Same-sex marriage backers took small steps to victory

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OLYMPIA — It was the kind of open-ended prediction that can never be proven wrong. But I wonder if Ed Murray knew when he made the prediction how quickly it would be proven right.

“I know that one day discrimination against gays and lesbians will join Jim Crow laws on the trash heap of history,” the then-state House member said on Feb. 3, 1997. “I have no doubt that day will come. The only question is how soon.”

That Washington and two other states voted this year to end prohibitions on same-sex marriage is hardly the end to the discrimination Murray spoke of. But it ends, for now, the effort he has been engaged in since even before he was elected to the state Legislature in 1996.

For many years, Murray and other supporters of same-sex marriage were treated as uninvited guests who asked uncomfortable questions and demanded equally uncomfortable answers.

That led to one of the Legislature’s more-bizarre episodes just a year after Murray’s prediction. Opponents of same-sex marriage — or, as they saw themselves, defenders of traditional marriage — wanted to pass a bill that would enshrine that position in state law. A 1974 state court case already said gay couples had no right to receive a marriage license. But backers of the bill wanted it in law and wanted to ensure that if same-sex marriages were ever allowed in other states they wouldn’t be recognized here.

Then-Gov. Gary Locke had already vetoed such a bill and promised to do so again. So proponents of the bill known as the Defense of Marriage Act threatened to pass it with a referendum clause, bypassing Locke and placing it on the November ballot.

Even supporters of same-sex marriage, plus those who were fine with the court-created status quo, didn’t want to share the ballot with what they claimed was a divisive issue. What was unsaid but implied was that the issue would attract voters who might also vote to defeat Democrats.

For too many of the politicians, the issue wasn’t really human rights or civil rights or defense of tradition. It was either creating a wedge issue or fending off a wedge issue that could determine party control of the Legislature.

The cynical deal was struck and the script negotiated and agreed to. In less than five hours, both houses of the Legislature passed DOMA, Locke vetoed it and then both houses overrode his veto.

“I think if you go back in the journals you won’t find anything even vaguely close to what we’re doing today,” said then-House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee.

To make it all work, several Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill, which took just a simple majority, had to vote in favor of the override, which required two-thirds. All was done to avoid sharing the ballot with that issue.

In the end, however, this isn’t a tale of craven and opportunistic politicians. It, instead, is a display of the evolution of sentiment among voters. In 1998, both parties were sure voters would oppose opening marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

“The notion that a marriage is between one man and one woman is a mainstream issue with the people of the state,” said then-Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Yarrow Point. And the year before, when outgoing Gov. Mike Lowry asked that a same-sex marriage legalization bill be introduced as a counterpoint to another DOMA bill, Murray admitted that some might consider it an extreme measure. “Sometimes the only way to answer an extreme measure is to introduce another extreme measure,” he said.

But in a decade, voter sentiment changed – more quickly in Washington than elsewhere but on a similar trajectory. The first test in 2009 saw voters endorse the so-called everything-but-marriage law passed by the Legislature. And while backers of same-sex marriage admitted to nervousness about this year’s Referendum 74, they suspected that the state’s voters would endorse full marriage rights as well.

It’s also a story of political patience, two words that aren’t often used in sequence. Murray and other supporters of same-sex marriage took their victories in small doses, each time demonstrating to cautious voters that they really had little to fear.

Peter Callaghan can be reached at peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com

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