Washington state's gay marriage journey offers lessons for Minnesota

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 10:11 PM

Even in Seattle, a marriage-equality epicenter, the issue is far from settled.

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Chad Biesman, shown with David Marquardt in their wedding engagement shoot, said that, as his values evolved over the years, the word “marriage” grew more important for him.

Photo: SEAN HOYT • Affinity Photography,

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– Chad Biesman had a choice of two buttons at a recent wedding expo here: Bride or Groom.

Since Biesman was planning the wedding to his partner David Marquardt, he donned the button that said “Bride.”

Even in a city known for its early and warm embrace of marriage equality, Biesman’s button caused a stir.

Some exhibitors thought it was a joke, saying, “Seriously, where’s the bride?” Others clearly were uncomfortable.

“It is definitely a new world we are moving into,” Biesman said recently, sitting in a Seattle Starbucks. “It is exciting, but with its own challenges, too.”

Eight months ago gay marriage became legal here, after years of bitter and divisive fighting. The moment the law took effect, the mayor of Seattle performed 136 rapid-fire ceremonies in City Hall. Similar celebrations are being planned in Minnesota, where same-sex couples will begin getting married at midnight on Aug. 1.

But Washington state is learning that just because the law now allows it, gay marriage is far from being universally accepted. Away from the rainbow flag-draped neighborhoods of Seattle, the issue is testing many long-held marriage traditions and remains far from settled. Already a florist in southeastern Washington who refused to supply flowers for a same-sex wedding is being sued by the state of Washington and by the American Civil Liberties Union. Other business owners have complained they must sell goods and services for ceremonies they oppose on religious grounds.

“The proponents would like the debate to be over,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, which opposes same-sex marriage. “But the debate is far from over. There are some realities of the universe that we cannot change, regardless of any vote or any argument.”

Seattle is the epicenter of acceptance of same-sex marriage in Washington. It is where the issue took root, where organizers drew strength to first win passage of domestic partnerships and then full marriage legalization. Some of that strength came from unexpected quarters. When gay marriage advocates asked Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $200,000, they got a stunning reply. Bezos insisted on giving not $200,000 but $2.5 million. It remains the single largest contribution to the cause in U.S. history.

In the bubble

The multicolored flags symbolic of the gay rights movement line Seattle’s bustling Capitol Hill neighborhood, where gay and lesbian couples openly stroll hand in hand, laughing and talking under the flickering lights of bars, restaurants and trendy coffee shops. When they’re ready to tie the knot, they can attend wedding shows that cater exclusively to them, chock full of exhibitors eager to tap into a potentially lucrative new market. Since December, more than 2,400 same-sex couples have secured marriage licenses.

“We’re kind of in a bubble here,” said Heather McGuinness, a sex educator in Seattle. “But I like to think that we were sort of the tipping point for the nation.”

But head away from the city, over the Cascade mountain range that bisects the state, and the bubble pops.

Unlike far more liberal western Washington, the rugged landscape east of the mountains is home to the most reliable conservatives in the state. In sprawling Yakima County, two hours southeast of Seattle, the flags are mostly red, white and blue. There are no same-sex couples strolling about holding hands. Since legalization, county officials logged just 18 same-sex marriage licenses through the end of March, the most recent numbers available.

In the city of Yakima, the county seat, the vibe is quaint and relaxed. Trinket shops and museums pay homage to a history that dates back to when the Lewis and Clark expedition first encountered the Yakima Indians. A few dusty bars provide spots where bikers, locals and a handful of tourists sip cold beer and catch the last half of the Seattle Mariners game. More than 200 churches dot the valley, a visible reminder of the area’s strong Christian roots.

As legalization efforts mounted last year, many Yakima locals watched in near-disbelief as the western edge of the state so eagerly embraced same-sex marriage. Some feel as though the debate has left them behind, taking little note of their rejection of the new order.

“In the eyes of God, marriage is a man and a woman,” said Linda Gravelle, 62, who lives just outside Yakima.

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  • David Marquardt and Chad Biesman at their wedding.

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