Charlene Strong’s wife Kate drowned when a flash flood inundated their Seattle home in 2004. This was pre-domestic partnerships, and the hospital and later the funeral home refused to recognize Charlene as Kate’s partner or wife.
Out of the ashes an activist was born. Charlene has since released the documentary “for my wife…” about her experiences after being approached by film makers L.D. Thompson and David Rothmiller of trick dog films. Remember Referendum 71? Charlene’s story played a key roll in defending Washington’s domestic partnership law against referendum repeal last year when she lent her face and story to the Approve 71 campaign. What’s less well known is that Charlene has also worked with hospitals and health care agencies to find solutions to the problem of family recognition.
Before President Obama’s Pride speech in June, Charlene met with the President at the White House, a meeting set up by Rahm Emanuel after he heard Charlene’s Story. Below is a snippet of an interview she did with Joe Mirabella shortly after Mr. Obama’s speech.
I spoke with Charlene shortly after her meeting with the President. She was incredibly impressed by her visit with Obama, “I looked the President in the eye and could tell he was sincere. I’m not one to be star struck, so I wasn’t just caught up in the moment,” Charlene said, “This man means what he says and understands how important it is to move quickly.”
Charlene was equally serious, “You can tell anyone that does not believe Obama is our ally to call me personally. I will tell them what’s up. He is on our side.”
“They were taking notes, they were listening, they were engaged,” Charlene explained.
Coming from anyone else, I would be suspicious. But I know Charlene and I know her style. She is not one to repeat talking points or spin. She is as sincere as it gets. If Charlene believes the President “gets it”, then I do too.
Shortly thereafter I also had the opportunity to interview Charlene. I was interested in following up on her opinion that the President “gets it” and that real progress is being made. I’m still interested in that opinion. But as I reviewed the transcript I realized that the bigger picture is this: here is a woman invited to Washington, D.C. for what some will call window dressing who seized the opportunity to move our message farther and higher. She didn’t just go to the White House reception then call it a day. Not at all. In fact she used the opportunity to set up meetings with Health and Human Services Secretary Sibelius, Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Jim McDermott. She also met with the President of the SEIU, Mary Kay Henry, and with the National Education Association. Then she screened her film to a sold-out DC crowd.
I wonder, how many of us consider going beyond contacting our legislators and work to address LGBT-related issues by meeting with agency personnel, even in our home states? Charlene’s story is particularly powerful, but we all have a story to tell. How many of us take the power of our own story to our school board representative or pharmacy board or primary caucus?
It’s not that the question over Obama’s sincerity isn’t important, it’s just that no matter one’s opinion on that score the fact is that the work of telling our stories must continue on all levels. Whether or not Charlene Strong has the right read on Obama, the fact is she was there and used his invitation to take our message farther and higher. I recently came across a remark by Nikolai Alekseev, which goes: [T]o make the future requires action today. It seemed a fitting introduction for our interview, which you’ll find below the fold.
Lurleen: You feel really positive about Obama and others in the Administration “getting it” and their hearts being in the right place. But of course there’s a lot of cynicism from people who haven’t met with them. And so I have a 2-part question: What was it they said, or maybe it was something even less tangible than that, that convinced you that they’re really working on our issues? And how do we get them to act on their sentiment – how do we reckon those good intentions with what so far has not been a really strong push for change?
Charlene: I would disagree with you on the lack of strong push for change. I believe that if everyone would just kind of go back and — and I mean this with all sincerity and sensitivity — is that there are definite steps that have to happen in order for us to change laws on the books. And that is, it goes through the Senate and the House, and then the President can sign it into law.
The President can make a memorandum. That’s what he did with the health care directive, the health care memorandum. And a memorandum can be taken away by another administration just like that. It doesn’t have the legal teeth that says a law would have which would take more steps. And as we’re seeing, it’s not as easy as we’d like to think it could be in order to change legislation. And it’s a hearts and minds campaign that has to continue to happen.
I believe he’s a very sincere President, and probably the most sincere President that we’ve had, that is actually talking about our LGBT equality with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DOMA, ENDA. But you know he has to have both the House and the Senate approving of those changes.
I get that as a community we’re impatient. But I think as a community instead of finding ourselves frustrated, that we find ourselves proactive. And that’s not just sitting around and having a cup of coffee complaining about what isn’t happening. And I’m not saying that that is what our community is necessarily doing, but I’m also seeing there is a process, and I would hope that people’s patience and understanding of what a process is in order to change laws.
Let me explain, I can speak from a personal example, the testimony [in support of the establishment of Washington’s Registered Domestic Partnerships] in which I testified was integral in their understanding, they had no clue where that law was going to go when I testified before the [Washington state] Senate and the House back in ’07. But once they heard the testimony, they heard the passionate plea by myself and others in our community. This is how we make change, not from a blog post, please pardon the reference, but from standing up in our communities and taking the time to tell our stories to the folks that matter, the folks we elected to work on our behalf have an obligation to work on our behalf, but if they don’t know our needs, then how are they to vote? If five folks show up for a testimony then what message does that send?
With Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA in particular, those were signed into law over 14 — you know DOMA’s over 14 years old. And as much as it’s on our radar, it’s not necessarily on the radar of our Congress right now. And “what can we do?”, I guess is what I’d be asking my brothers and sisters. What can we do besides being angry to be proactive? And that’s something I ask myself every day, what can I continue to do as an activist to make sure I keep the dialogue going, one of the things I’d like to focus on is that, I feel very strongly about hospitalization and end-of-life decision-making for our community, and family recognition, adoption rights, all of those things are never far from my mind and very much a part of my trip here now, how do I communicate the need for strong and accurate accountability for the new memorandum that is provides real protections in our hospitals. And so for me it’s like, you know, it’s picking up the phone and talking with Health and Human Services, it’s picking up the phone and speaking with — and setting up meetings and allowing them to have face time with me is a tremendous moment of community-building, if you will.
Most recently I met with the hospital association in Washington state, I’m not going to be very effective if I walk in and and say “Hey, I think you need to do this”. But what I’d rather do is walk in there and say “Hey, as someone who has experienced something, like what Kate and I went through…”, and now that we have the memorandum, we have the verbiage and the language to start talking about this particular incident, we can go in and say “…this matters tremendously to me, and here are my thoughts”. And you know what? It’s working, and they’ve asked me to come back, and I’m going to continue to build that relationship, I heard someone say, building bridges of empathy and that has been my mantra in my work. Without that I don’t see how anyone is going to be open to seeing these changes. And so that’s kind of what I’m doing in Washington, DC, I’m building a relationship with people who have the power to make those changes.
Perhaps the door has opened a little bit more because of my activism, and people have heard of the story, and because of the White House reception. I have to tell you I cringe whenever somebody is acknowledging me because it’s not that I’m doing this for acknowledgment, I’m doing it because I believe in my heart that it’s the right thing to do.
I am not saying our community is getting it wrong, I would never want to be that person to say, gosh you guys you’re doing it wrong, you know that’s never going to be the way in which I go about it. But going back and looking at some of the Civil Rights movement, you know the Civil Rights movement is a classic example of how the Black community organized and came together, and they built bridges with the labor movement and looking at all the stakeholders. And so that’s what I would encourage or community to “build those bridges on empathy”
We pull together as a community when we’re frustrated, and my feeling is like, I need to talk to every single straight person who doesn’t understand the reality of our discrimination. It’s remarkable to talk to people and see their eyebrows go up and their eyes get a little bigger and they’re like, they didn’t have a clue. And then they realize the ridiculousness of it.
But interestingly meeting with Secretary Sibelius and talking with numerous people from HHS, they were actually listening to what I had to say about my thoughts and ideas, this is what I’m talking to the Hospital Association of Washington state about. And it’s not that I’m setting out mandates — that’s never where I’m going to come from — what I’m going to do is say, let me explain a real story, let me talk to you about real lives, let me be proactive in my activism about educating you, and you know what? They’re listening. And I sense a genuine appreciation when speaking about these inequities in our community. And so I said, any time you want me to come back, I’m happy to come back, I’m happy to help in any way that I can if it will help make people understand just really what does happen when we get into these situations, I’ll be in DC.
Lurleen: Ok, so that’s the advocacy that needs to happen on our side…
Charlene: And hear me when I say this, I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to be frustrated, and I want to make that very clear, and I hope you put that down on paper. Because that would be very disingenuous of me if it got out there that I thought people didn’t have a right to be angry. But anger without action is just anger. I would encourage my brothers and sisters to become those proactive people that I constantly keep encouraging people to be. I’m not going to walk around and tell the sad story of doom about what happened to Kate and I. I’ve moved from that to talk about as a person who has gained valuable experience in talking to people. That’s the next level of activism. It’s not sitting around licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself. The story is not just my story. I can talk about any one’s story now besides my own and get the same doors to open and people to talk to me. And that’s what happens when you continue go beyond your own tragedy. I have always cringed at the thought of being a victim, I can’t! Life is painfully short, but I refuse to be a victim, maybe that’s what keeps me focused. I don’t have time for feeling sorry. Some may say I am avoiding it, but if you get too into your own misery you lose. I wanted nothing more than to see Kate live that night and I’m not going to role over and die inside because she wanted nothing more than to live, so I do this in honor of who she was to me.
Lurleen: I’m curious, in your conversations with everyone you’ve spoken with, how did they manage to convince you that they’re not just — personally I think they all agree with where we want to go, but there’s the question about how urgently they feel the need to move versus how urgently we feel the need to move.
Charlene: The question I would have back for all of us is, why weren’t we this urgent when Bush was in office? Now all of a sudden we have the ear of our government, and we’re really being quite hard on Obama. And I’m not saying that we should not be concerned, but he’s in office because we wanted him in that position by our vote, and we all believed that he was our next great hope. As far as any president is concerned he has been the best hope. And Congress at the moment is on our side. So now we have the ear of the Administration, what now? We build those bridges, we have those discussion we meet with our legislators, we open up conversations.
If you had a chance to listen to Barack Obama’s speech at the reception, and to be able to be able to talk with him one-on-one — which was very short, it wasn’t like we sat around and had a cup of coffee — I felt the genuine sense that we’re on his radar.
And did you note that he called Kate Fleming my wife? That’s a start. What president has ever called a same-sex couple’s partner as their wife? Which she was. She was my wife. So there’s a huge moment of victory, and so I’m going to encourage myself and my brothers and sisters look at our victories and keep fighting for that next step. We’ve pulled another brick from this wall, let’s get another brick. Our breaking down the wall, so to speak.
Lurleen: As we’re continuing the conversation with, well everybody including the decision-makers in government, and that’s the expectation for us, what should our expectation be for the decision-makers in government, say in the next year or whatever time period you think is reasonable to think about? Should we only be expecting them to listen to us at this point, or should we be expecting them to pick up the baton and start conducting?
Charlene: You know I’m expecting us to continue keeping a conversation going that is learning on both sides. It’s not enough just to pick up the phone and complain on the phone and then hang up the phone. You have to say “Hey, I’d like to come down and talk to Senator Murray”. I’m using him as an example. Say, “I’d like to come down.” Doors are open to us in Olympia and — if you come to Washington, D.C. you could realistically pick up the phone and say I’d like to meet Senator Murray or Representative McDermott. That’s not an impossibility.
Our government was designed to have access to people. They are working on our behalf to represent our rights and represent who we are. And what I tell people first is, if you aren’t willing to vote for your own rights, why should we ask anyone else to vote for your rights? It’s the simplest thing to do: vote. When I can walk around during a Referendum 71 and talk to somebody at a coffee shop on Capitol Hill [Lurleen note: Seattle’s main LGBT neighborhood] that doesn’t even know that Referendum 71 is on the ballot…we have a problem, right?
Lurleen: Ok, but now you’ve shifted back to what we should do, not to what the people we have voted into office should do. I think I’ve got a good idea what you think we should do, but I think my next question is, we’re having these conversations — hopefully, and I agree we need to have as many as we can with the people in government — but then — those are our expectations of ourselves. But what should our expectations be of our representatives that are sitting in government right now? Should we be expecting more from them than just sitting down and listening to us? Should we be expecting any particular actions in any particular time frame? Is that even a fair question to ask?
Charlene: I would like to say that I brought my crystal ball on this trip! [laughter]. That’s a tough question to be honest with you. Okay, so if I had my way since this is my interview, I’ll tell you what I think: we need to stick it out, get Obama back in office another four years and then amp it up, in my mind and I hope I’m right on this, he’s being cautious, it’s not easy to maneuver to risks to make sure he gets the next four years and sad as it is, he has to appease all his constituents. Is it caving? No, not at all. We have to be strategic, if we lose him we lose many along with him who to date are working for us. Let me be clear, if I have my way we would have DOMA, ENDA and DADT gone today, but I don’t think it works that way, and anyone has a right to challenge me, I again will say I don’t have a crystal ball, but watching and talking with folks has opened my eyes to the process that it is a measured and consistent push that wins in the end. Is it a gamble? Sure. Is it worth going back to what we have if he is defeated? I don’t always like the way government works and if I had even more time we could get into what I dislike and if you have ever been around me and my friends I am no retiring flower, but I do understand patience and that has been probably the hardest lesson I have learned thus far.