What Washingtonians (And the Rest of Us) Can Do to Help Make Marriage Equality a Reality

If you agree with Governor Chris Gregoire that "it is time" to legalize gay marriage and that "it's the right thing to do," there are several ways you can help make the prospect of marriage equality in Washington a reality, whether or not you actually reside in the state.
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If you agree with Governor Chris Gregoire's recent assertions that "it is time" to legalize gay marriage and that "it's the right thing to do," there are several ways you can help make the prospect of marriage equality in Washington a reality, whether or not you actually reside in the state.

Zach Silk, Campaign Manager for Washington United for Marriage, the coalition of Washington-based organizations, congregations, unions, and businesses that support marriage equality, explains that Gregoire has long been a leader on equality issues. Though the intention of Gregoire's press conference was revealed a day prior to it actually occurring, Silk says, "We weren't really sure that she was going to come out as strongly as she did; it was a really impressive announcement."

In those "impressive" comments on Wednesday, Governor Gregoire candidly and unapologetically asserted, "It's time for us to stand up and understand the state cannot be in the business of discrimination."

"She signed all the major pieces of equality legislation," Silk points out, "including the anti-discrimination legislation, and the domestic partnership bill that passed a couple of years ago, so in many ways, she has been a great ally."

In this relatively liberal state, Gregoire isn't the sole Washingtonian with these views. Washington United for Marriage estimates that currently approximately 55 percent of the state's voting population is in favor of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

But as in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, it's not the people who will ultimately be determining whether same-sex couples should be granted these rights; it's the legislators.

Though the general public appears to be in favor of the legislation, and the governor is on board, will marriage equality receive similar support in the state's legislature?

Silk does believe that the legislation has "a very clear path" in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and will receive the majority's support. But, he explains, passage in the state Senate is definitely expected to be a tougher battle.

"There are several very conservative Democrats in leadership positions in the state Senate, and it's closer," says Silk. "It will not easily pass and will take a full-scale campaign, and that's part of the reason we gathered together as a coalition to execute that campaign."

For Washington residents who would like their state to become the nation's seventh to legally allow same-sex marriage, Silk has a few suggestions.

First, visit Washington United for Marriage's website and choose any of the available options to sign up and stay connected to the coalition. Once people sign up, Silk says that the organization "will be able to give them all the information in real-time over the course of the next 60 to 100 days, which is a very short [legislative] session. And it's going to require a tremendous amount of work every single day to get this done."

The next thing Silk recommends Washingtonians do is to contact their legislators, and the Washington United for Marriage site has an easy-to-use "Contact Your Legislator" tab that allows people to look up their various representatives and find their contact information.

"Whether they live in a target district or not," says Silk, "all the legislators need to hear from them and need to hear their story. And it's incredibly important to lay the foundation for what we're trying to accomplish."

Among some of the specific senators whom Washington United for Marriage will be focusing its efforts on is Democratic Senator Mary Margaret Haugen of the 10th Legislative District, who Silk says has publicly admitted to be wrestling with the issue. Silk also identifies Republican Senator Andy Hill of the 45th Legislative District as another target of the campaign.

Hill represents the area around Kirkland and Redmond, which Silk describes as the Microsoft area of the state. "We know that his district overwhelmingly supports this. It overwhelmingly supported the affirmation of domestic partnerships, which we had go to the ballot two years ago, where the voters had to affirm domestic partnerships, and they did affirm that. So just based on those numbers, we know that his constituents support this strongly."

Silk says that the list of high-priority senators is longer and will continue to change as the coalition receives more information from people. He reiterates that the best way to stay informed about the critical targets is to sign up on the Washington United for Marriage website.

The third and incredibly crucial (and obvious) step to take is to donate. Whether you skip a night of boozing at the local bar or tap into the rainy-day fund, kick any chunk of cash you can toward the campaign.

"We know that our opponents, on average, spend half a million dollars on these legislative battles," explains Silk, "so we are going to need to go toe to toe with them." Should people fail to understand just how expensive the battle to achieve equality will be, Silk warns that our opposition will quite possibly be able to "turn some of our swing votes against us."

And do keep in mind that although we're talking about LGBT rights, the "us" refers to a much wider army of people. Though the battle is over same-sex individuals' rights to marry each other, all those directly affected by the legislation have at least one straight friend and/or family member who can email or call a legislator.

"It is incredibly important to hear the personal stories from people who will be affected by this legislation, and then it's equally important that legislators hear from straight allies and people from all walks of life so that they understand that this isn't a narrow issue, that this is a broad community issue," says Silk.

"We want to make sure that legislators understand how this can have a real impact on LGBT citizens, but [also] that this is broadly supported, by straight allies, people of color, communities of faith, businesses, unions, and the whole, broad coalition."

It still continues to shock me that Proposition 8 was able to pass in my own state of California in 2008, immediately revoking the community's access to the institution of marriage. Were queer folk not speaking to anyone outside the community, and not urging them to vote on their behalf and tell friends and family to do the same? Learn from our mistakes and tell your friends, lovers, neighbors, body-hair waxers, nearby apple farmers, chatty Starbucks baristas, and favorite dam operators to reach out to their representatives because this cause is important to you.

In addition to the donations and the simple effort of reaching out to one's various representatives, Silk insists that there are regular volunteer opportunities for those interested in assisting the effort. Besides classic phone banking and going door to door in certain districts, Silk says that there will be a lobby on a yet-to-be-announced date (likely in February) where same-sex marriage supporters will be encouraged to meet up in the state capitol.

Thinking again of the horrifying series of events that led to the ban of same-sex marriage in California, remember how outraged we all were that money and resources were being funneled in from Utah and other states to benefit same-sex marriage opponents?

To take a page out of the enemy's playbook (no need to mince words here when opponents of same-sex marriage are continually trying to demonize and dehumanize us); the national LGBT community must acknowledge Washington's battle as our own.

Obviously, Washington United for Marriage will welcome and rely on donations from individuals and organizations that understand the importance of advancing the same-sex marriage cause on any portion of American turf.

"Part of the reason our opponents can spend up to half a million dollars to try to defeat this is because they will get outside money, coming from all over the country, pouring into the state; so it's incredibly important that people interested in supporting marriage and advancing this cause help us financially."

But beyond that, Silk reveals that they are "planning opportunities for out-of-state allies to be able to help us make phone calls in-state, and that will probably happen right at the end of the legislative session, when it's most critical for us to get a mass number of communications in."

Silk explains that those out of state would be used to call sympathetic Washingtonians and encourage them to make phone calls to their legislators. "It's frankly not helpful at all for people to be calling or sending letters to state legislators from elsewhere," he says, as the legislators' focus is on the constituents they are serving in-state, in-district.

To ignore how powerful education and sharing one's own experiences can be would be fantastically foolish. At the risk of stating the obvious, few politicians, particularly those in their 60s, like Gregoire is, began their careers believing that marriage equality was necessary or even feasible.

But, as Silk points out, "as Gregoire alluded to in her speech, and in the comments she made, the issue of marriage has always been something she has struggled with. She had to reconcile it with her own faith and had to reconcile it with her role as governor and as the head of government in Washington State."

Hopefully Gregoire's description of her own ideological evolution can serve as a model for other conflicted legislators, and spur them into taking a stand for equal rights.

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