This month, two state senators — Jim Kastama of Puyallup and Margaret Haugen of Camano Island — committed to supporting the marriage-equality bill now in the state Legislature. That brought to 25, the minimum needed to pass, the number of senators who have publicly committed to supporting the bill. 

With the previously stated public support of Gov. Christine Gregoire and a majority of House members, it means a bill allowing gay and lesbian couples to become legally married in Washington state is almost certain to become law in the next two months. It will make Washington the seventh state to allow such marriages.

The issue won’t stop there, of course. A fundamentalist Christian group has already announced it will try to put the new law on the ballot in November. 

There’s something terribly wrong about putting basic, government-recognized rights of a class of people to a popular vote. However, in this case, polling shows that marriage equality is now favored by a solid majority of Washington voters. 

Gay marriage is likely to be here to stay.

 

Citizen activism

Ten years ago, this was unthinkable. When gay and lesbian groups started seriously agitating for marriage rights, there was lots of criticism within the gay community that the effort was a waste of time — that limited resources should be put to more pragmatic use, like pushing for anti-discrimination laws in housing and employment. 

The sea change in public opinion since then, on whether gay marriage is a good idea, has been enormous. The coming Washington law would not have been possible without that massive shift in public perception first — and without those first six states (particularly Massachusetts and New York), where legalization of same-sex marriages led to none of the apocalyptic outcomes predicted by critics. 

The institution of marriage was not destroyed or even harmed. Plagues of locusts did not materialize. In fact, nothing happened at all — except that thousands of loving couples who wanted to share a legal contract for a (hopefully) lifetime commitment together were suddenly able to do so.

While Gregoire and the various Olympia legislators who will vote gay marriage into law will get a lot of credit for a civil-rights milestone, most of them did not lead on this issue. 

The leaders were legislators like Seattle’s Sen. Ed Murray, who has introduced this bill seven consecutive years without support (until now) from a governor legislative leadership from his own party. 

The leaders were the community activists and nonprofit groups that lobbied tirelessly in Olympia, year after year, often with little visible sign of progress. 

And, most importantly, the leaders were the GLBTQ (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning) individuals in every city and town that, over the last 30 years, have increasingly lived their lives openly and proudly, and that, by their example, taught the people around them that who you love is less important than who you are.

 

Playing catch-up

There is a lesson in this trajectory for the seemingly endless litany of other issues where our elected leaders have not yet caught up with the public. We’re already seeing this arc in marijuana legalization.

The same Legislature that is set to legalize gay marriage will also — with notably less courage — likely punt on Initiative 502, New Approach Washington’s initiative that was submitted to Olympia in December with some 355,000 signatures. 

The Legislature can either pass such an initiative itself or submit it to voters in November; it is, thus, likely to share the ballot with a gay-marriage referendum. 

And, as with gay marriage, pot legalization is polling favorably when it was not even being seriously discussed in mainstream political circles a decade ago, almost exclusively because activists have kept coming back — this is the third initiative attempt in three years — and because millions of ordinary people have realized that even if they don’t smoke weed, people they know do, and, it’s no big deal. 

Just like being a gay couple is no big deal.

Similarly, at the local and state levels, climate-change activists are having an impact through years of persistence. The bill last year that phases out the state’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter, the Transalta Centralia coal plant, was a rare victory of citizen activism over corporate influence.

Other issues don’t have this sort of dedicated constituency. Tax reform is desperately needed by a state whose antiquated tax structure virtually ensures declining per-capita revenues over time, and which makes desperate shortfalls, like the ones our state keeps facing, a certainty in economic downturns. 

But it failed in the 2010 election because the groundwork hadn’t been laid. Tax opponents (e.g., Tim Eyman) have been organized for years, but proponents of the public and social services being gutted by successive budget cuts (e.g., education advocates) weren’t and often still aren’t focused on the structural question. 

Ditto for tackling the endless succession of corporate tax credits and loopholes riddling the state’s existing tax code.

 

Lesson applied

The lesson: Cheer gay marriage. Celebrate the long-overdue extension of a basic civil right to a significant number of your friends and neighbors. 

But remember that it didn’t happen because one elected official waved a wand. It happened because ordinary people — a lot of us — got involved and made it happen. 

The words of Frederick Douglass apply: Power concedes nothing without a demand.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.