After 36 years of celebrating anniversaries and Valentine’s Days, of arguments and make-ups, of raising children and growing old, Larry Gettmann and Jack Frisch of Kennewick can’t think of themselves as anything other than “married.”
It doesn’t really matter to them how the state or any church describes them. The only validation they need for their relationship comes from each other.
But soon, Washington likely will confirm in law what Gettmann, 69, and Frisch, 71, already know in their hearts. They are one of almost 10,000 couples registered as domestic partners whose relationships will be re-defined as marriage under a bill pending in the state Legislature.
“It’s huge. It’s great,” Gettmann said. “Coming from a place where the public didn’t know anything about gay people to where we’re talking about marriage for gay people is a big thing. I had no idea it would come around in 30 years or less.”
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The legislation is inspiring a spectrum of reactions across the state and in the Mid-Columbia -- joy, excitement, fear, anxiety, hope, distaste, anger.
Supporters see it as an affirmation of equality and human rights, while opponents believe they are fighting to preserve the moral fabric of society.
“Redefining marriage has serious other consequences,” said Father Richard Sedlacek of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Kennewick. “It opens the door to polygamy. It opens the door for all kinds of things, all different types of relationships. I just think it’s a bad sign. I think it’s a sign of a declining culture.”
If the bill passes, Washington will become the seventh state in the nation, plus the District of Columbia, to allow gay couples to legally use the word “marriage” to define their relationships.
The bill passed 28-21 in the state Senate on Wednesday, and Olympia insiders say it has enough votes to pass in the House.
It will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Monday and could come to a House floor vote in a matter of days.
And with an endorsement by Gov. Chris Gregoire, it seems all but certain that the way marriage is defined in Washington state law is about to undergo a significant change — unless voters decide otherwise in November.Opponents have promised to collect petition signatures toward putting a referendum on the November ballot to let people decide whether they want to legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
“I hope the people will rise up and vote against this,” said Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick. “It goes back to my faith. God is promised in our Scripture to bless the nation for those who follow him. For those who do not, there are curses. I think we could really use God’s help right now — his blessings and not his curses.”
As recently as 1998, Washington joined most of the nation in passing a Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
But the tide of public opinion has shifted in the past 14 years. The state Legislature in 2007 passed a law allowing gay couples to register as domestic partners, then expanded the legal rights of domestic partners in 2009 to include “everything but marriage.”
Foes of the 2009 law, who argued it would put the state on a slippery slope toward allowing same-sex marriage, gathered enough signatures to send a referendum to the state’s voters, who affirmed the domestic partnership law 53 percent to 47 percent.
An annual poll by the University of Washington in October found attitudes may have shifted a little further in favor of same-sex marriage.
The poll data — which include a random sampling of registered voters statewide — show that if a referendum to legalize gay marriage hits the ballot this fall, 55 percent of Washingtonians likely would vote in favor.
“The trend has definitely been upward,” UW pollster Betsy Cooper said of public attitudes toward same-sex marriage.Michael Lee, a Richland resident who is in a registered domestic partnership with his partner of nine years, said the issue is equality, not gay marriage.
“I think the choice to marry should be the couple’s choice, not the state’s choice,” he said. “Nobody should be forced to marry, but if that’s what the couple wants to do, they should have the right to make that choice.
“It’s only fair that the government recognize and not create a separate class for gay people to recognize their relationships,” Lee said. “We don’t accept separate but equal. We didn’t with segregation, and we shouldn’t with marriage.”
At the heart of the issue for gay and lesbian Tri-Citians is the right to be who they are and live their lives in the best way for them without judgment or interference.
Gettmann and Frisch have been openly gay first in Hermiston and then in the Tri-Cities since the 1970s.
“It was still new to the Tri-Cities in 1976. It wasn’t really talked about,” Gettmann said. “We came out kind of dumb, not realizing what could happen. We had a person shoot at our house at one point — bullets through a couple of windows, a bullet in a door frame.”
They said attitudes have changed over time — at least in part because of their own efforts to create a sense of community among gay people living in the Tri-Cities.
Along the way, he found that people sometimes make assumptions about each other that turn out to be untrue once they get to know one another.
Gettmann himself assumed people he knew would react to learning he was gay a certain way but ultimately found acceptance.
“When that opens up, it’s like a family,” he said.
But for people like Sedlacek and Klippert, family means something different. A family in their eyes consists of a mother, father and children, and perhaps extended relatives such as aunts, uncles and grandparents. But at its core is a married, heterosexual couple.
“We believe that is the basic unit of society and the stability of that unit reflects the health of society,” Sedlacek said. “This undermines that whole concept.
“It’s not to be picking on gay people,” he said. “People with same-sex orientation need to be respected because they’re human beings. We believe it is a heavy cross to carry, but we believe it is an abnormal orientation.”
There appears to be little middle ground on the issue, and for many the choice of a side hasn’t been easy.
It is an issue that pits not only liberals against conservatives, but also in some cases faith and ideology against conscience.
“There are often contentious issues to deal with as a member of the state Legislature, but so far, none more so than the issue of marriage equality,” Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said in an email to the Herald explaining her support for the bill.
She said that despite a Catholic upbringing, her decision came down to a matter of individual freedom.
“Some may question if I am truly a Republican. I would submit that a core tenet of the Republican Party is individual freedom,” Walsh said.
“As a legislator, my vote on the vast majority of bills is cast on what is in the best interest of the people in my district. When confronted with issues of conscience such as this, I am unable to compromise on what I truly believe is the right thing to do in my heart and in my mind.
“It may have been politically easier for me to vote no on this issue and not be subjected to the many undesirable comments I have received. But I signed up for this job, am truly honored to serve, and hope my constituents agree that I must be true to my convictions.”
Walsh has faced backlash from her party for her previous support for Washington’s domestic partnership law. She was censured by the Franklin County Republicans in 2009 for her co-sponsorship of an expansion of domestic partnership rights.
The group remains staunch in its opposition to legal recognition of same-sex relationships and recently uninvited Republican Attorney General candidate Reagan Dunn from its annual Lincoln Day dinner because he voiced support for the legislation.
“Our central committee is quite conservative and Christian,” said Curtis Mohr, Franklin County GOP chairman. “I’m sure that affected the opinions of many (people) who expressed them to me. The county platform has a plank in it that in essence marriage should be a union between one man and one woman.
“There is also a plank in the state platform that essentially says the same thing. ... As chairman, one of my duties is to be in favor of the planks in our platforms.”
Just as Walsh broke ranks with her party to support the Legislation, some Democrats have gone against the grain to voice their opposition.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, was one of three Senate Democrats who voted against the bill Wednesday.
He said during a brief but emotional floor speech that although his faith dictates that he love and respect all people, it also dictated a “no” vote on the bill.
“Another thing that I believe very strongly is that I am no better than anybody else and that I need the forgiveness of my savior every single day,” he said, his voice breaking as he spoke.
“And if I anything I do offends anybody else, I need to ask their forgiveness. So if I am offending anybody else right now, I want to ask your forgiveness, but I have to do what I believe is right, and for me, right is voting against this bill.”
Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, issued a statement Friday saying his vote against the bill was “deeply personal.”
Shin, a native Korean who was adopted by an American soldier, said he lives according to the Christian values taught to him by his family.
“I have no doubt that my vote on Wednesday is one that will be applauded by some and abhorred by others,” he said. “But as we tackle these divisive issues, nothing is more important than our mutual respect for one another, both as Americans and Washingtonians.”
As an Eastern Washington Republican, it wasn’t hard to predict that Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, likely would vote against the same-sex marriage bill.
But Hewitt said it was far from an easy decision, one that put him at odds with his own political philosophy.
“This is a departure from my personal philosophy of protecting individual rights,” Hewitt told the Herald. “I consider myself a Libertarian and someone who protects individual rights. This is personal for me.
“For some reason, I have never accepted two people of the same gender for marriage. I’m a bit conflicted on this because of my philosophy of protecting individual rights. It’s just a personal belief.”
Although opinions are running strong, one Mid-Columbia lawmaker is taking a more cautious approach. Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said he wants to listen to the testimony Monday before deciding his vote on the bill.
But he added that he’d rather the Legislature was working on the budget.