Jane Abbott Lighty took the left hand of her 85-year-old partner, Pete-e Petersen, and pulled a ring out of her right pocket.
“This ring I give to you as a symbol of my love and devotion to you,” Ms. Lighty, 77, began. “With this ring I happily marry you and join my life to yours.”
A moment later, Ms. Petersen pulled out a ring of her own, placed it on her partner’s finger and recited the same words. When she was finished all eyes fell on former judge Anne Levinson whose job it was to make it official.
“On behalf of all of those present here today,” said Ms. Levinson, a judicial activist who made a name for herself fighting for same-sex rights. “And by the authority now vested in me by the state of Washington, I pronounce you, formally and legally, married as spouses and partners in life. You may now kiss.”
And when Ms. Lighty and Ms. Petersen did, the 2,000-plus people who witnessed the ceremony at Benaroya Hall this past Sunday stood and cheered. Many in the hall wiped away tears as the two women, considered matriarchs of the same-sex movement in Washington State, stood on stage, holding hands, enjoying a moment that they thought might never come.
Ms. Petersen and Ms. Lighty were among hundreds of same-sex couples to get married in Washington State this past weekend, many in this city, after receiving licences on Thursday and waiting the requisite three days before tying the knot. The pair was given the honour of being the first same-sex couple in King County to get a licence, a nod to their years of hard work on behalf of various campaigns seeking to expand benefits and rights for gay couples in the state.
“We’re both exhausted,” Ms. Lighty said on Monday morning. “It’s been a whirlwind few days. It will be nice when things die down a bit and we can sit back and enjoy what’s happened and let it sink in.
“But it’s a wonderful feeling that has real tangible meaning, in terms of the benefits that flow from the rights we now have. Then there are less tangible but no less important benefits that come with this. Just being able to have our partnership recognized legally, having the same rights as others that way, it’s obviously a very emotional moment.”
Since Referendum 74 passed in November’s U.S. election, businesses across the state, but particularly in Seattle, have been gearing up to handle an onslaught of wedding ceremonies involving same-sex couples from not just Washington but also from many nearby states in the coming months and years. The closest one that allows same-sex marriage is Iowa. (Five other states do too.)
One study suggested that the new law could pump as much as $88-million into Washington State’s economy over the next three years. One estimate suggests that the state could see nearly 10,000 same-sex weddings over that same period. Some businesses have already noticed a jump in sales. They include Erotic Bakery, which has reported a rise in orders for male-male, female-female bachelorette cakes.
As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled about the development. After all, the referendum passed by only a 52-48 margin. Washington voters also legalized marijuana, which has left social conservatives in the state wondering if they should be packing up and heading for Texas.
“I feel like I’m living in pagan Rome,” Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, told the Seattle Times. “I just couldn’t believe we have gone that far.”
The debate around same-sex marriage, meantime, is far from over in the United States.
Last week, the federal Supreme Court decided to enter the fray by agreeing to review a California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage and also a federal law that blocks benefits for married same-sex couples. While neither decision will directly affect laws in Washington State, experts believe it could put the court on a path to deciding whether gay marriage should be legal in all states.
That, however, would likely be years away. By then, several more states are expected to pass legislation or hold referendums on the issue. The building momentum around same-sex marriage and expanded rights for same-sex couples would make it extremely difficult for the high courts to rule to the contrary.
Ms. Petersen and Ms. Lighty say they will continue to fight for gay rights in America on behalf of those who live in states that don’t give same-sex couples the same benefits and privileges they now enjoy. They will also continue to share their story with others.
“This has been a long journey,” Ms. Lighty told me. “Coming out as a couple took years and it wasn’t easy, I can tell you. Our involvement in campaigns for gay civil rights was also a real evolution. We didn’t lead the movement for gay rights. It was already there. We just joined it and were lucky enough to see real change from it.”
After their ceremony, Ms. Lighty and Ms. Petersen walked down the aisle of the hall to the lobby where they signed their marriage certificate and cut a wedding cake that they shared with the many well-wishers who witnessed the historic moment. Finally, in Washington State, gay couples could have their cake and eat it too.