights in Washington State.
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Looking at the fight ahead, Democrats and gay rights supporters take heart in the story of Republican Sen. Bill Finkbeiner (R-Redmond), whose defection this year from his party's previously unanimous senate opposition to gay rights led to the bill's narrow 25–23 senate passage this year. Although Finkbeiner presented his decision to buck his party as part of a heartfelt personal evolution, his vote was also clearly rooted in the political realities of his district, which, like a number of Washington's suburban "swing" districts, has trended so moderate on social issues that it has become politically perilous for a Republican representative to be against basic equality for gays and lesbians.
This shift is part of larger trend in Washington since 1997 when, in a bitter defeat that is singed in the memories of gay rights activists here, 60 percent of voters rejected a statewide gay rights ballot measure known as Initiative 677. Recent polling has shown more than 60 percent of voters now favor basic equality for gays and lesbians, leading gay rights leaders to believe they can beat back Eyman's "Let the Voters Decide" campaign.
"I think the world has changed since 677," says Jamie Pedersen, a prominent Seattle attorney and gay rights activist who plans to run for Murray's house seat this November if, as is widely expected, Murray makes a run for the state senate. "I have a pretty high degree of confidence that the voters would not repeal the civil rights bill."
As for whether the bill's passage will be used against Democrats in November, observers say that given the shifting mood on gay rights in Washington, it would be a risky strategy for Republicans to pin their hopes on stoking an anti-gay backlash. It's an analysis that Republicans seem to be tacitly confirming; on Friday, after the gay civil rights bill passed, Republican leaders largely stayed away from television cameras, held no press conference to denounce the bill, and issued no fiery statements of opposition. Indeed, despite repeated attempts, no Republican leader would return calls from The Stranger requesting comment on whether the gay civil rights bill would become a Republican election-year issue.
Making it one, said political consultant John Wyble, "may motivate the right-wing Republican base, but I think the value would be negligible at best among swing voters…. There is a fine line between religious conviction and bigotry."
And particularly this year, when the hot Senate race between Democrat Maria Cantwell and Republican Mike McGavick will be a big draw for liberal voters in urban centers and suburban swing districts, anything that smacks of bigotry from the Republicans will be a particularly poor strategic choice. (The Senate race may also work against Eyman's initiative. In 1997, when the pro-gay-rights Initiative 677 was defeated, the big draw was a gun rights measure that brought more conservative voters than usual the polls; this year, the senate race will have the opposite effect.)
That leaves the question of what the legislature will do about gay marriage—provided the supreme court rules in favor of it, and provided the issue comes before lawmakers. Murray says he has a marriage bill ready, and if necessary, will introduce it as soon as the court rules. But Governor Gregoire, who will be key in setting the tone for Democrats in the marriage debate, has yet to say whether she supports full marriage equality (the closest she's gotten is endorsing the idea of civil unions).
The gay community, buoyed by its victory this week, is likely to exert more pressure than ever on Gregoire to embrace marriage. And Murray, whose political clout increased tremendously with his bill's passage, says he sees "a new dawn" for gay rights in Washington State. But the question—for him, for gay rights activists, and for Democrats—now becomes: Just how long will this new dawn last? And when it ends, will gays and lesbians in Washington have finally achieved full civil equality, or will they have to wait for another day?