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.

At the Yakima Mall, retail store manager and born-again Christian Mike Broom is still trying to make sense of it all. The Bible is clear that same-sex marriage is wrong, he said.

Then he paused. “But the Bible is pretty clearly against a lot of other sins, too,” he said after a moment, noting that the rise of gangs and drugs in his city have caused violence and sins far worse than that of gay marriage.

“I have gay and lesbian friends and I will give them my opinion,” Broom said. But, he added, “I love them just the same.”

Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, the lead group that pushed for legalization of same-sex marriage, said that as skeptics see how “remarkably normal” married gay and lesbian couples are, in time acceptance will come.

“People are still truly conflicted about this,” Silk said. “But I think there’s a recognition that there is a new space to have the conversation about LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] issues writ large, and I really think we forged a space for new conversations on this.”

In the meantime, changes are rippling across the state. The local wedding industry is retooling itself to cater to a new market, particularly high-earning, same-sex couples prepared to drop $60,000 or more on their dream ceremony.

Traditions are getting tweaked, too.

“My couples who are same-sex are really history makers,” said Kristen Tsiatsios, owner of Jubilee Event Engineers in the Seattle area. “They are getting to invent the traditions, tweaking them to make them their own.”

The bouquet toss is one example. Historically, single women line up behind the bride hoping to catch the bouquet that signifies who will be the next to marry. At one male-centric wedding, they threw the bouquet toward all their single male friends. At a lesbian wedding, it was tossed to all the singles in the room.

“In the past, they would say, ‘I now pronounce you …’ Now what do you say? Married? Legally wed?” Tsiatsios asked.

It’s not just the ceremony. Already, ads are popping up in local gay and lesbian publications offering estate planning, prenuptial agreements — even help with divorce.

Several gay and lesbian couples say the new law has forced new questions and tensions: Should we get married, just stay coupled or split? Others struggle with the idea of their anniversary date. Some couples loathe the idea of calling themselves newlyweds after 30 and sometimes 40 years together.

“The world is totally different … totally new,” said Fred Swanson, executive director of Gay City Health Project.

‘It’s euphoric’

Colleen Ozolitis and Lee Ann Martinson have been together nine years and married in Canada in 2006. But they wanted to remarry in their home state, with their 5-year-old son and all their family and friends.

“You hear the words, ‘By the power vested in me by the state of Washington,’ ” Ozolitis said. “Well, it’s euphoric, and you realize you did something amazing.”

Sitting in Starbucks, Biesman and Marquardt tried to express what it means for them to be married. But sometimes, when you live something for so long, it can be tough to find the right words.

“When you know something is not allowed, it is easy to convince yourself you don’t want this; I don’t need the word ‘married,’ ” said Marquardt, 29, a medical scheduler. “Once I met Chad, I was like, ‘I do want this, I deserve to have this.’ You want to use the exact same word as everybody else.”

Biesman grew up in Colorado and had a difficult time accepting he was gay, not telling his parents until he was 30. As his values evolved over the years, the word “marriage” grew more important.

“For gay people, you grow up being different, and maybe for many of us, being bullied or teased,” said Biesman, 44, a business developer. “Then to grow up and not be able to be normalized like everybody else and have what everybody else has is rough. It reminds you how different you are.”

Biesman took a long sip of coffee. He looked around the coffee shop, filled with couples — gay and straight.

“There’s just something really great when you can say, ‘I am married,’ ” he said.

 

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

 

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