In about ten minutes, here in the state capitol building in Olympia, Governor Chris Gregoire will sign a bill granting gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in Washington State. With all the focus on the house and senate votes over the last two weeks, and with all the talk about the repeal referendum that's set to be filed as soon as the governor signs the bill into law, it's easy to lose sight of the historical weight of this moment.
So, a pause to consider just how long people in Washington State have been pushing to make this law a reality. It starts, at least in the courts, on Sept. 20, 1971:
On September 20, 1971, Paul Barwick, a Vietnam veteran and former state patrol dispatcher, showed up at the King County auditor's office requesting a marriage license. With him was the man he wanted to wed, John Singer, a staffer at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who favored dresses rather than pants at work, and who was soon to change his name to Faygele benMiriam.
The two lived together in a gay-activist commune on Capitol Hill, and had recently heard that their state's marriage law had become gender-neutral in language. Their request for a marriage license, quite unusual at the time, landed on the desk of then-auditor Lloyd Hara (now a Port Commissioner) who promptly refused to grant the license. The couple sued, and their case, known as Singer v. Hara, became, at least until [recently], the best-known gay marriage case in this state.
Singer v. Hara was tossed out by two courts (many gay activists now ruefully describe it as having been "laughed out" of two courts), and it ended, in 1974, at the state court of appeals level, with the couple broke and wary of filing yet another appeal, lest they further cement the dispiriting precedent.
I wrote that in August of 2006, just after another big Washington State court decision on gay marriage: The State Supreme Court's ruling that the Washington State Defense of Marriage Act—passed in 1998—was constitutional.
The majority in that case, Andersen v. King County, went out of its way to note that nothing in the 2006 ruling prohibited a future legislature from overturning our Defense of Marriage Act. As it turned out, it was this legislature that did so—after legislatures in 2007 and 2009 created, and then expanded to "everything but marriage," our state's domestic partnership rights. (And after voters upheld those rights at the polls in 2009.)
There are certainly other mileposts that could be marked here—including Cal Anderson, in 1987, becoming our state's first openly gay legislator, with Ed Murray and Jamie Pedersen following in his footsteps—but for the moment just consider how long it took to make the law Governor Gregoire is about to sign, in front of me, in a few minutes: 40 years.