Michael Serkin-Poole, a key figure in the decadeslong battle to legalize marriage equality in Washington and, with his partner, among the first gay couples to adopt children, has died of pancreatic cancer at his Bellevue home. He was 65.
Serkin-Poole and David Serkin-Poole were among six gay and lesbian couples who were denied licenses to wed in King County. Their concerted effort, part of a test-case groundswell in 2004, was immediately followed by a lawsuit against the county that several legal groups also joined. The move was unofficially encouraged by then-Executive Ron Sims.
The case ultimately made its way to the Washington Supreme Court, where the judges said the plaintiffs — then eight couples — failed to establish the unconstitutionality of the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA.
They fully expected to lose, said David Serkin-Poole, 67, a retired cantor. Given the state’s passage of DOMA in 1998, which recognized only heterosexual marriages, defeat was almost inevitable. But the overall effort, he said, was to keep the cause of equality “moving forward, win over more hearts and minds.” Michael was instrumental, for instance, in forging alliances between different religious organizations, a bulwark against the surge of Christian evangelical pastors and groups fighting same-sex marriage.
Michael often faced uphill battles for social progress by asking authorities a simple question: Why not? When he and David followed their mid-1980s commitment ceremony with a decision to adopt children, they had no idea they would be among the first same-sex Washington couples to apply. There was no precedent for it, nor were there any against it. Working their way through the system meant pushing against less-obvious barriers.
“Michael was determined to go forward with adoption when other people said, ‘I don’t know if you should do that,’” David said. “But no one up the chain of command in Washington could find a reason not to.”
The couple adopted three special-needs children, and together the quintet became a “boring, middle class Bellevue family,” David said. David went to work every day at Mercer Island’s Temple B’nai Torah, and Michael became a stay-at-home parent, cooking, cleaning and getting the kids to their appointments.
The normalcy of it all was what the Serkin-Pooles wanted, in part to reduce anti-gay fears about adoption.
Michael was born in 1955 to Irene and William Poole in West Seattle. He was the fourth of five children, preceded by his brother William, sisters Cathy and Carol, and followed by his sister Debbie. His siblings and their parents died before him.
Michael “loved Seattle like crazy,” and early in their courtship took David on a tour of his favorite haunts. Despite that affection for the city, Michael had a terrible experience in school here and at a high school in the Portland area.
“It was hell on Earth for him. He didn’t have the necessary support at home, and they didn’t get him glasses. He couldn’t see, and he thought he was stupid and couldn’t do anything,” David said.
After dropping out of high school and spending some years as a hairstylist, Michael earned his GED and attended the University of Washington, where he majored in sociology and horticulture. He began working for the state Department of Social and Health Services, gaining expertise in serving special-needs people.
He and David met at a gay bar in downtown Seattle in 1981. Each was on a date with someone else.
“We were strangers looking across the room,” David said. “We made our ways to the bar and said ‘hello.’”
Ellen Reichman, a longtime friend, said “their love was palpable.”
The two wed in Ontario, but that union, along with other same-sex marriages performed there for non-Ontario residents, was later dismissed. They were finally married for good after Washington legalized same-sex marriage in 2012, a legislative milestone given momentum in part by the Serkin-Pooles’ activism.
Michael was “one of those rare breeds who say what they mean and mean what they say,” Reichman recalled. “There were no extra words, no polishing it up. He spoke from the heart and was very kind.”
Michael, who died May 15, is survived by his husband and their children Eugene, Danielle and Jason. A service will be held Sunday at 1 p.m. at Temple B’nai Torah. COVID-19 precautions will be in place. Bring vaccination cards. Donations in Michael’s name can be made to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.