Against what appeared insurmountable odds — working shop fronts and music festivals, church lobbies and the occasional Sunday morning pulpit — backers of Referendum 71 turned over 138,000 signatures to the state in hopes of repealing an everything-but-marriage bill, pulling off what many didn't think they could.

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The odds seemed almost insurmountable.

In late May, a consortium of religious conservatives set out to collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot repealing the final piece of the state’s domestic-partnership law that would give gay, lesbian and some senior-citizen couples the same benefits as married folks.

Gov. Chris Gregoire delayed signing the legislation as long as she could, eliminating roughly one-third of the 90 days referendum backers had to collect the 120,577 signatures needed.

Organized as Protect Marriage Washington, supporters lost even more time attempting the nearly impossible: fitting 114 pages of the bill text onto a single petition sheet — with space for a ballot title, referendum summary and 20 lines for voters to sign — and all big enough to be readable.

On top of that, a group of gay-rights activists announced at the same time that they would publish online the names and addresses of all those who signed Referendum 71 petitions — a tactic referendum backers managed to temporarily block last week in federal court.

Despite it all, and working shop fronts and music festivals, church congregations and the occasional Sunday morning pulpit, referendum backers in the end turned in 137,689 signatures to the secretary of state.

The signatures are being counted over the next two weeks to determine if there are enough to qualify the referendum for the ballot.

That the campaign got even this far shocked many — particularly those in the gay community who had done little publicly to counter it, and now are left to ponder: How did they pull that off?

“Before … the general attitude in the gay community was, ‘They’re never going to make it,’ ” said Bill Dubay, longtime gay activist. “Now everywhere I go, it’s all most gay people want to talk about. People are pissed off.”

Critical of leadership

Dubay said he believes gay leadership is too concerned with maintaining a positive image for the gay community and that an online campaign to get people to pledge not to sign was too passive. Referendum backers “never should have gotten even 120,000 signatures,” he said.

A recent University of Washington poll might suggest as much, showing that 77 percent of voters believe gay and lesbians couples should have at least some of the same benefits as married couples.

What’s more, referendum backers got their signatures despite dissension among their religious leaders, who were split in their support of the referendum.

Gary Randall, president of the Faith and Freedom Network, said the organizations that make up the campaign marshaled their forces. Members contacted family and friends, who in turn contacted like-minded people they knew.

They worked congregations, getting petitions signed inside and outside churches.

On Facebook, the group invited conversation and urged support — demonstrating that gays aren’t the only ones who can mobilize online.

Signature gatherers — some paid — set up in the parking lots of retail stores. They worked fairs and festivals across the state.

“We contacted pastors. Sometimes they felt free to speak from the pulpit; sometimes they didn’t,” Randall said. In the end, “we weren’t surprised, we were grateful.”

No organized opposition

While there was no real organized opposition from gay leadership, petition gatherers cite several incidents where they were harassed by opponents. At the same time, gay advocates accuse referendum backers of running a campaign filled with distortion and lies — in some cases telling voters the measure was a ban on gay marriage.

Josh Friedes is spokesman for Washington Families Standing Together, a broad coalition of organizations from labor to civil-rights groups that support the domestic-partnership law.

He said those most surprised by the signature-gathering outcome are young people — gay and straight — who simply assume most voters support gay rights.

“There’s a segment of the Washington electorate that is strongly opposed to the legal recognition of gay and lesbian families,” he said. “Among young voters, in larger metro areas especially, there’s a tendency to forget that constituency exists.”

About the bill

Through Senate Bill 5688, initially dubbed the everything-but-marriage bill, the Legislature voted to expand the state’s domestic-partnership law by adding such partnerships to all remaining areas of state law where only married couples are now mentioned.

Protections include the right of one partner to adopt another’s child without paying for a home study as well as the right to use sick leave to care for a domestic partner. The state’s domestic-partnership law, first established in 2007, applies not only to gay and lesbian couples, but to heterosexual couples, where at least one partner is older than 62.

While gay-rights advocates say the measure ensures that all Washington families are treated fairly, foes say the law makes domestic partnerships legally indistinguishable from heterosexual marriage and that all it would take is a challenge in court for gays to obtain marriage.

Maureen Richardson, director of Concerned Women for America of Washington, said that in gathering signatures, “I began by asking people: How do you define marriage and all the benefits that go with it.

“Many of the places I went, I got a pretty good response. There were those who chose not to sign; there were some who wanted to debate me. A majority of people didn’t know about the bill.”

Looking ahead

If the referendum qualifies for the November ballot, both camps face a tough job educating voters on a complicated issue.

Friedes said gay-rights backers must show that gay couples have been in domestic partnerships for more than two years — without dire consequences.

While he ultimately wants same-sex marriage legalized, “that’s a conversation for another day,” he said. “This is about whether gay and lesbian families will have a basic safety net that is less than equal but very meaningful for families.”

Randall said referendum backers, meanwhile, need to get voters to look ahead — at where this is all headed: gay marriage.

“We are confident we can explain this to the public — and to the Christian and conservative community, to be sure,” he said. “This isn’t marriage, technically. But for all practical purposes it is.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or