Same-sex marriage: Getting to ‘I do’ took patience and a boost from a new generation

Young citizens are leading change on the issue of marriage equality, writes Seattle Times editorial page editor Kate Riley. Washington voters should approve Referendum 74, which would affirm a law to allow same-sex couples to marry.

It was often about someone else, says state Sen. Ed Murray of what led individual lawmakers to change their minds and participate in the legislative victory of a bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington state.

“It’s about their kids. It’s about their grandkids. It’s about people in their lives that got them there,” said Murray, whose strategy of incrementalism, probably more than anything, brought Washington to this point. Lawmakers, some Democrats and some Republicans, and the governor shared stories of their intellectual and emotional journey to yes.

On Nov. 6, if voters approve Referendum 74, affirming the new law, Washington could be the first state where same-sex marriage was approved at the ballot box.

Underline. Exclamation point!

Marriage equality is inevitable. Polls this summer — one by CNN/ORC International and another by NBC/Washington Post — showed support at 54 percent. President Obama announced his support in May.

As Murray pointed out, the change seems to be strongest among younger people who are inspiring their elders’ changes of heart.

That was what happened in 2000, when The Seattle Times editorial board reversed its strong opposition to civil unions, thanks to the fifth generation of the Blethen family, which has run the paper for 116 years. The company puts young family members through their training paces. One such exercise, intended to expose them to public-policy debate, caused the Times to pivot.

Seven cousins, then ranging in age from 21 to 30, were assigned to teams, for and against civil unions. Though they argued vigorously for the respective viewpoints, it became clear they were all in agreement: The time for civil unions had come.

That was enough to persuade publisher Frank Blethen, who directed then-Editorial Page Editor Mindy Cameron to announce the change.

Ryan Blethen, part of what has been dubbed “The Fifth Edition,” said what started out as a training exercise became a significant change.

“It was the first time my generation had any impact on the newspaper and public policy,” said Blethen, who is now associate publisher and director of new product strategies after a stint of his own as editorial page editor.

Cameron remembers the moment.

“I was very proud of these young people and what we were about to do,” she said. So her staff prepared a Sunday editorial, urging the Washington Legislature to follow Vermont’s lead in authorizing civil unions for same-sex partners. Cameron drafted an explanatory column, under the headline, “And the next generation shall teach — and lead.” She noted that polls in 1996 showed that Americans opposed same-sex marriage by 2-to-1.

It took Washington lawmakers, who had enacted a Defense of Marriage Act in 1998, a long time to get here. Murray points to a significant turning point in 2006 when the Legislature approved a civil-rights bill that protected lesbians and gays from discrimination in housing, employment and financial transactions. Then the Legislature enacted a law to expand domestic-partnership rights for gay and lesbian families, and 53.2 percent of voters affirmed it by passing Referendum 71.

This year, Murray and other supporters finally rounded up enough votes to approve a law allowing same-sex couples to marry. Now Washington voters must affirm this law by approving Referendum 74.

The Times editorial board believes this is such a fundamental human right we are taking a different tack in our editorial support today. We are asking people who support Referendum 74 to let us and others know by clipping out the sign below. Please take a picture of yourself with the sign, or of you and your partner, spouse or your family, share it on social media with the hashtag #IDo74 or send it back to us at [email protected] We want to show the widespread support for this law.

Now is the chance for Washington voters finally to embrace this important decision.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is[email protected]