Here we are, in the third consecutive year of a deliberate, steady march toward legal parity for gay and lesbian couples under Washington State law, and it appears that after this legislative session ends, gay couples in this state will have been granted all the rights that straight couples enjoy.

It won't be called marriage. It will instead be called domestic partnership. It won't deliver any of the 1,138 federal protections that straight married couples receive. But it will bring with it every single one of the nearly 450 rights to which straight couples in this state are currently entitled—even the highly coveted right to inherit sea-urchin-gathering licenses.

That's progress. Not full equality, but tremendous progress nonetheless. Going from zero to domestic-partnership parity in three years won't be too shabby for a state in which the supreme court, in October of 2006, upheld the legislature's 1998 ban on gay marriage, calling it "essential to the survival of the human race" and important for "the well-being of children." With a supreme court that's hostile to marriage equality and a legislature that's not yet ready to overturn its 1998 gay-marriage ban, domestic- partnership parity is the only realistic alternative gay-rights supporters currently have—and it appears to be going quite well. We're not Massachusetts, sure. But we're not Utah, either.

And yet, in what is becoming an annual tradition, there are questions in gay-rights circles about whether things are moving fast enough toward the end goal—marriage. There are even some straight people complaining—a variation on the tradition that's actually another sign of huge progress. When KOMO TV's Ken Schram is handing out one of his "Schrammies" to lament how long full marriage equality is taking (as he did on January 29), you know things are changing.

Upbraiding state senator Ed Murray (D-43), one of the state's most prominent leaders on gay-rights issues, Schram wrote: "I can appreciate Murray's cautionary step-by-step attitude, but believe he underestimates the momentum that's on his side. Over the past few years, the state legislature has shown its willingness to support homosexual rights. Why not take the shot?"

Responding to this sort of complaint, Murray told The Stranger: "We're in a marriage clusterfuck inside an echo chamber." What he means is that those complaining that gay-rights groups aren't demanding full marriage equality from the legislature this session are missing the bigger political picture. And he's right.

The bigger picture, in addition to the reality of the 1998 ban and the 2006 supreme-court decision, is this: While 66 percent of Washingtonians support legal parity for gay and lesbian couples, that support drops to 37 percent if the word "marriage" is used, according to a 2008 University of Washington poll. In that environment, it's totally inconceivable that any savvy gay-rights supporter would demand a push for marriage in the state legislature this year.

"We need four things to move the marriage bill," said Josh Friedes, advocacy director for Equal Rights Washington. "A house that will pass the bill, a senate that will pass the bill, a governor who will sign the bill, and an electorate that will protect the bill when it goes up for referendum" (meaning a popular vote to repeal the bill). "What we do not have right now is certainty about the electorate."

In reality, gay-rights advocates don't have much certainty about the state legislature, either. This year's domestic-partnership bill has 56 sponsors in the house (more than enough to pass it), but in the senate it only has 20 sponsors (of 49 total members), which means Murray and others will be lobbying for additional votes. And that's for domestic partnership. Imagine if the demand was marriage or nothing.

"Most of my colleagues outside of Seattle have never heard from anybody on the issue of marriage equality," Murray said. "To me, that speaks to the major Achilles' heel of the gay and lesbian political movement."

Some of this urgency about pushing for gay marriage immediately is no doubt linked to the rise in activism this state saw after Californians passed Proposition 8 in November, repealing marriage equality there. But this confuses the activist impulse with the political imperative; one of the major lessons of Prop 8 is that if you're going to risk a popular vote on your rights, you need to be sure you can win.

If you're a gay-rights advocate looking for something to debate about, here's the real question: When, exactly, should Washington's gay-rights leaders push for the legislature to pass a marriage bill? Next year, 2010, will find a lot of legislators up for reelection, which could make some of them reluctant to take a risk on a "social" issue. The year after, 2011, is an off-year, electorally speaking, which means that a spring passage of a marriage bill by the legislature would be followed by a low-turnout November election in which a referendum to overturn gay marriage would surely be on the ballot. A low-turnout election (in which mainly old folks and political devotees show up) doesn't favor beating back a referendum like that.

What's left? Well, there's 2012, another election year that might spook state legislators, but perhaps a time far enough in the future for gay-rights advocates to change public opinion. Get that UW poll to come back with more than 50 percent of Washingtonians supporting marriage for gays and lesbians, and the whole problem is—potentially—solved. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.