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Originally published October 9, 2009 at 4:37 PM | Page modified October 9, 2009 at 6:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington voters should approve Referendum 71, a test of conscience

Approving Referendum 71 is a chance for Washington voters to support fairness for all Washington families and to reject intolerance, writes guest columnist Charlene Strong. She has fought for such fairness since she was not permitted at the side of her dying partner three years ago

Special to The Times

'IT'S nothing personal."

They are the three most dishonest and disorienting words anyone has ever told me. I heard them three years ago in the wake of a tragedy that changed my life forever. Hearing them again in connection with Referendum 71, which puts the rights and protections of thousands of Washington families at risk, compels me to respond.

No committed couple in our state should be treated like strangers, least of all during an emergency. But unless we approve Referendum 71, more families in our state are likely to suffer exactly this fate. It's an experience no one else should have to endure.

In 2006, the home that Kate, my partner of 10 years, and I shared in Seattle was hit by a flash flood. As waters swept over our foundation, Kate became trapped in the basement recording studio from which she had built a global reputation as a narrator of books on tape.

After she was finally extricated and as she lay dying at the hospital, I faced needless barriers because authorities deemed me no kin to her and would not let me in her room. Kate died from injuries incurred in the flood, and I later faced a funeral manager who would take my money but not my direction about how to carry out my partner's wishes for laying her to rest.

Following this ordeal, a fellow resident of the city, perhaps thinking it consoling, urged me not to take these circumstances personally. It took a while before the implication of these words hit home and I realized just how false they are. Unequal treatment in a state that rightly prides itself on inclusion is something I do and should take personally.

In 2007, I spoke before the state Legislature about the flood that killed my partner, about what we went through at the hospital and funeral home, about the erasure of a decadelong partnership by people in authority who simply chose to treat us as strangers. Lawmakers heard testimony and stories from constituents about the importance of filling a void in state law by establishing a registry for domestic partners to lessen the likelihood that others would endure what I did.

Even against this evidence of needless pain and the costs of ignoring the bonds most essential to our lives, we faced insults from some legislators who used dehumanizing rhetoric to describe gay people and who invoked religion to denounce our bid to safeguard our families. But the legislation passed. The governor signed it.

In 2008 and 2009, we repeated this process two more times. The goal was to record and protect against intolerance and invisibility the ties of same-sex partners and seniors in caregiving relationships who need similar safeguards. And still the insults did not fade from those claiming a religious basis for attacking recognition for same-sex couples. In contrast, many of us believe that no less a force than God has joined us together.

With Referendum 71, we are confronted once again on a much bigger stage by those saying "no" to respect, recognition and fairness. The taunts, distortions of scripture and scare tactics we overcame in the Legislature to pass the domestic-partnership law have barely managed to propel a repeal question onto the Nov. 3 ballot.

At stake is whether Washington lives up to our reputation for inclusion and equality or whether we take a backward step.

Putting aside the question of legitimacy of the petitions that triggered this referendum, I want to go on record deploring the use of ballot measures to put the rights of selected Washingtonians up for a popular vote. To throw open for electoral debate the equality of our citizens is an abuse of the democratic process. But since there will be a vote, I want to be perfectly clear. We need to approve Referendum 71.

This is a chance to support fairness and stop intolerance. In approving the referendum, we are honoring the diversity of Washington families and the many ways we all contribute to our economy, our communities and our quality of life.

I know that no legislation, no matter how sweeping its power or steeped in justice, can return my late partner to life. But our state's domestic-partnership registry may prevent some of the 6,000 couples who have sought protection through it from experiencing what I endured three years ago.

A step forward for fairness under state law is something I do take personally. And all Washingtonians, in approving Referendum71, can show that they take it personally, too.

Charlene Strong, a designer living in Seattle, is the subject of the documentary film "For My Wife" and a commissioner on the state Human Rights Commission. She speaks here not on behalf of the commission, but as a private citizen.

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