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In tragedy's wake, an unlikely activist is born
In tragedy's wake, an unlikely activist is born
Charlene Strong is focus of new documentary about loss of partner in Madison Valley flash-flood

by Liz Meyer - SGN Staff Writer

Charlene Strong doesn't look like the type of person who has experienced tragedy.

I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the vibrant, funny woman I met.

Unquestionably, she has moments of feeling sorry for herself. She has no idea how she's managed to keep going through it all. And her heart is very clearly broken.

But Strong she is, and for as tired and weary as she may be, she still glows. This is most true, of course, when she's talking about her "Special K," Kate.

"I always thought of her as sort of like Lucille Ball," she beams. "Kate just had that goofiness about her, and that comedic timing. She was very smart, too&just one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life. When I wasn't with her, I was always thinking about her, and when I was with her, I was having the time of my life."

Strong's partner of almost nine years, Kate Fleming, died in last winter's flash-floods when she was trapped in the basement of the couple's Madison Valley home. Fleming, a highly accomplished actress who found her niche recording audio books, drowned trying to save her life's work.

The day Charlene and I meet is exactly one month from the first anniversary of Kate's passing. And though time hasn't helped ease the loss of everything Strong once knew--her home, her wife, her life--it has given her a purpose, and a way to honor Kate.

"What makes an activist? When injustice enters a life it is not met with tolerance but a greater demand for change," says the trailer to the documentary film Charlene is making in remembrance of Kate, called "For My Wife."

Indeed, Charlene would give anything not to have to be an activist. She'd love to have the luxury of still feeling the false sense of security she says she had about being a Lesbian in an overwhelmingly liberal city like Seattle. However, the indignities and injustice she experienced as she tried to deal with losing the love of her life forced her into activism. Now, someone who used to hate talking about herself, who quit a chorus of 200 people convinced that the audience was staring at her, is fighting with a ferocity she didn't know she had to make sure others don't suffer those same indignities.

After almost drowning herself in her efforts to save Kate that horrible night, Charlene followed an ambulance to Harborview Medical Center. When she rushed to be by Kate's side as she lay dying in the emergency room, a social worker stopped Charlene, and informed her that Washington state law did not recognize same-sex partners in emergency situations.

Charlene then had to wait for what seemed like an eternity until she could contact one of Kate's out-of-state family members to get permission to be by her side. Charlene was finally able to be with Kate in the emergency room, and says she was able to tell Kate that she loved her before she died.

However, the insults continued, with the funeral director giving Charlene the same, "Who the hell are you?" treatment as she tried to make arrangements for Kate's memorial service.

"The funeral director wouldn't even look at me, and even when I told him he could address questions to me, because I would be making the arrangements, he still directed all of his questions to Kate's mother," says Charlene.

Charlene never could have imagined she'd be received in that way, least of all in Seattle.

"That's a shame, because Kate loved Seattle," says Charlene. "Seattle really fit her. I love Seattle because there was a girl named Kate in Seattle. I don't know where I'm at with Seattle now. My heart is broken, and my heart is a little bit broken with the city. It's heartbreaking all around."

Less than a month after losing Kate, Charlene told her story to the Washington state House and Senate. She didn't need a script, she says, because, "It was my life. If I didn't speak from my heart, they just weren't going to get it." It was her testimony, many said, that secured enough votes to pass the state's domestic partnership legislation.

"God bless you, Charlene, for coming today, and making this day possible," said Gov. Christine Gregoire as she signed the historic bill.

The domestic partnership rights Charlene helped secure went into effect on July 23, the day before what would've been the ninth anniversary of her and Kate's commitment ceremony.

It was a bittersweet victory for Charlene, but it was the beginning of her unexpected foray into social justice.

"I'm tired," she says. "I'm extremely tired. And it all does feel a little challenging sometimes, but all of this came from a motivation to honor Kate. I knew the relationship I had with her was amazing. And I wanted to honor it somehow. And if all I can do is use my voice to honor what we had, then I'll put up with it. It feels like what I want to be doing right now, and what I have to do."

For now, she's honoring what they had in "For My Wife."

"For this project, Charlene is an open-hearted and well-spoken representative of an issue that, in many parts of the country, threatens people," says writer/director David Rothmiller of Trick Dog Films, the company making the movie. "But Charlene is unthreatening. What happened to her should not happen to anyone. We are taking a common sense/ common decency approach to same-sex partnership rights. By meeting Charlene and Kate through this film, the viewers will 'know' someone affected by discrimination. And most likely, they will understand the inherent justice in allowing Charlene into the room of her dying 'wife'."

The film is well into production, and a trailer can be seen at Strong is hoping the film will be finished in time to be shown at all of next year's film festivals. She wants as many people as possible to hear her message: LGBT people simply can't afford to be denied the same protections as heterosexual couples.

However, for as many more similar stories as she'll hear, for as many more people who will call her a hero, for as much good as this film will do, it all comes back to Kate. It's always been about Kate.

"I did this for no one but for her and I, and for who we were together," says Charlene, before she reconsiders the statement. "Let me take that back. I did this for everyone in the Gay and Lesbian community whose ever been denied. But I didn't do it for recognition. Like I said, if you'd met Kate, you'd know why I did it. And in some way, I know she is seeing it all."

Indeed, I never got the chance to meet Kate, which is a real shame. I'm betting, though, that she couldn't be prouder of what she's seeing.
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