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Tuesday, March 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Officials worried gay editor would beat them to court

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter

Dan Savage
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Blame it on Dan Savage.

To some degree, it was Savage, editor of The Stranger, a Seattle weekly newspaper, who pushed local gay-rights groups and King County Executive Ron Sims to challenge the state law prohibiting gay marriage yesterday.

That's because advocates and Sims were worried Savage would file a lawsuit challenging the state law before their own hand-picked gay couples did, thereby undermining an effort to use the most sympathetic local gays to test the legal waters.

Here's how the strange tale unfolded:

For the past several weeks, gay advocates and Sims had exchanged ideas about the best strategy to advance the gay-marriage cause.

Sims wanted to help but refused to issue marriage licenses to gay people because that would violate state law.

Some leading marriage proponents agreed. They thought that if Sims issued licenses, his lawbreaking would become the story rather than the effort to show Washington law was unfair to gay couples.

"That would be a complete distraction. People would focus on (Sims') civil disobedience instead of focusing on what was really important," said Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle lawyer and board co-chairman for Lambda Legal Defense, a national gay-rights group.

Instead, Sims and gay-rights advocates agreed the best course of action was to have hand-picked couples ask for licenses, be refused, then sue and let the courts decide.
 
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The lawsuit strategy had several benefits.

For one, it would allow proponents to put their best plaintiffs forward.

Ideally, those people would be stable, longtime gay couples, preferably with children, who had faced real hardships because they weren't allowed the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples.

In addition, the perfect couples would eliminate the threat of a "spontaneous" lawsuit, one brought by someone who might not represent the best case because they might not stay with their partner through the long ordeal of a lawsuit.

Or someone who might not have the best lawyers behind them.

"The worry I had was somebody would go (file a lawsuit) who didn't have the resources to do it right," said Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr.

And plenty of people were volunteering to be test cases.

"Dozens were itching for a fight," said Pedersen.

But as of late last week, the gay-rights groups were still looking for ideal plaintiffs or waiting for the best possible time to spring their lawsuits.

Enter Savage.

Friday, Savage visited the King County office that issues marriage licenses. With him was Amy Jenniges, a reporter from The Stranger, and her lesbian partner.

Both Jenniges and Savage, who is gay, were refused licenses to marry their respective same-sex partners. What they might do next worried gay-rights advocates and Sims, who soon learned of Savage's visit.

"The word spread, and they were afraid I was going to sue," said Savage. "I guess they wanted someone meek and not as lippy. I guess they wanted someone more sympathetic to a jury."

Bingo.

"No offense to Dan, he is a very important voice. But what lawyers look for are people who want to achieve the ends of the lawsuit but don't have a different agenda. Dan has a newspaper. He has an interest in publicity," said Pedersen.

Savage, author of a syndicated sex-advice column and several books, found his way into national headlines in 2000 when he infiltrated Republican Gary Bauer's presidential campaign in Iowa. He licked doorknobs, coffee cups and ink pens in an unsuccessful attempt to infect Bauer with the flu.

Savage, who had the flu, hoped to slow down Bauer and his conservative agenda.

Savage wrote about the incident for the online magazine Salon.com and later pleaded guilty to fraudulently voting in a caucus.

Sims' spokeswoman Elaine Kraft confirmed that key people were worried about Savage.

"There was always that concern that a case would be brought," she said, "and Executive Sims' thinking was that the best possible case should be brought forward to question the law."

And soon.

"He said, 'Look, this is the optimum time to move forward. We could either wait for the perfect case or move with what we've got.' He urged them along," said Kraft.

That set off a scramble over the weekend, which led to Sims meeting Sunday with six gay Seattle couples who had been recommended by the Northwest Women's Law Center.

But then, when yesterday morning came, and the legal strategy was launched, it appeared Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels had stolen the limelight with a hastily called news conference announcing largely symbolic steps to support gay marriage in Seattle.

Those steps, which would reduce the paperwork required for gay couples to receive equal benefits under city law, were seen by some as another potential distraction.

"We have to ask what helps us in state court and with state law. The last thing I want is to have this seen as a culture clash between the city of Seattle and the rest of the state," said state Rep. Ed Murray, an openly gay Seattle Democrat.

But Pedersen and Kraft said they welcomed Nickels' move, even though it would do little to make life tangibly better for gay Seattleites, and Nickels — not Sims — was featured on CNN for being "the latest politician tackling the controversial issue."

In fact, Nickels was on the periphery of the legal strategy talks, according to his staff.

Still, Pedersen praised the mayor.

"In terms of pure symbolism, it's a great thing. It helps counter very negative, often homophobic statements from opponents," he said.

As for Savage, there is a postscript to his story. When he was at the county office Friday, he asked if he could get a license to marry Jenniges, even though, as Savage said, "I don't really like her."

He was given a license, and the two plan to have a big ceremony April 10, possibly to raise money for Lambda Legal Defense. Savage said the two would stop short of legally tying the knot.

He said he never intended making himself the center of a lawsuit. "My boyfriend would divorce me first," he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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