For decades, the most important goal for gay men and women within that particular set of stories had been to add sexual orientation to Washington State’s civil rights law. That way, men and women could not be fired or denied housing simply for being lesbian or gay. The quest had begun in Olympia in 1977 as a response to the dismissal of a gay schoolteacher, Jim Gaylord. Pete Francis, the senator who had helped the early Dorian Society and Dorian Group of gay activists rid the state of its nineteenth-century sodomy law in 1975, had warned that pursuing civil rights inclusion could be a very long fight.
No one imagined just how long.
The 1977 attempt had been rebuked; so had every attempt made every year thereafter by the state’s first gay legislator, Cal Anderson, in the 1980s and early 1990s. And the same would happen when the man who had worked so closely with Anderson as his campaign manager and assistant, Ed Murray, was appointed to the legislature in 1995 after Anderson’s death. Each year would be a snail’s slog–succeeding in one legislative committee only to lose in another, succeeding in the House only to lose in the Senate.
Often for Murray, part of the challenge was overcoming the same homophobia that Anderson had encountered as the “gay legislator.” One of Murray’s fellow legislators later told the Seattle Times that “very few people treated [Murray] like a regular guy. They didn’t joke around with him. People didn’t know what to say because he was the ‘openly gay’ legislator. It took a long time, especially for the men in Olympia to treat Ed like a regular guy.”
In 1997, Hands Off Washington (HOW), which had successfully fended off anti-gay initiatives by building what was the first effective statewide political network (chapter 19), decided to circumvent what seemed to be a permanently stalled legislative process. Instead, it would introduce its own initiative amending the state law on the single point of preventing job discrimination. HOW was buoyed by polls that showed a majority of the public believed in equality when it came to hiring, promotion, and firing. Perhaps, it seemed, the magic time had come to ask voters not just to simply defeat anti-gay attacks but to vote positively to welcome gays and lesbians “inside” the house, rather than continuing to let them be discriminated against when it came to the workplace.
HOW quickly learned what Jodi O’Brien had described. Acknowledgement was “at the whim of those who hold power.” A landslide 60 percent crushed HOW’s Initiative 667 with a “no” vote, and afterward HOW as an organization vanished.
It was back to the legislature. And back to Murray. After I-677’s defeat, Murray would say, “the gay and lesbian political structure basically imploded and went away.” He picked up the phone and started calling activists to lay out a strategy, the one he had already begun to pursue. The key: Murray himself had to become a power broker in the legislature and then advance bills like a game of chess–every move contemplated and executed slowly.
Murray would decide what committee to join. What committee to lead. What issues would bring anti-gay legislators into alliances with him.
In 1999, while still in the state House of Representatives, Murray became co-chair of the Capital Budget Committee. That committee controlled the money for constructing and repairing public buildings, such as libraries, schools, public housing, and historical and cultural buildings. Every representative was interested in its workings.
Murray moved an easy pawn forward, becoming prime sponsor of a noncontroversial bill requiring Washington school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies protecting all students from harassment and intimidation. Gay, lesbian, and transgender students were not specifically mentioned, but they did not have to be. No parent wanted a child bullied. The law included a half-million dollar carrot to help school districts with training. Before Murray had gained his budget committee co-chairmanship, twelve other legislators agreed to be co-sponsors. After he was named budget committee co-chair, sixty-five became co-sponsors. That was an automatic majority of the members of the House.
Murray next targeted the House Transportation Committee. It controlled the budget for highways, the Washington State Patrol, and issues relating to transportation, such as mass transit. Once he became chair, he helped write two comprehensive packages to raise money to construct roads and bridges–the largest investment the state had ever made in its transportation network.
Every representative wanted a piece.
After twelve years, Murray left the House and moved to the state Senate in 2007, much as Cal Anderson had done. By then, the state House, nudged by both Anderson and Murray, had already become supportive of gay civil rights. It was the Senate that was the usual roadblock. Murray asked to sit on the Ways and Means Committee, the primary channel for controlling tax and pension policies and for channeling any tax money headed to capital projects. He became chair.
If you were a state senator who wanted money for a district–and who did not?–you had to encounter Ed Murray.
As he was maneuvering those pieces into position on the legislative chessboard, Murray was also changing the rhetoric that lesbian and gay lobbyists and activists used in Olympia. In 1993, during Cal Anderson’s big push for the civil rights bill, an important part of the strategy had been to bring forward lesbians and gay men who had suffered actual discrimination in jobs, housing, or public accommodations. Opponents had been arguing that lesbians and gays were not really victims of discrimination in the same sense as racial minorities–especially since gays and lesbians could simply stay closeted. At the time, Murray had been president of the Privacy Fund, which hired a lobbyist every year to work on the bill, and he had been the first to testify at a packed hearing on the bill (chapter 19). In his opening line, he reflected the rhetorical theme that had been chosen, telling the lawmakers “my grandparents immigrated to this country to escape oppression.” No American, he continued, should have to endure oppression or discrimination.
A decade later, as a state senator, Murray would decide that that strategy was not working. It would do no good to prove people were being victimized by discrimination as long as opponents kept claiming gays and lesbians simply needed to practice “don’t ask, don’t tell”–the sound bite that had by then become popularized as the compromise allowing gays and lesbians to stay in the U.S. military. Want to avoid discrimination in a restaurant or in a job hiring or in renting an apartment? Then “don’t tell” and “don’t show.” Stay in the closet.
Instead, Murray would say later, “I decided we’d talk about why this [civil rights protection] was good for the economy and why this was good for business, and stop being victims.” He pushed the new gay/lesbian lobby group founded in 2004, Equal Rights Washington, to hire lobbyists who could talk business–both to solicit corporate support and to focus on business issues with conservative lawmakers.
In 2006, Murray once again introduced the same bill that had been introduced for so long–with a change that added two words, “sexual orientation,” to the state’s prohibition against discrimination in jobs and housing. Somewhere in the Senate process each year, even when Democrats held the majority, conservative Democrats had always voted with Republicans to kill the amendment.
When the day for the debate came, a Republican senator from Port Orchard, Bob Oke, delivered one of the most impassioned speeches against the bill. Murray watched from the wings of the Democratic side with his long-time partner, Michael Shiosaki.
Oke began, “Having a child who chooses to be homosexual is very painful.” Oke had used the word chooses, the point of the bill’s opponents always having been that if a citizen chooses to be discriminated against, the state should not protect that person from the consequences. Oke continued, “I know this because my daughter has chosen the life of a lesbian. From the very first day she shared with me what her lifestyle was, she has been trying to change me. And I, quite frankly, have been trying to change her.”
His daughter had called once, asking whether she could bring her lesbian partner to visit. “There was a long hesitation on my part,” Oke said, “and I said, ‘I can’t have that.’”
“That’s called tough love.”
A reporter asked Murray how he was doing as he watched the debate unfold.
“I need this to be over,” he replied. He had been working hard to persuade Republicans, but it was a tight game that he knew could be stalemated or lost.
Another Republican senator, Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland, rose. As Senate minority leader the previous year, Finkbeiner had voted against the bill, which had been rejected by one vote when two Democrats had joined Finkbeiner’s Republicans. But at the beginning of the 2006 session, he had announced that he had come to better understand the level of discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The issue, he began to argue with a surprising framing, was whether it was “OK to be gay or lesbian in the state.” Then he said, “We don’t choose who we love.” That directly countered Oke’s argument about choice. He continued: “The heart chooses who we love.” He added, “I don’t believe it’s right for us to say it’s acceptable to discriminate against people because of that.”
What had been the legislative goal of the state’s lesbian and gay community for three decades suddenly seemed in reach. The chess pieces had moved into place, and when it came time for the decision, the bill would finally pass, 25–23. Finkbeiner’s vote was crucial.
Civil rights had been acknowledged on a statewide level at last.
Pete Francis, the state senator who in the 1970s had advised Seattle’s first gay civil rights group, the Dorian Society, had long since retired. But on the day of the signing, he was there with Ed Murray.
Copyright 2013 University of Washington Press