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Gay Marriage in the Pacific Northwest? All Eyes on Washington State

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by Shaun Knittel
EDGE Media Network Contributor

State Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat representing Orcas Island, applauded the Gov. Gregoire and shared a surprising story of his own: Ranker was raised by a gay man.

"Growing up, I was taught that a family was not determined by the genders of the persons involved but by the love and commitment that they shared. I was taught that every person is to be treated with respect and dignity," Ranker said. "These are the values that I have carried with me throughout my life. These are the values that my wife and I have passed on to our daughter."

He called the marriage equality legislation discussed by the governor "a long overdue recognition of these core human rights. This legislation does not create new rights for gay and lesbian couples," he pointed out. "Nor does it force our religious institutions to abide by new rules. This legislation simply recognizes that all families deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

"As the son of a gay man, I grew up with a strong value system nurtured by a father who provided me with a foundation to succeed and gave me unconditional love and support," said Ranker. "This legislation will provide thousands of families like mine with the respect and dignity they deserve.

"For decades our country has struggled with discrimination in many forms. While it takes time, education and sacrifice to conquer injustices, those on the side of promoting tolerance and equality have always prevailed," he concluded. "This year, we have a chance to do something wonderful for thousands of Washingtonians. This year we have the opportunity to stand up for equality for all."

GOP Allies Announce

In Washington State, public opinion shows that most people support same-sex marriage. One well-regarded poll showed that barely 40 percent of the electorate would vote to repeal it once the Legislature passed it. Now the lawmakers seem to be jumping aboard. The first legislative session of 2012 began this week and already support for the passive of a gay marriage bill has emerged.

AP reported more lawmakers resolutely supporting same-sex marriage than opposing it, by a margin of 21-18 -- just four votes short of the 25 the measure needs to pass the Senate. But New York State may have set another precedent, when six GOP state senators made headlines by backing gay marriage. The switchovers were enough for the measure to pass the GOP-majority house.

Something similar may be happening in Washington State. On Jan. 9, State Sen. Steve Litzow announced he would be the first Republican in the Senate to support Gay marriage.

"I'm a traditional Republican," Litzow, a freshman lawmaker from Mercer Island told The Seattle Times editorial board. "When you think about gay marriage, it's the right thing to do and it's very consistent with the tenets of being a Republican -- such as individual freedom and person responsibility."

He was joined on Jan. 10 by GOP State Sen. Cheryl Pflug. "I have been a longtime supporter of human equality," said Pflug, a lawmaker from Maple Valley who voted for domestic-partnership benefits twice before. "I do not feel diminished by having another human being experience the same freedom I am entitled to exercise. I would feel diminished by denying another human the ability to exercise those same rights and freedoms."

Now Comes the Hard Part

Both Litzow and Pflug support the legislation without a public referendum.

Two first-term Republican Sens. Joe Fain of Auburn and Andy Hill of Redmond have declined to say whether or not they would officially support the bill, but left open the possibility of doing so after the discuss the issue with constituents.

State Sen. Ed Murray, the openly gay lawmaker leading the charge to pass a marriage equality bill, told AP that he remains "50 percent optimistic" the bill would pass. "I can't declare victory," he said. "I don't think we'll know we have the votes until we actually vote."

Murray, who has spent years leading efforts to approve same-sex marriage and other pro-LGBT legislation in Olympia, noted that he saw a gay civil rights measure he spearheaded lose by one vote in 2005 before it passed by a single vote the following year.

As for rounding up the votes from undecided lawmakers, Murray acknowledges that each one of them that he has talked with on the issue "has a very difficult personal struggle. This isn't a policy debate, or something you can trade a vote for," he said. "It's such a personal decision."

One undecided Democrat, State Sen. Brian Hatfield, describes himself as being "torn" by the debate and backlash that is almost guaranteed to come no matter what his decision is. "The supporters of the bill determine you're a 'hateful bigot' if you vote no," he wryly noted, "while the opponents question your faith and say you're 'turning your back on God' if you vote yes."

All that may be moot as of Jan. 23. Democratic State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen announced that she was moving from the undecided column to the pro marriage-equality side of the aisle. "I know this announcement makes me the so-called 25th vote, the vote that ensures passage," Haugen said in a statement reported by AP. Haugen said she made her decision after taking time "to reconcile my religious beliefs with my beliefs as an American, as a legislator, and as a wife and mother who cannot deny to others the joys and benefits I enjoy. This is the right vote and it is the vote I will cast when this measure comes to the floor."

If a same-sex marriage bill were approved by the Legislature, Washington would become the seventh state in the country to legalize gay marriage. Six states plus the District of Columbia recognize marriage for same-sex couples: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. Nine states --California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington - provide same-sex couples with access to the state level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either civil unions or domestic partnerships. Same-sex couples do not receive federal rights and benefits in any state.

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.


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