Sunday was a big day for Washington state. It entered the history books as one of the first three states in American history to ratify marriage equality by a popular vote through Referendum 74. The referendum had been placed on the ballot by organizations who oppose marriage equality and who had successfully run campaigns that banned marriage rights for same-sex couples in other states. The referendum was approved by a 4 point margin at the polls.
Hundreds of couples began applying for marriage license in the first week of December and on December 9 equal marriage rights became the law of the land. City Hall conducted just shy of twenty ceremonies per hour in the eight hours it was open, and the triumphant parade of newlyweds and the jubilant crowds that greeted them became national news.
But what of a reception? Many couples are planning more official ceremonies, but they needed some place to celebrate, and the Paramount Theatre and Q on Capitol Hill each provided a venue for newlyweds to rejoice and mingle with their friends.
Q had previously hosted a fundraiser for the Referendum 74 campaign. That event was spearheaded by local groups and activists, many of whom were in attendance on Sunday to celebrate the victory—and, for some, their first night married. Cupcake Royale donated wedding cupcakes and Cake Envy provided a fake cake for “cake cutting” pictures. The sleek, stylish bar was topped by a big, bold flower arrangement declaring “I do.” At 7:30 the club provided a champagne toast and the couples had their first dance.
Kirsten Graham who runs PR for Q was beaming as she moved through the crowd congratulating everyone. “We’re so proud of our community and our state tonight.” She acknowledged the tough battle that was won by those running the campaign to approve Ref 74, and was glad that Q could be part of that legacy as one of the many venues that had hosted fundraisers that enabled the campaign to do its vital outreach during the election. “To be hosting this reception, this celebration of love is the icing on the cake,” she added.
There were couples of all ages in attendance—couples that had been together for decades who had finally earned legal recognition of their bond, and younger pairs who were just at the beginning of their union. One younger pair was Tamara Neely and Caitlin Tinney—soon to be Neely nee Tinney when the change of name goes through. (They chose the Neely name because Tamara’s family is smaller and they wanted the surname to survive.)
The two were sporting matching “Just Married” sashes, and when I observed in jest, “I’m guessing you got married today,” Tamara replied with a smile, “Technically, we eloped.” The pair have been together for two and a half years and were already engaged to be wed in a ceremony in San Diego on March 31st, but California does not recognize same-sex marriages since 2008, when Proposition 8 passed by just 700,000 votes. The legitimacy of the constitutional ban put in place by Prop 8 will be determined by the Supreme Court next year. Until then, California citizens who were married in the brief window before marriage equality was overturned now exist in a grey area.
Tamara and Caitlin have friends whose marriages fall in that category. There is no indication that same-sex marriages could become unrecognized in Washington state, but they weren’t taking any chances and they were up at 6AM to prepare for their big day at City Hall. They were personally ready to take the plunge and eager to ensure that they had full rights, but Caitlin said there was also a political and social motivation. Showing up in numbers early helped bring visibility to the issue and gave support to other couples.
“We stopped for coffee on our way to City Hall, and talked about how other couples get community support through religion,” explained Tamara. By showing up as part of a larger group, by making connections with other newlyweds, it was easier to feel confident in making those important vows. “I think relationships need the support of a community [to thrive].” And in the absence of their families who will be there at their ceremony in the spring, the support and adulation of a community that had to unite to win equality in the first place was ideal on their big day.
Writer and activist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller were also in attendance, celebrating and mingling with the crowd. Savage and Miller’s “It Gets Better” project became a worldwide phenomenon to combat anti-LGBT bullying and lower the tragically high rate of suicide among LGBT youth. Marriage equality is part of this fight, as it helps youth bullied for their orientation to feel that there is yet a possibility of acceptance and normalcy in the face of physical and emotional abuse by their peers and elders.
These dour thoughts were not occupying the happy crowd, but everyone agreed that the fight is far from over. When I asked Savage how Washingtonians can help equality measures in other states, he had some simple suggestions. “For one, donate. The Referendum 74 campaign was funded by donations that came from all over the country. They invested in us. Now that we have equality in our state, we can’t forget about the rest of the country.” Our neighbor to the south in particular came to mind. “Reach out to Oregon.” Demographically, Oregon seems another likely state to be able to pass marriage equality in the legislature and—if need be—at the ballot box.
Savage identified this victory as part of an emerging consensus in the country that favors marriage equality for all—a consensus that may be taken into account by certain SCOTUS justices in the coming year, as they debate the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. Even if the SCOTUS rulings should strike a blow to the marriage equality movement, the fight will continue.
“It’s not over,” Savage said with a reserved smile, hand-in-hand with his husband. And there is cause for optimism when many good things are just beginning.