Reshaping the Gay-Marriage Debate

Charlene Strong was on her way home in a pounding Seattle winter storm when the call came from her partner, Kate Fleming. Sounding stressed, Fleming told her that a rain was flooding down a hillside and into the couple's basement, where Fleming, an audiobook narrator, was at work in her recording studio. What happened over the next half hour cost Fleming her life and changed Strong's forever. As the rain poured down, a flood of water cascaded down the slope in their wooded neighborhood and into the house. The basement began filling with water. Fleming called again a few minutes later to say that she was stuck in the windowless studio, with water rising rapidly. Something, she said, must have fallen and blocked the door.

When a panicked Strong arrived minutes later, she couldn't force open the studio door, which was clamped shut by the force of the water. She tried to slash into the plaster wall with a knife, forgetting that the couple had added an extra layer of sheet rock for soundproofing. As Strong struggled outside the door, Fleming called 911 on her cell phone. But the water was rising so quickly that in a matter of minutes, Strong was submerged and had to grope for the safety of the stairwell.

"I knew she was underwater by then," said Strong. "And nothing would budge." Long minutes passed before rescue workers arrived and cut a hole in the bedroom floor. A fireman jumped into the black water below to retrieve a comatose Fleming.

Frantic efforts produced a pulse. An ambulance raced Fleming to the hospital, with Strong close behind. At the door of the hospital emergency room, a social worker informed her that only family members were allowed inside. When Strong protested that she was Fleming's partner, the social worker said that under Washington state law, same-sex partners did not qualify as family. Only an urgent call to Fleming's sister in Virginia cleared the way to get Strong through the doors. Ninety minutes later, Fleming died, with Strong at her side.

The nightmare didn't end there. The next day the man handling the funeral arrangements insisted on dealing with Fleming's mother, though Strong told him she was Fleming's spouse. "He said, 'You don't have any rights in the state of Washington'." says Strong. "I left the room and started crying."

Together for 10 years, the couple had held a commitment ceremony that was not officially binding but a symbol of their relationship. "Kate was my wife, and I was her wife, and that's the way we always thought of each other," said Strong.

The second night after Fleming's death, an anguished Strong lay awake, replaying the harrowing scenes in her mind—the flood, the hospital, the funeral home. Though still in shock, her rage was mounting. "I could handle someone calling me a homo," she told NEWSWEEK. "But saying you don't count, that's something that had to change."

Strong knew that a bill had been introduced in the Washington state legislature aimed at granting same-sex couples and older unmarried adults some of the same rights—such as those to make medical decisions and inherit property—as those enjoyed by married couples. Several days after the funeral service, she called to her friend Joe McDermott, then one of five openly gay representatives in the state legislature, asking if she could help push the bill. A little more than a month after Fleming's death, Strong appeared before a state Senate subcommittee and told in measured tones what happened that December night and in the days that followed.

Hearing how Strong was treated the night of Kate Fleming's tragic death was "critical" for lawmakers, says Lisa Stone, the director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, which advocated for the bill. "It's always better if you can put a face to an issue." Last April, thanks in part to Strong's powerful testimony, the bill passed. Strong was there when Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law, making Washington the eighth state to officially recognize same-sex couples. Two filmmakers were also on hand, recording the ceremony for Equal Rights Washington, an advocacy group for the state's gay and lesbian community. Before the day was over, one of the filmmakers, David Rothmiller, had persuaded Strong to participate in a documentary about her experiences in the wake of Fleming's death. "Our goal is to present Charlene and Kate's story as one that isn't threatening," says Rothmiller. "It's a threatening topic to some people because they don't understand why we should allow homosexuals to marry."

The film, "For My Wife," will be released at selected film festivals next month. Strong, who plans to help promote the film, will also travel to New York where she will get training as a public speaker and activist from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "Charlene has a powerful story that resonates with people," says GLAAD President Neil Giuliano. "That's why she's very compelling."

These days Strong lives in a studio apartment in Seattle, having moved there from her water-ravaged home last February. The couple's three cats have been farmed out to friends and neighbors, but Strong's dog, Pepper, is still with her. She's quit her job as a dental-office manager, for now, to devote herself full time to her cause. The other day, she drove to the postage stamp of a house where Fleming died, even as clouds hung low over the Seattle landscape. Flowers had been left by friends to mark the one-year anniversary of Fleming's death. A picture of Fleming was there as well, inscribed by Strong: "I miss you Kate. You will always be the love of my life."

Accompanied by a reporter from NEWSWEEK, Strong opened the door to the house and the stench of mildew wafted through the rooms. The wooden floors were dirty and warped. The shirt Fleming was wearing still lay where it was tossed aside that night by paramedics. The basement was littered with debris and the walls were boarded up where the water had coursed through and taken out one side of the house. NO TRESPASSING signs were posted on the wooden fence and the once-manicured garden was overgrown with weeds.

Even now, the year is a blur—the unimaginable tragedy, the insults in the name of the law, the hearings, the movie. The transformation from private citizen to activist, from couple to mourning single has left her still stunned. In a wan voice, Strong described a section of the garden where she and Fleming would sit in the late afternoon and drink a beer or two when the work day was done. "I know I'm not the only one who's gone through this," she says. "But I feel like someone has picked me up and plunked me into a whole new world." It's a world she hopes, in which no other grieving survivor will have to repeat the nightmare she faced after Kate Fleming's death.