Ref. 74 advocates look to Vashon for support

As the November election draws near, many Islanders are speaking up and taking action on a hot-button issue they say is especially personal on Vashon: same-sex marriage.

Rather than lay low in a place already known for being liberal and gay-friendly, some of Vashon’s gay marriage supporters say they can play an important role this November, when voters will decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage through Ref. 74.

“This is not an insular community,” said Maureen Burke, who a few months ago organized Vashon Families United for Marriage (VFUM) with her partner Pearce Cobarr. “We have connections across the state. … We see it is an opportunity to take this to the next level.”

It’s a battle that has played out in many other states in recent years, gay marriage advoacates note, and one that is now dividing Washington and spurring passionate campaigns from both sides. If Ref. 74 passes, Washington would be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by vote.

Burke said that when gay marriage opponents earlier this year gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, she and Cobarr, who also have three young children, felt they had to take action.

“We knew this is our moment,” she said. “This is our moment in Washington. We have to drop everything.”

They’re not alone. Already this month, two private fundraisers organized by a handful of Vashon families and informally tied to VFUM have raised thousands for Washington United for Marriage, the main organization campaigning for Ref. 74. Several more families are planning to hold their own fundraisers, Burke said, and owners of a couple of restaurants have said they’ll donate food or a space for events as well. In a similar vein, several leaders of Vashon churches and faith communities have agreed to take part in an interfaith event surrounding marriage equality next month at the Vashon Theatre.

“It’s going to be a big day for Washington and a big day for Vashon,” said Burke, who also serves on Washington United for Marriage’s finance committee. “It’s time for people to get off the sidelines and get into this game.”

Vashon Families United for Marriage made its debut at the Strawberry Festival when a small conglomeration of Islanders marched in the grand parade with rainbow balloons, signs reading “Approve Ref. 74,” and two women dressed as brides. Burke said parade-goers, not surprisingly, erupted into cheers and applause for the group.

“It was an incredible feeling,” she said.

Later during the festival, visitors to VFUM’s booth were overwhelmingly in favor of gay marriage, Burke said. Many unsolicited donations came in that weekend.

“That was never our goal,” she said. “People just gave us money.”

Indeed, campaigning for marriage equality on left-leaning Vashon Island can seem a bit redundant.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 5.5 percent of Vashon households are headed by same-sex couples — the highest in the state. The statistic also puts Vashon’s gay population just ahead of Seattle, where 5.4 percent of homes are headed by same-sex couples. Burke said she herself moved to Vashon because she and her partner knew the community was welcoming of same-sex couples.

“When we think about marriage equality on Vashon, we are talking about your neighbors, friends, shopkeepers, customers, clients, service providers, your family,” Burke said.

Chuck Weinstock, a banker who, with a few other couples, recently put on a private fundraiser for Washington United for Marriage, said the organizers encouraged those in attendance to share their experiences on Vashon and their support of gay marriage with as many people as they could.

“It’s an issue people are reluctant to talk about like we talk about rumble strips on the highway ... but it’s important for people who are not gay and lesbian to talk to other folks, to know this is an issue they are standing up on, even on Vashon,” he said.

Katy Jo Steward, a lawyer who held the event at her home, agreed.

“If there are 100 people here, and they each (talk to) 10 people, that’s 1,000 people,” she said.

Steward said VFUM is also reaching out to gay marriage supporters to make sure they understand the referendum process, something there has been widespread confusion about.

In February the state Legislature passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it into law. Before the law could go into effect, however, gay marriage opponents gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote.

VFUM volunteers say that at the Strawberry Festival many who stopped at their booth thought that since gay marriage opponents put the issue on the ballot, they should vote “no.” However, since the ballot item is a referendum, a “no” vote actually repeals the law and “yes” vote sustains it.

Fundraisers on Vashon also agree that money will play a huge role in the election. Several who put on an event noted that gay marriage opponents have poured huge amounts of money into advertising in other states where the issue has been on the ballot. And of the 32 states to vote on gay marriage, all have voted it down.

“The people have to get good information about the legal and economic and social impacts of this,” Weinstock said. “The unfortunate reality is you’ve got to have money to do that.”

Burke said that at two fundraisers in early September, organizers asked for donations from each family, and together they pulled in about $6,500. Snapdragon provided appetizers at one, and at the other — an event aimed at families — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were served.

“We had a ton of kids come to that one” Burke said.

As private fundraisers continue around the Island, the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship hopes a large contingent of people will come together around the issue at a public event next month.

Harmon Arroyo, a member of the Unitarian Fellowship, has enlisted seven leaders of Vashon churches or faith communities to help plan in an interfaith event at the Vashon Theatre that he is calling Shelter the Flame.

The event, slated for Oct. 21, will be an evening of prayer, testimonials by Vashon ministers and other Islanders and performances by musicians, including Paul Colwell, Jasper Forrester, Mark Wells and John Dally. A candlelight vigil will end the night.

There may be a donation box at the event, Arroyo said, but Shelter the Flame isn’t about fundraising, or even Ref. 74 specifically.

“It’s not an over-the-top political kind of thing, but more an emotionally supportive thing, an Island kind of thing,” he said.

Burke said that although she knows there are Islanders who oppose gay marriage, she hasn’t encountered them much, and so far there’s been no organized opposition to Ref. 74 on the Island.

Through her efforts, she said, she’s been touched to realize how personal the issue of gay marriage is to many, both gay and straight, on Vashon. At one fundraiser, she said, a young, straight woman spoke about being raised by two mothers and another straight man said he hoped to one day walk his lesbian sister-in-law down the aisle.

“It was real amazing that this touches people on so many levels,” she said, “and it’s not just the people who will directly benefit from this law being sustained, but just our whole community.”


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