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Charlene Strong turned tragedy into activist energy
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Charlene Strong turned tragedy into activist energy

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

for my wife& Screening at Northwest
Film Forum, 4 PM
Fundraiser at the Wildrose, 7 PM
June 21


Charlene, it would seem, was born into a family with an appropriate last name: Strong. Surviving a personal tragedy that would break the will of even the strongest among us, Charlene Strong emerged from Seattle's December 14, 2006 floodwaters battered and bruised, but not broken. After losing her partner of 10 years, Kate Fleming, to an unspeakable drowning accident, Strong made a documentary demanding equality and to honor the woman who was her wife - even if their same-sex relationship was never honored legally.

"The film for my wife& is not about my story alone. It is about what happens to so many of us with no legal protections or recognition," Strong told the SGN.

No legal protections or recognition is something Strong can tell you about. Her account of how Fleming ultimately died and how she was treated at the hospital and funeral home are equally heartbreaking.

Charlene was at work on that December night when Fleming called her from her cell phone. Her wife was trapped in the basement of the Seattle home they shared together with the floodwaters rushing in.

Instinctively, Strong rushed home to get her out.

That Thursday, an exceptionally strong rainstorm covered Seattle with rain and flooding that locals talk about to this day. Fleming, an acclaimed audio book narrator, saw that a flood was eminent, so she went down into her basement studio to retrieve the recording equipment she used to narrate books. As she struggled to save the equipment from water damage, something fell in front of the door, trapping her inside. That is when Strong arrived.

The water was rising fast, Strong recalls. Still on the phone with her wife Strong said Fleming kept reassuring her as she fought with all her strength to pry open the door to the studio. Before she could, the floodwater swelled above her head, engulfing the basement. To keep from drowning, Strong was forced to swim away from the door. Fifteen minutes later, a rescue team retrieved Fleming, unconscious.

At the hospital, emotions running high, Strong realized in horror that she had no rights to be by Fleming's side as she lay unconscious and dying.

"A social worker prevented me from entering the emergency room," she later recalled, "telling me that Washington State did not recognize same-sex partners as next of kin."

The two women had yet to procure all the legal documents to establish medical authority for each other. In the eyes of the state, Strong meant as much as a stranger to Fleming in the event a medical decision had to be made on her behalf. All the while, Fleming lay alone in a hospital room while Strong struggled to contact her wife's family to get permission to be near her and make decisions for her care. Only then could she be treated like any other spouse fighting for their loved one.

Fleming's sister authorized such a decision and that night, when her wife died, Strong was beside her. She said the moments following her lover's death, telling Fleming she loved her and removing the wedding ring she wore, were irreplaceable. If Fleming's sister had not been home to receive Strong's emergency phone call, she would never have had those precious last minutes with the woman she loved and built a life with for 10 years.

For Strong, the nightmare was far from over. After Fleming died, Strong still did not receive recognition as her spouse. Because their marriage wasn't considered legal, the funeral director did not even look at Strong during his consultation - instead, he directed all of his questions to Fleming's mother, who had to authorize the request for cremation.

The death certificate made no mention of their relationship.

"Before the tragedy," she said, "I never realized, in my relatively comfortable life, that so much more had to be done to really achieve essential equality and dignity for same-sex families."

In an attempt to honor Fleming she co-produced a documentary film, for my wife&, to press for essential dignities for same-sex families in emergency and end-of-life situations. The film was completed some time ago, however, with all of the changes in our country regarding marriage, Strong said they have to go in and edit new voice-over work.

These days, Strong travels extensively with the documentary on the film festival circuit, as they do not have a distributor for the DVD yet. All of this is done out-of-pocket for Strong and the filmmakers, LD Thompson and David Rothmiller. Now, for the first time since she was thrust into the spotlight, the activist is asking for help so she can get her story, and the struggle for marriage, equality noticed by distributing the film.

"We are asking supporters to donate by coming to the fundraiser and party kickoff to Pride at the Wildrose June 21 at 7 p.m.," Strong told SGN. "We've planned live music, raffles and drink specials."

The proceeds from the cover charge at the door go directly to for my wife&. Strong and her newly formed band Velvet Fingers will perform the live music.

Also on June 21, at 4 p.m., there will be a special screening of for my wife& at the Northwest Film Forum with proceeds from ticket sales going to Strong and filmmakers. Lastly, you can contribute directly by going to the film's website, www.formywife.info. Between the band and the film, Strong continues to advocate for equality. Gov. Chris Gregoire (D-WA) appointed her to serve as commissioner for the Human Rights Commission.

"I'm immensely proud of our governor and her absolute compassion for out community. She is committed," she said.

Gregoire recently signed into law a bill that gives same-sex couples who register with the state as domestic partners the same rights afforded to a married couple - rights unavailable to Strong when she lost Fleming to tragedy nearly three years ago.

"I speak whenever I am asked on behalf of marriage equality. I try to educate myself daily on what might be the next step in pushing forward as a citizen who wants to make a difference," Strong said. "Many of my brothers and sisters [in the LGBT community] don't think it matters whether or not we have marriage. It will always matter. As long as we are not equal in the laws of this country, we will continue to see suffering, hate crimes, and discrimination."

Strong hopes that what happened in California with Proposition 8 will act as a wakeup call for the community and politicians. She said we need politicians to not be afraid to take the next step and say we want marriage. "What are we waiting for? 2012 is not soon enough," she said.

She believes we have to get uncomfortable with how we are being treated and stand up and say once and for all that we aren't going to let some state organization come here and tell us that we don't matter.

"Do I get upset? You bet. Do I think we can win this battle? Yes. But I will not personally stand by and do nothing," Strong promises. "I have traveled all over and heard too many awful stories of what happens when we need protections most."

Collecting herself, while looking to the past for strength and reason, the activist turned filmmaker, musician, and commissioner looks toward a future where equality is realized.

"I would ask that everyone come to Pride this year," Strong said. "Be a part of our community and let others know we matter and we count and we deserve equality today."

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