That’s what Charlene Strong did on Dec. 14, 2006, after torrential rains flooded the Seattle home she shared with Kate Fleming, leaving her partner trapped and dying in her basement studio. But first, hospital administrators had to call a relative of Fleming’s to get permission for Strong to bid farewell the way the couple would have wanted.
‘’They were willing to take the word of someone on the phone, 300 miles away,” Strong said. “Who knew her allergies? I did. Her knew what her wishes were? I did.”
With the family’s blessing, Strong was able to see her partner one last time. But the battle continued, she said, when the funeral director refused to allow her to make final arrangements.
That’s when Strong decided that she would do whatever she could to make sure other same-sex couples would have equal rights in Washington state.
It is an emotionally powerful story, and one that brought tears to the eyes of many of the 200 or so students, faculty and community members at Gonzaga University Law School where Strong recounted it on Monday (Oct. 29).
It is also a story with an immediate political resonance.
On Nov. 6, six years after Strong began her campaign, Washingtonians will vote on a referendum to allow same-sex unions, which would avoid the agonizing legal obstacles that Strong encountered as her partner died. Roman Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane has called for an honest discussion about gay marriage and Referendum 74, and Strong was more than happy to take him up on his offer — especially at a Catholic campus.
Cupich has written several pastoral letters in recent months explaining why Catholics should oppose Referendum 74, citing family structure, procreation, and his view that the legislation “would not give same-sex couples any new legal rights which they do not already have access to through the state’s registered domestic partnership provision.”
Strong has a different view, and has spoken at 40 universities in less than two years, reliving the flood and her unsuccessful attempts to rescue Fleming. She uses the pain to discuss inequality and social justice, which she also addresses in her documentary, “For My Wife.”
Strong was influential in getting the state’s domestic partnership bill passed in 2007, but said same-sex couples still aren’t treated fairly.
For example, medical privacy laws often trump domestic partnership rights, she said. She cited a lesbian couple from Spokane who are registered partners but were refused equal treatment when one partner was rushed into life-saving surgery after giving birth. The healthy partner, at home with their new child, wasn’t told about the surgery.