by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Equal Rights Washington (ERW), the leading LGBT advocacy organization in Washington state, is on a continued mission to bring full marriage equality to the Evergreen state. According to the group's executive director, Josh Friedes, the next two years will be decisive as they embark on a public education campaign to shape the way Washingtonians view the LGBT community.
'2010 was a challenging year for America & but in the struggle for LGBT civil rights, it was a good year,' Friedes told Seattle Gay News. 'Since LGBT people have multiple identities, this good year is tempered significantly by the economic instability many of us face and specific problems many of us face - as immigrants or people living with health issues, for example.'
Friedes said 2010 marked the fifth consecutive legislative session where significant LGBT civil rights legislation was passed.
'In 2010, LGBT people and our allies across the nation reeled from a string of teen and young adult suicides. This year, Washington state updated its anti-bullying law and passed a bill which added gender identity and expression and sexual orientation to a preexisting law, which provides civil rights protections and enforcement for students,' he said.
'Representative Marko Liias is already proposing enhancements to the state's anti-bullying law for 2011, and the events of 2010 make it clear that we must extend anti-bullying laws to colleges and universities.'
THIS WAS THE YEAR OF THE WASHINGTONIAN
Washington residents made a real difference this year. Major Margaret Witt played a key role in the demise of DADT, while Janice Langbehn and Charlene Strong went to the White House.
'Charlene and Janice, both of whom lost their spouses and suffered indignities because they could not marry, used their stories to achieve social change,' said Friedes. 'President Obama issued an executive order that will mean most hospitals in America will need to allow visitation rights to partners of LGBT patients. The policy is not without problems, however, as it is unclear how situations like Charlene's will be handled when the patient is unable to express their desire. While DADT made headlines, President Obama issued executive order after executive order that will improve the lives of LGBT people in America.'
Both Charlene and Janice were powerful voices for the passage of the domestic partnership law and ERW looks forward to working with them as we continue our work towards marriage equality, Friedes said.
'Charlene and Janice both demonstrate the power of telling their personal stories. What each of us needs to remember is that, Gay or straight, we each have personal stories that we can tell that advance the cause of LGBT equality,' Friedes told SGN.
Presently, ERW is working on a project with Charlene: Every time a person donates $20 or more to ERW through a special offer, Charlene will hand deliver a copy of the documentary for my wife . . . to a legislator.
One opportunity LGBT and allied Washingtonians will have to speak with their legislators will come on March 22, Equality Day.
'Everybody should mark their calendars now for March 22 and plan to come to Olympia for this day where we lobby on LGBT civil rights legislation and budget priorities,' said Friedes. 'In addition, we ask that people ask their congregations and civic organizations to co-sponsor this event.'
According to Friedes, bills being filed for the 2011 legislative cycle will create an anti-bullying task force; insure that Lesbian and Gay couples married outside of Washington have all the rights and responsibilities of domestic partners while in Washington; build support for marriage equality through the filing of a marriage equality bill and hearings; and update the Uniform Parentage Act to protect Washington's LGBT families.
Friedes says a major part of ERW's lobbying work in 2011 will be centered around the budget.
'Washington state will confront an unprecedented budget shortfall and ERW will be working to preserve critical services the LGBT community depends on,' he said.
AIDS/HIV, suicide prevention, substance abuse, basic health, civil rights enforcement, and other programs are all vulnerable to deep cuts as well as other programs and positions the general public is less aware of, such as data collection; cultural competency training of state, local, and municipal workers, including police; the Human Rights Commission; the office of the educational ombudsman; STD screening; and family planning services, which are of particular importance young Lesbian women. Of particular concern will be LGBT youth, seniors, and immigrants - all of whom face particular challenges, especially in the absence of the protections marriage equality would provide.
THE PUSH FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY
'I do believe that the end of DADT is one of the most important moments in the struggle for LGBT civil rights,' Friedes told SGN. 'One of my heroes, Justice Thurgood Marshall, argued that a fundamental right was a right that, if denied, prevented a people from participation in civic life. The right to serve and defend our country has long been - like the freedom to marry - a hallmark of full citizenship. This badge of inferiority, this badge which said, 'we may not serve openly, honestly, and with integrity' was removed.'
'The badge of inferiority the government continues to stamp us with is the badge that says, 'May not marry,' Friedes said.
'For this reason and because of the over 1,138 federal protections, we must work quickly to achieve marriage equality in Washington state,' said Friedes. 'This will both help us achieve social equality within our boarders and put pressure on the other Washington and the courts to grant us the vital rights and responsibilities of marriage we are currently denied.'
The good news in Washington state is that polling now shows that support and opposition to marriage equality is evenly divided, with many voters undecided or movable in our direction.
'There are many strategies by which marriage equality can be achieved, and the strategy to be pursued need not and should not be decided at this juncture - even if marriage is to be achieved as early as November 2012,' Friedes told SGN. 'What is common to all the strategies are that they will be aided by or require a marriage equality majority in the electorate.'
With as many as 41% of the electorate in Washington state now strongly supporting marriage equality and another roughly 25% supporting allowing same sex-couples all the rights and benefits of marriage, the time has come to engage in a massive education campaign that engages the 41% of voters in a friend-to-friend campaign about talking about both the importance of marriage equality and voting.
'I firmly believe that if we can raise and spend $1.5 million dollars by March of 2012 to do marriage equality education, we have a very good chance of having achieved a marriage equality majority in time to be prepared to be on the November 2012 ballot if need be,' said Friedes.
The question is whether Washington's LGBT allied community raise that type of money. Friedes said, 'As with Referendum 71, I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of the $1.5 million will need to be raised in-state.'
'To date, marriage equality education programs have frequently been inefficient, too costly, and not large enough to move the number of voters needed to win. This is not a criticism. We learn from doing,' he said. 'We are now at a point where we have the experience we need to launch a powerful, cost-effective marriage equality education program. Identifying large donors who will be willing to be venture capitalists in our social change movement will be the biggest challenge. In marriage equality campaigns, big money has been raised, but it has always come in too late.'
'Building a marriage equality majority really does require everybody doing their part, from putting an 'I DO: Support Marriage Equality Bumper Sticker' on your car, to mentioning marriage equality at your birthday party and other family and friend gatherings like Christmas dinner and New Year's Eve,' said Friedes. 'Technologies such as Facebook really make it easy to spread the word that you support marriage equality and want your friends and family to spread the word.'
'The November 2010 elections made Congress a more hostile place. That reality ironically perhaps gave the last hours of the Democratic Senate the strength to finally repeal DADT,' Friedes told SGN. 'We did much better in Washington state elections, and we should continue to have equality minded majorities in both the State House and the Senate.'
In the Senate, in particular, passage of bills may hinge on the votes of moderate Republicans, and it is unclear if the equality majority would extend to marriage legislation.
'Much work needs to be done,' said Friedes. 'In an election year where justices who ruled for marriage equality in Iowa were defeated, it was wonderful to see the Washington electorate replace anti-Gay Justice Richard Sanders with the fair-minded and ERW-endorsed Charlie Wiggins. ERW endorsed Patty Murray for U.S. Senate and she emerged as a powerful voice for DADT during the lame duck session.'
In 2011, as ERW continues its work on civil rights legislation and ramps up its work on marriage equality education, one area you will see them doing a great deal more work on is the state budget.
'The budget situation is so bad that the budget has become both a civil rights issue and a human rights issue,' said Friedes. 'How we confront the budget crisis will say a lot about us as a state and as an LGBT community.'
'Lastly, as we look at the year gone by and the year to come, we must remember that civil rights work is never complete,' concludes Friedes. 'DADT repeal, for example, was not Transgender-inclusive. I am excited about our accomplishments of 2010 and look forward to what we will achieve together in 2011, but we must work to make sure that nobody gets left behind and that that promise is never forgotten.'
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