Richard Sturgill and James Malatak are Washington's first card-carrying domestic partners ...e result of arriving at the Secretary...

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OLYMPIA — Richard Sturgill and James Malatak are Washington’s first card-carrying domestic partners — the result of arriving at the Secretary of State’s office in the middle of the night Monday.

“It’s an important day for all gays in Washington state,” said Sturgill, 53, who has been partners with Malatak, 65, for 30 years. “This is a significant first step in the evolution for getting our rights.”

The Seattle couple spent the night in Olympia and arrived at the steps in front of the corporations office at 4 a.m., to make sure they could get in and out quickly. They were joined by a large crowd. By 8 a.m., when the doors opened, the line stretched around the corner.

The state’s new domestic partnership law, which went into effect Sunday, gives gay and lesbian couples some of the rights granted to married couples, including the right to visit a partner in the hospital, inherit a partner’s property without a will and make funeral arrangements.

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To qualify, the couples must file an affidavit of domestic partnership with the Secretary of State’s Office. The state then gives them a certificate with a state seal, and plastic cards that say “State registered domestic partnership” and lists their names. On the back it cites the chapter where the law can be viewed.

It’s been a festive affair at the state office today, with lots of joking and laughter. A couple of women showed up in wedding veils. One couple drove off in a car decorated with balloons and a large sign that said “Just registered.” There were no sign of protesters by mid-morning.

The state has been planning for the registration rush for weeks. Workers put portable toilets in the back parking lot at the Secretary of State’s office and are handing out numbers to couples so they’ll have an indication of how long they’ll have to wait.

Unmarried heterosexual couples in which at least one partner is 62 or older also are eligible to register as domestic partners. Lawmakers say older heterosexuals were included because they face the possibility of losing pension rights and Social Security benefits if they remarry after a spouse dies.

Gary Randall, president of the Faith and Freedom Network, a Christian political organization, said last week that his group has no plans to demonstrate today, but that doesn’t mean it approves of the new law.

“I’m disappointed, and I don’t think it should be happening,” said Randall, who considers the law a steppingstone to gay marriage. “I think it deteriorates society. Over time it takes away from what is the most important cornerstone of society, and that’s marriage between a man and woman.”

The Secretary of State’s Office had urged couples to mail in their affidavits instead of showing up in person.

Still, many couples wanted to show up in person on the first day.

“I need to go,” Rachel Smith-Mosel said last week. She showed up today with her spouse, Sandy Mosel, and their children. “Our friends will bring their kids, too. It’s so important for our families to feel the excitement.”

For many, though, the celebration will be tinged with anger that lawmakers did not grant gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

Sandy Mosel, who is Canadian, noted that she and Rachel are legally married in Canada, but the certificate has no legal weight in Washington. “I’m a full person in Canada, but when I cross the border I’m less than that,” she said.

Washington’s new law extends only a handful of the rights — dealing with health care and death — granted to heterosexual married couples. For example, married couples have the right to refuse to testify against each other in court. That right isn’t extended to gay and lesbian couples under the new law.

“It’s like signing up for second-class-citizen rights,” said Sandy Mosel.

David Hopkins, of Seattle, has similar feelings. His partner wants to register, but Hopkins is resisting.

“It’s a slice of a loaf when you should really get the whole loaf,” he said. “I’m willing to wait until I’m admitted to the set of citizens who have full civil rights. I don’t perceive this as giving me full civil rights.”

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, lead sponsor of the law in the Legislature, acknowledges that it doesn’t go as far as many people want. That’s true for him as well.

“We consider this a step toward marriage,” said Murray, who plans to register with his partner today. “This isn’t an end.”

Murray and a coalition of several other gay lawmakers plan to introduce bills in the future that would establish additional rights for gay and lesbian couples — incrementally moving toward full marriage.

Randall, with the Faith and Freedom Network, said his group will fight the effort. They’ve formed a political-action committee and plan to back candidates who oppose gay marriage.

“We are working tirelessly to regroup and get set for the battle to come. Gay marriage is going to be at the forefront,” said Randall, who argues that most Washington voters oppose it.

“I do not think they’ll stand for it,” he said. “I believe they will vote people out of office based on that issue.”

Some gay and lesbian couples may not want to register under the new law.

Equal Rights Washington, which lobbied for the law, says it could actually create problems for certain couples.

For example, people in the military may not want to register because the state list is public information and could violate the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that excludes known gays from serving.

“It’s extremely ironic that people who are in harm’s way, who most need these protections, are unable to avail themselves,” said Joshua Friedes, a spokesman for Equal Rights Washington. The group cautions some couples, in which one partner is a foreign national without permanent legal status, that registering could jeopardize their ability to stay in the country.

Friedes said some visas are granted with the condition that the person does not intend to stay permanently. Registering under the domestic-partnership law could be interpreted as an intent to stay in the United States.

Despite its flaws, the law is still a significant accomplishment, says John McCluskey, 71, of Tacoma. He and his partner, Rudy Henry, who’ve been together for 48 years, plan to register.

“Twenty years ago if you had told me there would be a law that would do this, I’d have told you ‘you’re crazy,’ ” McCluskey said. “It’s a great step forward, as far as I’m concerned.”

Charles Fuchs, of Seattle, agreed. One of the biggest things the law will do is show the public at large that gay and lesbian couples represent a broad swath of society, said Fuchs, a retired Seattle college English teacher who planned to register today with his partner, Richard Jost.

“This not only is a recognition that there are gay people, but that gay people can have healthy families and lead good lives,” he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com