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Originally published November 14, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified November 15, 2011 at 10:35 AM

Nicole Brodeur

Marriage-equality leader rises out of Madison Valley tragedy

You remember that night. The rain. The dark. The water rushing through the streets.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes @ EZEDDIE I am not positive on this, but I believe at the time (2006) the answer to... Read more
quotes Seademhawks - your rights don't trump mine. welcome to the good old USofA. Read more
quotes Ms. Strong... I'm terribly sorry for your loss and ask the following with utmost... Read more

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You remember that night. The rain. The dark. The water rushing through the streets.

You should also remember Kate Fleming, who died after her basement filled with the rainwater that flooded Madison Valley in December 2006.

It was a horrific night that forced the city of Seattle to make things right.

It also showed Fleming's partner, Charlene Strong, the injustice of the law.

Strong had no rights in the hospital where Fleming was taken. She couldn't go into the room to be with her as any spouse should. She was powerless.

In the five years since, though, what could have destroyed Strong has defined her.

A former interior designer, Strong, 48, now is an activist. She testified in Olympia in favor of domestic partnership, and stood beside Gov. Chris Gregoire as she signed it into law two years ago. Gregoire later made her one of the state's five human-rights commissioners.

Strong appeared in the documentary, "For My Wife ... " which used her story as a battle cry for domestic partnership.

Strong travels around the country, telling her story to illustrate for people what is at stake.

A year ago, she became co-editor of Seattle Lesbian, an online magazine with 90,000 readers per month.

And this week, she is adding her voice to a new campaign to make Washington the seventh state to legalize marriage for same-sex couples.

The campaign, called Washington United for Marriage, launched Monday and is a coalition of gay-rights, civil-liberties and religious groups that plans to pressure the Legislature to pass a marriage-equality act in 2012.

It is going to be an interesting year, with meetings all over the state filled with people defending the sanctity of marriage, quoting the Bible and asking: Isn't domestic partnership enough?

It was a step, Strong said. But it's hardly enough.

"Marriage is a level playing field," she said. "It's the way we are able to explain who we are to each other without having to pull out some card or call a lawyer."

But as one fight begins, another has finally ended: Strong and others whose lives were affected by the storm have made their peace with the city.

In March, the city reached a $2.5 million settlement with a group of residents who sued over chronic flooding. In addition, it has spent millions fixing the problem.

In 2008, the city reached a $2.8 million settlement over Fleming's death, and, on its own, installed a memorial marker near the playfields in the Washington Park Arboretum.

"I believe the city understood how tragic it was," Strong said, "and it was their way of saying, 'We're sorry,' not only for Kate's death, but the neglect that the city went through for years."

You remember that night, and know that the rain — and the anniversary — is coming. And you wonder how Strong got through it, how she got here.

"I can't be the victim," she said. "The circumstances, the inequality of that night — then I was. But not anymore. I learned that I can bring honor not only to Kate's memory, but to my life."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Good luck with the baby.

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