As she waited to address the Legislature of Washington on the issue of gay rights and the need for a domestic partnership, she was asked, “Where are your notes?”
“I don’t need notes. It’s my life. I was there. It’s my reality.”
That was Charlene Strong when I interviewed her by phone. In every interview there is one quote that reaches out and grabs me. That was hers.
The reason for our chat was a free screening, open to the public, of the documentary film “For My Wife,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s subject, Strong, and producers from the film.
It is a program at the Santa Monica Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 4, at 3 p.m. The event is free and open to all.
The documentary is about Strong and her partner, Kate Fleming. They met at the local humane society caring for animals whose owners had been impacted by HIV. They fell in love and built a life of church, friends, work and giving back. She worked with the Archdiocese of Seattle on an LGBT task force dedicated to improving acceptance and understanding within the Archdiocese of LGBT parishioners
In 2006, Fleming was trapped and drowned in her basement studio in a flash flood that hit the Seattle area. As Fleming lay dying in the emergency room, hospital personnel prevented Strong (her partner of 10 years) from seeing her due to Washington state’s lack of any domestic partner protections.
This is why marriage matters. This is an example of the bureaucratic bungling that happens when there isn’t marriage. Fleming and Strong had taken all the steps that were available at the time to them, and even with the documents giving her the power of attorney for medical care, the hospital staff still wouldn’t let her in.
Here’s the absurdity of it all, if I were to walk in, and say I was her husband, I would have been ushered in without the slightest bit of fact checking. So long as I was opposite gender I would have been granted access. But because Strong was the same gender, she was denied access to a dying loved one. That’s the power of bias, prejudice and marriage.
If you don’t think that marriage matters, you don’t know about the 1,038 federal rights that you have as a married couple that “civil unions” don’t grant. When your spouse dies, you get Social Security benefits, but domestic partners aren’t granted benefits.
If you think the Defense of Marriage Act does no harm, you don’t understand that a gay couple, legally married in Massachusetts, will not have their marriage honored at the federal level, or in most of the other states in the union. Contrast that with pop star Britney Spears, if she decided to keep her marriage of 55 hours, it would have been honored in all 50 states.
“Most people don’t realize that if a gay couple is married in one state, and moves. They may have to move back to the state they were married in, to get a divorce.” Strong stressed to me.
In June, Strong was one of a number of lesbian and gay activists that President Obama met with. “As much he’s missing the opportunity to be on the right side of history, I encourage people to be patient, yes, we have an oil spill, a financial crisis, and I have to remember that. Am I first on his radar? No, but we’ve got his ear.”
Echoing my personal beliefs, Strong went on to say, “It’s not enough to just write that check, I want people to be actively involved in where their money is going, how are you being involved in that organization. Why should I fight for your rights, when you’re not?”
Becoming an activist was not the life that she envisioned for herself. She just wanted to live a quiet life of giving back, sharing holidays and enjoying the Great Northwest. It was only after the death of her partner that she subsequently became a strong voice in the nationwide fight for marriage equality, and is now a commissioner on Washington State’s Human Rights Commission. The film is a portrait of her journey toward activism, as well as a tribute to Kate Fleming, who said, “be a light, be a flame, be a beacon.” Charlene is doing just that, elegantly.
I encourage everyone who has the time this coming Saturday at 3 p.m. to see the film at the Main Library. I look forward to meeting Strong in person.
David Pisarra is a divorce lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.