For Walla Walla couple, 'It's not about 'gay rights,' its about equal rights'

A Walla Walla couple sees the potential for a major step backward should Referendum 71 fail.

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As the vote on Referendum 71 approaches, a local Walla Walla couple hopes their story will be an example to fellow Washingtonians as to the importance of the legislation's approval.

Mark and Kevin Patterson were married in Canada in 2005, but their union is not recognized in Washington. In 2007, they moved to Walla Walla from Seattle, looking for a calmer pace and a place to garden.

Known as the Walla Walla Garden Guys, Mark and Kevin began creating garden-themed artwork which they sold at the local Farmer's Market. The two have thoroughly enjoyed their time thus far, and have struck up strong friendships with fellow Walla Wallans.

Over the years, Mark and Kevin have endured a lot, both as individuals and as a couple. While living in San Francisco in 1987, Kevin was the victim of a violent hate crime.

"I didn't trust people after that," he said. "People think that (incidents like) Matthew Shepherd are isolated, but they're not." Recovering from the horrific experience, Kevin learned to be himself and to be less fearful.

More recently, when Mark developed a serious heart condition last year, the couple realized their vulnerability under the current law, and the importance of the upcoming referendum in ensuring their rights as a family.

"Especially as we get older and with health issues, these things get important. These are things that the average person takes for granted," Kevin said.

"We're not cookie-cutters, but we're all human, and we have the same aspirations: health, family and happiness ... Some people don't look at us as a family, but however you want to look, politically and civilly we should be equal."

Kevin said the referendum will protect families that have always existed.

"Families are always changing and evolving," he said. "And domestic partnership is so important. Mark and I -- and other partners -- are just as important as everybody else in the making of this state. (The referendum) still isn't marriage. But if it is defeated, it will be a huge step backwards."

For Mark, the issue is a question of basic rights: "I don't like it when people talk about 'gay rights.' That makes it sound special. It's not about 'gay rights,' its about equal rights."

At the end of the day, Mark and Kevin are grateful for the support of their loving friends and family. Their happiness together is worth the hardships they endure, and ultimately, they are still hopeful.

"It gets hard and tiring, and sometimes I get mad and say 'I give up.' But I can't give up," Kevin said. "Every day we try to give a good example, but you can't please everybody, and it's scary to think we may lose rights that never should have been debated in the first place."

"Mark is my spouse in my heart. That will always be," Kevin continued. "But I hope that when people see a committed couple like us, they will realize we are a family."

Lara Goodrich can be reached at laragoodrich@wwub.com.

About r-71

In May, Senate Bill 5688 was signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The bill increases domestic partnership protections and rights for same-sex couples and senior citizens in Washington. The concise description of the bill, provided by the Secretary of State, reads:

This bill would expand the rights, responsibilities and obligations accorded to state-registered same-sex and senior domestic partners to be equivalent to those of married spouses, except that a domestic partnership is not a marriage."

Though the bill was passed by Washington lawmakers, under the state's law, if 120,000 citizens sign a petition against the passage of the law, it will become a referendum on the upcoming ballot. Citizens can then vote to approve or reject the new legislation.

On July 25, the political action committee Protect Marriage Washington submitted 137,881 signatures to Washington's Secretary of State. On September 1, 2009, 120,577 of the signatures were verified, therefore suspending the legislation until the November votes are tallied.

Ballots were mailed out last week. The deadline for voting is Nov. 3.

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