by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On January 23, hundreds of Washingtonians - in support of, undecided, or against - attended hearings at the Capitol in Olympia for Senate Bill 6239 and House Bill 2516. The hearing went from late morning into the afternoon, with emotions running high throughout. By day's end, there was one theme that emerged from the debate: Separate is not equal.
That ethos echoed through the halls of the Capitol like wind howling in the night. And with the coveted 25th vote of support for the Senate bill secured, a clear message was sent to marriage equality opponents that they are no longer the majority and equality is within our reach. In short, marriage equality is on its way to Washington state.
The nation is watching. What happens in Washington state in 2012 could have a huge impact on the rest of the country. If the Senate and House pass marriage equality legislation and Gov. Chris Gregoire signs it into law as she has promised she would, then we will inevitably go to the ballot. Our opponents will get the signatures they need, and we will be prepared for that. If we, the voters of Washington state, then vote to keep marriage equality, we will be the first state in the nation to do so. We will be the lead domino that knocks down all of the others. Just like New York motivated us, we will motivate others by showing everyone that, while their numbers may be many, they are dwindling by the day. Homophobia is out. Marriage equality is in.
Marriage equality supporters arrived at the Capitol not to directly engage our opponents in meaningless and disruptive debate, but to deliver the message that marriage is about respect, dignity, love, and commitment. We are asking for civil marriage. If Lesbian and Gay marriages are legalized, churches still would not be required to perform them - just as the First Amendment protects. Lesbian and Gay couples who marry in civil ceremonies would be recognized by the state.
Even though I was prepared to hear a lot of opposition, I didn't foresee how I would feel while in the hearing rooms, surrounded by our detractors. During the early Monday-morning ride down to Olympia, I visualized what the day would look like. My daydreams were wrong. The reality of the situation was much more bizarre than I could've ever dreamed up.
Our opponents, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles to testify at the hearings, were off-message, did not present a united front, and were, quite honestly, all over the place. I am happy to report that we, however, drove home again and again that, yes, we have everything but marriage, but separate is not equal. That is what this is all about. Equality is what we are after - the marrying kind, to be exact.
When I arrived at the Senate building, I was immediately greeted by more than 100 people in the overflow crowd which packed the narrow hallway outside of the conference rooms. Although people were acting civil, they were moving fast, eyes darting, scanning for friendlies who might be able to get them into the room where the hearing was scheduled. There was almost a panic in the air. Luckily, the building is equipped with overflow rooms where opponents and proponents alike could watch the hearing on TV.
After flashing my press credentials, I was ushered into the conference room where the Senate hearing would take place. It was 9:45 a.m. In just 15 minutes, religious dogma and rhetoric would testify against love and commitment. With each passing minute, the Senate master at arms had to ask another person to leave the room after they tried to sneak past security. I thought it might be easier to score tickets to the Super Bowl than get a seat in this room.
Upon first inspection of the spectators - because that's honestly what everyone looked and acted like, as if they were cheering for a team - the room looked to be filled with people who looked like they were nice. You know, good neighbors, the kind of people who gladly catch and return your dog when it gets loose. The kind of people who keep an eye on your house when you are on vacation. But I would soon learn that they are not kind - not at all. They disguise their hate behind a smile and Bible verse.
It became easy to distinguish who was with what camp - and I felt bad about that. In the LGBT community, we are taught (and try desperately) not to judge a book by its cover, that we are all different and that is what makes us beautiful, and so on. But I could honestly tell who was a God-fearing member of the audience; I could tell because they were sad.
They wore a frown in place of a smile. One gentleman kept his hands folded in his lap with such force that you could see the whites of his knuckles. They dressed conservatively. The women wore dresses that wouldn't dare rise above the knees. There was no life or color to them. Each wore a white button with a silhouette of a man and a woman that read 'MARRIAGE. ONE MAN ONE WOMAN.' Even the button had no color.
Our side however, was full of life. Supporters of the Senate marriage equality bill smiled and moved about the room, hugging one another and congratulating each other on getting to this point in our fight for equality. On each lapel, a simple sticker with a green silhouette of the state of Washington read 'WASHINGTON UNITED FOR MARRIAGE.'
And we are united. That much is certain. At 10 a.m., the hearings began. A hush fell over the room and the audience of would-be testifiers got the warning. No booing, clapping, or distracting. If you did not comply, you would lose your right to be in the room. This was serious business, after all, and if there were ever a time to sit down and keep quiet, it was now.
Each person called before the committee had just one minute to testify.
Governor Gregoire sent a representative on her behalf that reiterated her commitment to the passage of the bill. He said she was '150% supportive of the legislation.'
And then it began. For the next two hours, the LGBT community and our allies were inundated with testimony after testimony that demonized us. We were accused of destroying families and rendering parenting meaningless. God would not vote for the bill, they echoed. The legislation was called hostile toward anyone who harbors religious beliefs. At one point the committee was told that if they passed the bill, 'History will not be kind to you.'
Seattle-area evangelical pastor Ken Hutcherson, who led our opponents, didn't mince words about God's viewpoint on the issue, leading off with, 'I don't think God is excited about SB 6239.'
Over and over again, marriage equality opponents showed their inability to understand the bill. Nearly half of all the testimony from their camp included doomsday predictions of the loss of religious freedom when the bill clearly states that no church will be forced to marry anyone.
The right-wing hardliners and religious leaders - including the Archbishop of Seattle, J. Peter Sartain - continually talked of families as if we are not a part of them and do not create them. It was frustrating to listen to and hurtful to hear. Every other person who testified claimed to speak for God. It was dumbfounding.
I'm happy to report that we got it right. The LGBT community members and our allies who testified on our behalf did so with dignity, armed with more than just an opinion, and spoke with respect in regards to religious freedom. Our arguments were diverse and emotional. They had an impact and packed a punch. Nobody, not even the religious leaders who spoke in support of the bill, spoke for God. We were sensible.
In what was the most moving and poignant testimony of the day, Sen. Ed Murray (D-Seattle), joined by his partner of 20 years, Michael Shiosaki, announced that for the two of them, there is nothing more important than marriage equality.
'I have waited 17 years to ask this body to consider marriage equality for Gay and Lesbian families,' said Murray. 'I realize the issue of marriage for our families is emotional and divisive. It touches what each of us holds most dear: our families.'
'In our history as a nation and as a state, each time we face division we have answered with equality,' he continued. 'Throughout our history we have cherished religious freedom and equality under the law. Senate Bill 6239 honors both of those values, it will allow same-sex couples the opportunity to join in legal civil marriage. It also creates an absolute exemption for churches, religious organizations, and clergy that do not want to marry same-sex couples.'
'No religion will be barred from deciding whom they want to marry, nor will they be held legally liable under this legislation for making those decisions,' he emphasized.
'This bill is really about the people who come to speak with you today,' concluded Murray. 'They are veterans who have served this nation in Afghanistan, They are children who wish to see the parents who raised them married. They are small-business owners who are creating the jobs that we so desperately need. Ultimately, though, this bill is about people who love and cherish each other and wish to honor that commitment through marriage.'
Then it was Shiosaki's turn. In a heartfelt and honest speech, he spoke from a place of love and commitment
'Ed and I have been together for more than 20 years now, and through much of our time together, I have tried to keep our political life separate from our private life,' he said. 'Today I am compelled to speak out about our relationship and what marriage means to us.'
'When I think of marriage, my model has always been the 56-year marriage of my parents Fred and Louis Shiosaki,' he continued. 'What I have witnessed over the years has been their lifelong commitment to love and care for one another as they raise their family, my sister, and me in Spokane Valley.'
'That commitment continues today and I have admired and honor their more than 50 years together. That commitment I see in the relationship that Ed and I share. Ed and I have found over the years that sometimes it is the little things that make a strong relationship,' said Shiosaki.
'For us, as for many Gay and Lesbian couples we know, commitment is all about being there for each other in good times and in bad,' he said. 'And that has meant supporting each other - my support for Ed when his father was dying and support for me when my mother was seriously ill.'
'As we have personally experienced domestic partnership, it has provided many important rights and benefits, but it is not marriage,' continued Shiosaki. 'Although I strive to honor and model the commitment my parents share, Ed and I cannot be married like my mother and father are married.'
'Through my family's experience and my own experience growing up as a member of the Japanese-American community in Washington state, I have witnessed my community struggle for inclusion into the mainstream of society,' he said. 'I see that same struggle for recognition and inclusion with marriage no matter when or where it has been tried, history has demonstrated that separate is not equal, it never can be.'
'As Ed and I begin our third decade together, we hope that this is the year we can marry.'
The hearings in the House lasted until 3:30 p.m. and included the usual suspects and repeat testimony from the Senate hearings. The hearings were somewhat ceremonial as everyone already understood that the House bill has enough support for passage.
At the end of the day, we did it. By telling our stories and lobbying our legislators in the House and Senate, as of press time, the measure has 51 sponsors in the 98-member House, and a majority in the 49-member Senate.
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