by Shaun Knittel -
Special to SGN
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Three months ago, at the end of September, Seattle Gay News staff writer and associate editor Shaun Knittel and his husband Yee-Shin Huang pulled up stakes here in Seattle and relocated to Shaun's hometown of Las Vegas, where they are settling into a new groove.
Following are Shaun's farewell remarks and reflections on his eight plus years of community activism in Seattle's LGBTQ community. SGN wishes Shaun and Yee-Shin the best in their new life in Las Vegas and thank him profoundly for his community service here in Seattle and at the SGN.]
It has been a great honor and privilege to write about the modern LGBTQ equality movement, as it happened, for the pages of the Seattle Gay News. For almost a decade now, I've had the opportunity to see our community during unforgettable highs and gut-wrenching lows.
It has been said that history only makes sense when looking back. After bearing witness to this movement I would agree. Although I considered myself a cognoscenti at the time of reporting, I willingly admit that I had no true way of knowing the tremendous impact many of these events would collectively have on the community, myself, and our readers. Simply put: I am forever indebted to the fact that I got the chance to write our history as it happened. This fact is something that I take great pride in and probably will for the rest of my life.
In an effort to make sense of it all or to, at the very least, put it into perspective, the publisher of Seattle Gay News has graciously allowed me a two-part editorial of which I am happy to oblige. I will do my best to stick to a timeline that begins in April 2009, although I might jump around a bit. I can't think of a better way to say goodbye to my readers than this. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have had writing it.
THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
Present day, not only do we have full marriage equality in Washington state, but it is the law of the land across the nation. As time passes it becomes more and more difficult to remember a time when some semblance of equality had yet to come to our people. Many in our community, particularly the LGBTQ youth, forget or never knew a time when there were more things we could not legally do than things that we could legally do. Yes, even in Seattle there was a time when you could be fired from your job if you were Gay or Lesbian, or lose the lease to an apartment simply because you were a sexual minority, the community was not represented like it is today with our own people serving in elected office or in appointed positions, and if two members of the same sex went downtown to file for a marriage certificate they would not be permitted to do so under any and all circumstances. Simply put: it was against the law.
Thankfully, due in no small part to a lot of good work by a lot of great people, none of those anti-LGBTQ laws and policies held true in Seattle. And today, in our state and, in most cases, throughout the country as a whole, LGBTQ people have more rights afforded to us than in any other time in history.
When I arrived in Seattle in April 2009 fresh out of the U.S. Navy, where I had served 10 years as a mass communications specialist working in public affairs for the government, the idea that two members of the same sex could one day get a marriage license issued to them according to law, seemed more ludicrous than radical activist. Many of the elders in our community at that time didn't think that they would see a day when committed same-sex couples would be permitted marriage by law in their lifetime. Some hardcore feminists within our community told me that they viewed marriage as oppressive towards women and it wasn't something they looked at as a measure of equality. Gay elders educated me to the fact that when the movement began in the late 1960s and picked up steam throughout the 1970s it had been largely anti-military service, anti-marriage, and anti-nuke/war. Additionally, the police were not our friends, the federal government largely remained an enemy of our people, and the church was still trying to 'pray the Gay' away. Seems a little bit crazy now when you think about it now but not so long ago we were still without nearly all of the rights we take for granted in 2017.
So how did we do it?
Well, that can be a long and complicated answer that involves polling data, campaign strategies, analyzing our losses and applying lessons learned to each campaign that followed, and so on. However, the quick and, in my opinion, most important answer is: language. We simply changed the way we talked about each other, instead of reaching out to those already allied with us we reached out to all communities of people and we told our stories over and over again so as to become more human in the eyes of those who opposed us because they did not understand that we, like any other group of people throughout history, have the capacity to love, are not sick because we are LGBTQ, and that at the end of the day we all want mostly the same things out of life. We began to use phrases like, 'The right side of history,' 'Love always wins,' and replaced talking about benefits as the number one reason for marriage equality with love. In doing so we were able to build coalitions, make allies where enemies once stood, and moved the conversation from behind closed doors amongst our own, into office break rooms, classrooms debate, and refreshment tables at social events and so on.
Another useful thing we did as a movement was to officially establish a label to our community to go along with the widely recognized rainbow Pride flags that people had gotten used to seeing used to identify us since the 1970s. We went from being simply the Gay community or Gay and Lesbian community to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Allied or A-sexual (LGBTQIA). Regardless of how you might feel about labels or the changing of GLBT to LGBT and then on to LGBTQIA, the truth is, it is an acronym that sums us up in written testimony or in print media articles, remains recognizable over radio broadcasts and on TV broadcasts, reminded people that we were being 'othered' by mainstream heterosexual society which left us no choice but to develop a fringe community, and that acronym has emerged as a way for us, regardless of our differences within this diverse community, to advocate for a single segment of our people as a united front right off the bat. It turns out that calling Gay marriage, 'Marriage Equality,' naming our friends 'Straight Allies,' and moving from Gay and Lesbian to 'Same-Sex Committed Couples' became the language of love as we began to win the right to marry by popular vote, court rulings, and (something that many elders in our community never thought they would see) were accepted by mainstream politicians such as Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.
REFERENDUM 71 & 74
Two different campaigns with more or less the same major or key players ended up bringing marriage equality to Washington state years ahead of the landmark 2013 and 2015 Supreme Court decisions to end the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As you can imagine, working at Seattle Gay News during that time was a fantastic thing. Never before had I witnessed (and participated) in millions of people winning freedom. It is something I will never forget.
Referendum 71 (R-71) was on the ballot as a public vote in 2009 in which the people of Washington state ultimately confirmed Senate Bill 5688, a law extending the rights and obligations of domestic partnership in Washington state. Equal Rights Washington, the statewide LGBTQ equality organization that had taken up causes in place of its predecessor Hands Off Washington, laid the groundwork for the official campaign Washington Families Standing Together and dubbed it the 'Everything But Marriage' fight.
Governor Christine Gregoire had originally signed Senate Bill 5688 into law May 18, 2009. Under the Constitution of the State of Washington, laws passed by the legislature do not take effect until ninety days after the close of the legislative session, unless the state legislature declares an 'emergency' requiring the law to take effect immediately. During this ninety-day period citizens can attempt to force a referendum, i.e., referring or putting legislature passed legislation to a public vote, by gathering the required number of signatures. Under the Washington State Constitution that number is equal to four percent of the number of voters in the previous gubernatorial election. If enough signatures are gathered and presented to the Secretary of State before the ninety days have elapsed, then the law is placed on hold, and does not take effect unless the referendum is approved at the next general election.
According to the Washington Secretary of State's office, 120,577 valid signatures were required to qualify the referendum for the November 2009 ballot. On July 25, 2009, the organization Protect Marriage Washington turned in 137,881 signatures. After a signature verification process which saw members from both sides of the argument observing the process in Olympia, a lawsuit regarding late signatures that Protect Marriage Washington had attempted to turn in and a complete re-count of all submitted signatures, 122,007 were officially verified on September 1, 2009, putting R-71 on the ballot and launching a vigorous campaign by progressives to become the first state in the nation to pass a pro-LGBTQ domestic partnership or civil union referendum by popular vote.
Washington state law mandates that when a measure already signed into law is placed on the ballot as a referendum, voters are asked to either 'approve' the bill to confirm the law or 'reject' it to oppose it. Thus, although the petition to put this law to a vote was circulated by its opponents, the ballot wording is such that voters vote in the affirmative to approve the law or in the negative to reject it. This caused some confusion among voters as some voters weren't sure which bubble to fill in on their ballot to reflect their vote. Part of the campaign was simply telling LGBTQ and our allies to approve the referendum to keep the law.
Several lawsuits were filed to block R-71 from appearing on the ballot, but none were successful in court.
In the end, Senate Bill 5688 was approved by voters 53.15% to 46.85% which marked the first time in the United States that voters had approved a statewide ballot measure that established LGBT domestic partnership rights. The law went into effect the day the election was certified, December 3, 2009.
What the movement learned was that a lot of people did not agree that same-sex couples should have the right to marriage under the law; there was something about the wording of it all that just rubbed them the wrong way. So, by saying we wanted domestic partnerships, which extended all of the same rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples, we were able to move voters to our side of the issue and win. It was a profound and important moment in our history and ultimately, one of the catalysts that flung the LGBTQ equality movement into overdrive as we set our sights on dismantling 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' revisiting the passage of a Transgender inclusive Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) and, of course, securing marriage equality for all.
Thousands of couples entered into domestic partnerships in the months and years following the passage of R-71. In 2012, it was decided that the LGBTQ community in our state would go for full marriage equality. The main issue was figuring out how we would get folks who we had told earlier that we wanted everything but marriage to understand that we now not only wanted but were entitled to marriage equality. This was going to be a lot tougher than the last effort so everyone it seemed got to work.
Referendum 74 (R-74) was a Washington state referendum to approve or reject the February 2012 bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state. On June 12, 2012, state officials announced that enough signatures in favor of the referendum had been submitted and scheduled the referendum to appear on the ballot in the November 6 general election. Once again, Equal Rights Washington laid the groundwork and Washington United for Marriage was formed as the official Approve R-74 campaign.
This time around, for me, it was personal. I formed Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) as the grassroots organization parallel to Washington United for Marriage. The founding members of SOSea were all young, mostly people of color, included straight ally representation, and set out to make a number of PSA's [https://www.facebook.com/Our-Hill-a-SOSea-Video-PSA-Campaign-824194680988720/community/], organize the Seattle March for Marriage march and rally, and so much more, to help get out the vote that November. Although SOSea would live on after the marriage equality issue was won - we taught self-defense classes, organized candlelight vigils to bring awareness to violent crime in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, advocated for the rainbow crosswalks painted on Capitol Hill, operated a safety shuttle to get folks around at night when anti-LGBTQ attacks were on the rise and so much more - it had been tough to get people involved initially. The general consensus with a lot of folks was, 'Well, you won domestic partnerships so why do you need marriage? It is just a change in the wording because you already have the right.' This, of course, was not entirely true. Domestic Partnerships were not recognized by the federal government, most other states, did not give us the same tax breaks, and more. Plus, equality is the goal, not something that looks like it, but is not ultimately it.
After a well-organized and concerted effort by everyone involved, the law was upheld by voters in the November 6, 2012 election by a final margin of 7.4% (53.7% approve, 46.3% reject) and the result was certified on December 5. The streets of Capitol Hill were flooded with a sea of people waving rainbow and American flags as we not only got marriage equality, but we had also reelected President Obama. Just like when we won R-71, I will never forget the elation I felt on November 6, 2012.
When Seattle City Hall announced that it would open its doors on December 6 and judges would be on hand to officiate weddings, Seattle Gay News staff photographer Nate Gowdy with assistant Jen DeLeo along with Richard Wood and Jimmy Gonzalez] were given carte blanche and photographed hundreds of same-sex couples in newly marital bliss.
Several months later, on May 25, 2013, in the company of many of the people who worked to approve marriage equality in Washington state, Yee-Shin Huang and I were legally married at Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Abbey of Saint Joan, were our ushers and they performed a spirited version of Madonna's song 'Like a Prayer,' a church choir led by openly Gay choir director Michael Allen sang The Beatles' 'All You Need is Love,' our very good friend, Peruvian recording artist Jack Mozie, played and sang 'I Can't Help Falling in Love With You' as we walked down the aisle, the food was catered by former Neighbours Nightclub General Manager Steve Tracy, and our lives have never been the same. We remain happily married and are eternally grateful - as I am sure all of the members of our community legally married since December 6, 2012 are - to all of the people who voted for and worked hard to see marriage equality become a reality in our state.
Less than a year later, in a major victory for the marriage-equality movement, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits and declined to intervene in California's Prop 8 case. This allowed the U.S. District Court's ruling against Prop 8 to stand and allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California. As of June 26, 2013, 13 states had adopted marriage equality as a right of the people under their laws.
The big nationwide win wouldn't come until a few years later and not after millions upon millions of dollars had been spent fighting anti-LGBTQ marriage laws state by state.
In November 2014, following a lengthy series of Appeals Court rulings from the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit ruled that it was bound by Baker v. Nelson and thus found such bans to be constitutional. This created a split between the Circuit Courts and led to an almost inevitable U.S. Supreme Court review.
On June 26, 2015 the wait was finally over. In a landmark victory, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, stating that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in a 5-4 decision Obergefell overturned Baker and requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions. This decision legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, and its possessions and territories. The Court examined the nature of fundamental rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, the harm done to individuals by delaying the implementation of such rights while the democratic process played out, and the evolving understanding of discrimination and inequality that has developed greatly since Baker.
Later that day, I was invited by the mayor's office to represent all of the activists who had worked on the issue in our state and advocated for an end to DOMA and gave a rousing speech in which I led the hundreds of people in attendance in loud cheers as we all celebrated equality.
The sky didn't fall. The Apocalypse didn't occur because Gays got married. And the issue has largely been settled. Although I don't think marriage equality is the domino everyone thought it would be legislatively, it was, without a shadow of a doubt, the social domino in which an overwhelming number of Americans (more than half) now believe that the LGBTQ community is an equal part of society and should be protected by law, afforded all of the rights and responsibilities that our straight counterparts get, and should be valued as citizens of our nation, not a threat to it.
One of the things that has bothered me the most about our community is the fact that after marriage equality became the law of the land - keeping in mind the huge victory that it was, the visibility and exposure it brought our movement, not to mention the literally hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples whose lives were directly impacted by it - some people in our community had to immediately say, 'Marriage equality passage did nothing for me' or 'My LGBTQ movement was never based on marriage equality' under the veil of 'I'm just reminding everyone that marriage equality doesn't mean we don't have more work to do.' I never, not once, heard anybody say that because we won marriage equality we were done. Or, now that we can get married there are no more issues for us to work on. Not one interview subject, not one politician or director of community-based organizations, or anybody said anything about the movement stopping because of marriage equality. And yet these comments go on and on and on even though they are not based in facts at all. The LGBTQ community can come together like nothing you've ever seen before to organize for rights, better treatment and the rest. But we can also eat ourselves pretty damn good sometimes, too.
GOODBYE 'DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL'
Long before Chelsea Manning received her 2017 presidential pardon from President Obama, the Navy announced it would christen the USS Harvey Milk, or a former Navy Seal from the heroic Navy Seal Team Six came out as Transgender, thousands of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people had lost their careers under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT). After the policy was introduced in 1993, the military discharged over 13,000 troops from the military under DADT. The number of discharges per fiscal year under DADT dropped sharply after the September 11 attacks and remained comparatively low through to the repeal. Discharges exceeded 600 every year until 2009.
Legislation to repeal DADT was enacted in December 2010, specifying that the policy would remain in place until the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified that repeal would not harm military readiness, followed by a 60-day waiting period.
A July 6, 2011, ruling from a federal appeals court barred further enforcement of the U.S. military's ban on openly Gay service members.
President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen sent that certification to Congress on July 22, 2011, which set the end of DADT to September 20, 2011.
Many people contributed to the repeal in all seriousness. Although it took a judge's ruling, the joint chiefs and the president's pen, a lot of veterans worked hard for many years, never letting the issue go silent. Locally, we had several people from Washington state who helped change the course of history in regards to DADT.
Margarethe 'Grethe' Cammermeyer
Margarethe 'Grethe' Cammermeyer served as a colonel in the Washington National Guard and became an LGBTQ rights activist. In 1961 she joined the Army Nurse Corps as a student. She received a B.S. in Nursing in 1963 from the University of Maryland. At the University Of Washington School Of Nursing, she earned a Master's degree in 1976 and a Ph.D. in 1991. She had a 15-year marriage to a man and they had four sons. In 1988, when she was 46, she met the woman who later became her wife, Diane Divelbess. In 1989, responding to a question during a routine security clearance interview, she disclosed that she is a Lesbian. The National Guard began military discharge proceedings against her. On June 11, 1992, she was honorably discharged.
Cammermeyer filed a lawsuit against the National Guard's decision to discharge her in civil court. In June 1994, Judge Thomas Zilly of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that her discharge and the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military were unconstitutional. She returned to the National Guard and served as one of the few openly Gay or Lesbian people in the U.S. military while the DADT policy was in effect, until her retirement in 1997.
A television movie about Cammermeyer's story, Serving in Silence, was made in 1995, with Glenn Close starring as Cammermeyer. Its content was largely taken from Cammermeyer's autobiography of the same name. The movie was executive produced by Barbra Streisand.
In June 2010, she was appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a committee which is appointed by the United States Secretary of Defense and which reports to the United States Department of Defense.
In 2012, after same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington state, Cammermeyer and her wife Diane Divelbess became the first same-sex couple to get a license in Island County.
In April 2006, Margaret Witt, a major in the United States Air Force who was being investigated for being Lesbian, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that DADT violates substantive due process, the Equal Protection Clause, and procedural due process. In July 2007 the Secretary of the Air Force ordered her honorable discharge. Dismissed by the District Court, the case was heard on appeal, and the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling on May 21, 2008. Its decision in Witt v. Department of the Air Force reinstated Witt's substantive-due-process and procedural-due-process claims and affirmed the dismissal of her Equal Protection claim. The Ninth Circuit, analyzing the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), determined that DADT had to be subjected to heightened scrutiny, meaning that there must be an 'important' governmental interest at issue, that DADT must 'significantly' further the governmental interest, and that there can be no less intrusive way for the government to advance that interest. The Obama administration declined to appeal, allowing a May 3, 2009, appeal deadline to pass, leaving the Ninth Circuit's Witt determination as binding on the entire Ninth Circuit and returning the case to the District Court. On September 24, 2010, District Judge Ronald B. Leighton ruled that Witt's constitutional rights had been violated by her discharge and that she must be reinstated to the Air Force. The U.S. government filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit on November 23, but made no attempt to have the trial court's ruling stayed pending the outcome. In a settlement announced on May 10, 2011, the Air Force agreed to drop its appeal and remove Witt's discharge from her military record. She will retire with full benefits.
Witt married her partner Laurie Johnson in Spokane, WA, on December 15, 2012. Seattle Gay News photographer Nate Gowdy was the official photographer at the event.
I gave a speech at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Seattle in the back of a truck bed, where hundreds of people gathered after a march for equality from Volunteer Park in 2009. Additionally, I spoke on many panels about the policy and taught a class about DADT for Gay City's Gay City University in 2010. While I was discharged honorably from military service at the end of my contract, as a Gay man that had served under the policy for 10 years I was able to relay to audiences what the fear was like when you constantly had to look over your shoulder so you didn't get caught, learn to talk in code and use the pronoun game, 'I went on a date with someone last night,' and I had a great knowledge about the policy itself in which many radio stations interviewed me about the technical aspects of the flawed and discriminatory policy.
Many actions led up to the ban as well, including service members defying the policy and marching in Pride parades (some in uniform and some not) across the nation. Army Lt. Dan Choi, perhaps the most outspoken DADT repeal activist, chained himself to the White House fence in protest and gave his West Point Military Academy graduation ring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in front of the media and said he would only accept it back from Reid once repeal was done.
It is important to note that DADT repeal did not allow the open service of Transgender people. The military did begin, however, to look into allowing Transgender folks to serve in uniform in the years since repeal and ended up with a strange policy that really didn't openly welcome Transgender people, but didn't bar them either. That is until Donald J. Trump took office earlier this year and signed an executive order to have them banned. Luckily, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is leaving the Obama-era open service policy on Transgender military service members largely intact, saying he needs input from an expert panel to determine the best way to implement President Trump's ban. Trump gave Mattis discretion to decide the status of Transgender people who are already serving. Mattis says he'll convene a panel from the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, with the goal of promoting 'military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion' - while also following legal and budgetary constraints. Several organizations have sued Trump over the ban, including Seattle's Gender Justice League. It is gratifying to note that several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals have recently upheld lower courts' stays on Trump's executive order thus permitting Transgender people to enlist in the military pending final litigation in the case.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 2 of Shaun Knittel's farewell editorial will appear next week in our January 5 edition.]
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