Vashon’s same-sex marriage advocates celebrate a victory

While Washington residents were asked to vote on several hot-button issues this fall, many Vashon residents rallied around one ballot measure they said hit close to home.

Islanders waived signs, made calls, raised thousands of dollars and even put on a large interfaith event all in support of Referendum 74, which ultimately upheld the legalization of same-sex marriage. In what supporters are calling a historic moment for Washington, Ref. 74 passed with about 53 percent of voters approving it.

“It took each of us doing what we could for it to happen,” said Barb Rhoads-Weaver, an Islander who was active in the campaign for Ref. 74. “There were a lot of people who felt strongly enough that they put in time and effort and money to help the campaign.”

The widespread support of Ref. 74 on the Island came as no surprise to most. Not only is Vashon known for being liberal and gay-friendly, but it’s also home to the highest concentration of same-sex couples in the state. According to 2010 U.S. Census results, 5.5 percent of Vashon households are headed by same-sex couples, just ahead of Seattle’s 5.4 percent.

Rhoads-Weaver, who campaigned for same-sex marriage with her partner Heather Rhoads-Weaver, said she was pleased to see that a wide contingent of Islanders, both gay and straight, contributed to the effort, whether it meant holding a fundraising dinner or simply putting signs in their front yards.

“We are truly thankful for the community effort,” she said. “It made a difference.”

Vashon advocates for Ref. 74 kicked off their campaign last summer when a small conglomeration of Islanders marched in the Strawberry Festival parade with rainbow balloons, signs reading “Approve Ref. 74,” and two women dressed as brides.

Over the following months, members of the informal group, Vashon Families United for Marriage (VFUM), went on to hold several private fundraisers where they netted at least $10,000 for Washington United for Marriage, the main organization campaigning for Ref. 74. Several couples said they also used the events as an opportunity to hear testimonies from Islanders and encourage attendees to reach out to friends and family across the state to discuss their support of same-sex marriage.

“It’s an issue people are reluctant to talk about like we talk about rumble strips on the highway,” said Chuck Weinstock, who helped put on a fundraiser in September. “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.”

Islander Maureen Burke, who headed VFUM, said that she and her partner Pearce Cobarr took action in February when the state Legislature passed and Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law a bill that legalized same-sex marriage. Like others, they know the new law would be threatened by a petition campaign.

The couple put out a call for support over social media and in a 24-hour period raised $12,000 for Washington United for Marriage. They went on to join the organization’s finance committee, as well as coordinate campaign efforts on Vashon through VFUM.

“We both wanted to make sure that we had no regrets,” Burke said. “Regardless of the outcome, we wanted to say we had done all we could for fairness and equality.”

The most public event surrounding Ref. 74 came in late October, when the Vashon Unitarian Fellowship put on Shelter the Flame, an event billed as an interfaith gathering in support of marriage equality.

Harmon Arroyo, the event’s main organizer, said that about 300 showed for the gathering at the Vashon Theatre and at least half stayed for the candlelight vigil that followed.

Arroyo said he was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support Islanders showed for Shelter the Flame. Seven of the Island’s ministers or faith leaders eagerly joined the effort, he said, and several of them gave moving testimonies at the event, including Bruce Chittick, the openly gay pastor of Burton Community Church. State Sen. Sharon Nelson also spoke, and several well-known Island musicians performed. At the vigil afterward, Islanders lit candles, held hands and sang.

“I think the issue touched at the core of a lot of people. … The Island spoke back, and took it out of my hands and took off with it,” he said.

Arroyo, a married man who later wept when he learned that Ref. 74 passed, said he thinks the event was one that could only happen on Vashon.

“I don’t think there’s another community, a rural community of our size, any place else on the planet that could have pulled that off,” he said.

Islanders’ efforts were apparent right up to Election Day. A group from VFUM held signs at the intersection in town the weekend before the vote, and days before the election a concert at the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie benefited Ref. 74 as well. Burke also organized a phone banking day right before the election, where several members of Vashon High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance joined volunteers in making calls to rally votes.

“It was really inspiring to see these young students doing that,” Burke said. “I came out in high school, and I think I would have been nervous about doing something like that. I don’t know if these kids were gay or straight, and it didn’t matter.”

Campaigners say that while most Islanders they encountered showed support for same-sex marriage, it was also clear that not all on Vashon wanted to see it legalized. When Rhoads-Weaver staffed a Strawberry Festival booth and on a few occasions held signs in public, some gave disapproving glances or even a thumbs down, she said, though all were civil.

As the election neared, a number of Islanders had Ref. 74 support signs stolen from their yards, and posters advertising Shelter the Flame were torn down.

Burke called the incidents disheartening.

“It’s one of the reasons I was feeling a little pessimistic leading up to the election results,” she said. “If Vashon people are stealing signs, what’s the rest of the state going to do?”

In late October a group of Islanders who attend Bethel Church paid for an advertisement in The Beachcomber that ultimately stirred some dispute at the church. The ad included a short list of parishioners who supported a no vote on Ref. 74. Though the church’s pastor, Bob Gentzel, was listed, Gentzel later said the church never authorized the ad and that church leadership has never taken a stand on any ballot issue.

Rhoads-Weaver, who noted that Bethel is a popular church and often a venue for community events, said she believes the ad has actually sparked some positive dialogue about how to build bridges between those on Vashon with different beliefs surrounding marriage.

“When people are talking, one could hope that communication leads to better understanding,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ref. 74 supporters are celebrating not only a victory in Washington, but what they call a “marriage equality sweep” this election. The three other states with similar measures on the ballot — Maine, Maryland and Minnesota — all voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I am elated,” Burke said of the results. “I’m over the moon.”

Election figures for Vashon won’t be available until later this month, but as of Monday, Ref. 74 had a 66 percent approval rate in King County.

“In a decade or two decades, people are going to look at this and say this was a big day,” Burke said. “We don’t know exactly what Vashon did, but we’re assuming Vashon played an important role.”

As for the Rhoads-Weavers, they say they’re done planning campaign strategies and are now planning a wedding ceremony for this summer. It will be a vow renewal, Barb said — the couple had a ceremony in Seattle in 2000 and legally wed in Canada in 2003. This summer, she said, they’ll make their marriage official in Washington, and their two children will take part in the day.

“After (the results) were reported, we popped open the champagne and got to celebrating and talking about our wedding.”


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