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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Gay marriage: real people in real relationships

By Greg Nickels
Special to The Times

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The day I announced my executive order recognizing same-sex marriages among city of Seattle employees, I stopped by a local Starbucks to pick up a latte. A woman came up to say thank you for recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages of city employees. We talked a bit and when she left, she was crying. They were tears of joy, not sorrow.

Each day, I appreciate more and more that this issue is about fundamental civil rights. It's not just a philosophical debate. It's about recognizing and valuing real people in real relationships; people who are systematically denied a certain dignity. Americans should be beyond the bias mentality of the mid-1900s. I'm proud that in Seattle, our hearts and minds embrace diversity in every form. We're a richer, fuller, freer community because of it.

If we believe in equal protection, we can't tell some people that their relationship is legitimate and others that theirs aren't just because we don't believe in same-sex unions.

It was not very long ago that interracial marriages were outlawed in many parts of our nation. That was wrong. And it's wrong to outlaw same-sex marriages. Just as you cannot change the color of your skin, you cannot change your sexual orientation.

It is not the role of government to legislate what constitutes a legally married couple in terms of skin color or sexual orientation. It is the role of government and the Constitution to respect and protect the sanctity of legal unions and ensure that the individuals in those unions are afforded equal protection, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation.

The people of Seattle believe in equal rights for all people in the areas of housing, employment and education. It is not just a wish — it is the law. We see same-sex marriage no differently.

Ten years ago, we led the way in recognizing the validity of domestic partnerships by extending benefits and protections to partners of city employees regardless of sexual orientation. Since 2000, we've required businesses with city contracts worth at least $37,000 to offer benefits to their employees with domestic partners equivalent to the benefits offered their employees with spouses. In the areas of housing and employment, Seattle was one of the first cities to legislate against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The executive order I signed and ordinance I have proposed will not correct all of the inequities suffered by same-sex couples, but it is a beginning. I hope my actions will encourage others in our community to grant equal rights to same-sex married couples wherever possible.

For all of us who hold sacred equal rights for all people, popularity has never been the reason for taking a stand. This is one of those times when it is important for Seattle to take the right path — not necessarily the popular path. As national momentum gathers to change laws and challenge reactionary legislation, the city of Seattle joins a growing movement committed to ensuring equal rights and protections to all of our married citizens.

This debate will carry on for months, maybe years, both locally and nationally. I fully expect there will be more lawsuits and court decisions, and people of good conscience on all sides of this issue will disagree. I am ready for the debate, but my position is firm: to uphold the state and federal constitutions, under which marriage is a fundamental constitutional right that the equal protection clause guarantees to all citizens.

Equal protection is equal protection. It should have absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Every day, I talk with city employees who are in long-term committed relationships. These couples are just like you and me. They are our children, our brothers and sisters and our neighbors. They are raising children, joining the PTA, buying homes, paying taxes and getting married. If two people are in love and willing to take on the responsibilities of a marriage, they should to be able to do so, regardless of their gender. And they should be entitled to the same rights as any other married couple.

I heard from a city employee the other day whose personal story clearly demonstrates what this issue is truly about. Her story touched a nerve in me and reveals one reason why we cannot let systematic discrimination against lawfully recognized unions continue.

The employee and her same-sex partner have lived together for many, many years. No one could or would ever doubt their commitment, nor the depth of their love. But tragedy struck when one of the women had to be hospitalized and undergo emergency surgery. Imagine the pain that both felt when the healthy partner was told that she would not be accepted as next of kin because she wasn't a "family member."

Think for a moment what it must be like to be seriously ill, terribly frightened and denied the full participation of the one person in the world you've chosen as your life partner. Too many people are having their relationships blocked by a wall of prejudice, a wall that has existed for far too long.

We have begun to bring down that wall in Seattle.

Greg Nickels is mayor of Seattle.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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