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Originally published December 4, 2009 at 2:50 PM | Page modified December 4, 2009 at 5:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Toward marriage equality for lesbian and gay families

When voters approved Referendum 71, Washington became the first state in the nation to secure domestic-partnership rights for gay and lesbian families at the ballot box. Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, discusses the successful strategy that other states can use to follow Washington's leadership.

Special to The Times

WHEN Washington voters passed Referendum 71 to uphold domestic-partnership rights for gay and lesbian families last month, our state became the first to secure equality for these families at the ballot box.

Even though Washington has not yet reached full marriage equality, many observers in other states saw this as an important moment in the marriage-equality movement and are looking to Washington as a model for how to get there.

As we continue down the path toward marriage equality, our strategy has proved sound enough to draw diverse voters together to reject hostile efforts to repeal the progress gained in the Legislature. This strategy can indeed be a model provided the right lessons are learned.

Just 15 years ago, the movement for equality hit an absolute low point. A protracted, high-profile Hawaii court case was finally resolved that year with Hawaii's ban on same-sex marriages ruled unconstitutional.

What should have been a moment of justice and triumph was instead the beginning of a long period of defensive fights against intolerant attempts to prevent gays and lesbians from ever being equal to their straight fellow citizens. Because the national gay-rights organizations that pursued this case had not coordinated with gay elected state officials, or with various local gay-rights organizations, the backlash quickly spread to Washington, D.C.

Congress fast-tracked — and President Clinton signed — the federal so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," excluding gay and lesbians from the definition of marriage. Over the next five years, 39 states passed their own versions of the measure, most of which remain in place today. When the Washington State Supreme Court upheld our state's version of this discriminatory law in 1998, it became clear to leaders in Washington's movement that a concrete strategy was needed — one that went beyond defensiveness and reached out to legislators and voters with our own clear, positive message of equality.

There remains today strong disagreement among Washington's gay and lesbian community about the lessons to be learned from these painful experiences. While some in our state side with the "all or nothing" strategy for achieving marriage equality of Evan Wolfson, the executive director of the national group Freedom to Marry, I believe that by following the six key lessons below, our state will realize — in a lasting and nondivisive way — our ultimate goal.

• First, we should emulate the strategy of past civil-rights movements with a local, grass-roots approach. We have successfully organized ourselves on the national level, but have had no coherent strategy at the local level. Our top-down approach has given us a big stage upon which to make our demands, but it has provided our movement little influence in our own communities and left us vulnerable on all fronts.

• Second, leaders of previous civil-rights movements never took their eyes off the prize, nor did they engage the biggest battle first. Thurgood Marshall, as the NAACP's lead lawyer, very intentionally did not begin his efforts to end racial discrimination in schools by starting with the hardest cases of segregation. Rather, he picked the easiest cases first, building momentum and understanding on his way to the harder ones.

Similarly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legal strategy for winning women's rights insisted that laws be addressed one logical, achievable step at a time: "Don't ask [the Court] to go too far too fast," she told her fellow feminists, "or you'll lose what you might have won."

In our struggle, of course, the biggest fight is marriage. In Washington, instead of picking a fight we would likely have lost, we pursued a progressive series of rights for gay and lesbians in domestic partnerships. Creating legal domestic-partnership rights provided immediate relief to gay and lesbian families in areas such as hospital visitation and informed consent. We entered into a conversation year after year, bill after bill, with the citizens of the state and members of the Legislature about the reality and challenges faced by gay and lesbian families.

Our focus on individual rights — and the harm associated when those rights are denied — made the case that the injustice of denying these vital rights to neighbors, community and family members is merciless and unjust. This position won the day this November. Today, domestic partners in Washington enjoy all the state rights and responsibilities associated with marriage — except the name itself.

• Third, we must commit ourselves to building strong, long-term coalitions with other communities. As we ask for the understanding of others, we must reach out to people different from ourselves, and learn what moves their hearts and minds, even as we ask them to let us into them. We must respect and understand the evangelical religion of many African Americans, for example, and the Catholic religion of many Hispanic Americans. We must find common ground based on our shared values.

• Fourth, we must develop our own civil-rights language. Simply lifting the language of the African-American civil-rights movement cheapens both our experiences of discrimination, and particularly that of gay and lesbian African Americans. Our experiences of discrimination are unique, and deserve unique ways of being communicated.

• Fifth, we must occupy the moral high ground righteously. We will prevail because of the righteousness of our cause, not by yelling, standing in the way of others, or making self-righteous demands. And although it may feel good in the short term to publicly persecute, on the grounds of hypocrisy, Republican elected officials caught in homosexual acts, it does nothing to elevate our cause. It only perpetuates the reality of our own history of discrimination and fear.

• Finally, we must all participate in the political process. Too many of us who wish to see the goal of marriage equality realized have never called their legislators to urge their support, have never doorbelled our own neighborhoods, and have never written a check for a candidate who supports our cause.

Never forget the biggest lesson from the civil-rights movement: In this country, political change always follows cultural change. Individuals, far more than any gay legislator, will determine when we finally achieve marriage equality.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, is the majority caucus chairman and is the prime sponsor of domestic-partnership legislation in each of the past three years.

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