Q&A with Washington State Human Rights Commissioner and Activist, Charlene Strong

charlene-strongBy Lauren Valencia

Activist and public speaker Charlene Strong is a Washington State Human Rights Commissioner, a filmmaker, and an editor for The Seattle Lesbian, but she is just as likely to introduce herself as a loving wife and overjoyed new mom. With the recent birth of her daughter and the passing of gay marriage in Washington State, 2012 promises to be another busy, dynamic year for Strong and her family.

Since the tragic death of her first wife, Kate Fleming, in a flash flood in 2006, Strong has advocated tirelessly for marriage equality and human rights at the national level. Her impassioned work on behalf of marriage equality is chronicled in her award-winning documentary for my wife… We had the chance to hear from Strong about recent legislation developments and what they mean for LGBT couples and parents in Washington State. While hopeful, she reminds us that the fight is far from over.

Gay marriage was passed into law in Washington State recently. What barriers still remain to couples who wish to marry?

If those opposed to marriage for same-sex couples gather enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot in November, there is the possibility that our rights will not stand as the seventh state allowing marriage equality. Even with the passage of marriage, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the largest obstacle to full and inclusive equality for same-sex couples.

What legal benefits will gay marriage confer on same-sex parents?

What is not really understood (even in our own community) is that the rights of LGBT families are still very much under scrutiny and great personal expense is the only way our families can have full legal protections. The parent/child relationship can be called into question once you leave a state that does not recognize equality, and parenting rights can thus be in jeopardy. In Washington State, both a mother and father can be noted on the birth certificate, but the non-biological parent still has to legally adopt his or her own child.

Becoming a parent in January was amazing. Not much gets done these days, but as welcome as that is, the reality is that we are meeting with our attorney to make sure that my parenting rights are not questioned. I will be adopting my own child later this month. It’s difficult to speak of the pain I have felt when I look at my child and think that if we had full and inclusive equality in our nation I would not be thinking of legal adoption — I would just be going about the business of being my child’s mother without any thought of establishing my legal rights.

With gay marriage legal in a number of states now, what are the challenges to passing it nationally?

Let me be clear: Currently only a handful of states recognize same-sex marriage and, again, that is without legal federal recognition. It is not really “marriage” as we understand it in this country when heterosexual couples marry. The United States is years behind many other countries in this regard. As a nation, we operate with the understanding that marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, but equality, dignity, and justice is what we should strive for — in my opinion. The words that are thrown around about same-sex couples are heartbreaking (to say the least), because it is a misguided notion that my wife and I, for example, are not capable of being loving, supportive parents.

What inspired you to become an advocate for gay marriage?

I became truly motivated to work for equality after the death of my late wife, Kate Fleming. She was the woman who drowned in her house in Madison Valley about five years ago. Kate was a beautiful, kind, gentle person whom I had the honor of loving for ten years. The events of that night were horrific, and it did not end when we got to the hospital, where I had to figure out how to be with her, since, at that time, Washington State did not have any legal protections for same-sex couples. Those events and the humiliation and anger I felt that night were my motivation.

You wear many hats: activist, filmmaker, and magazine editor, to name a few. How do you decide which is the most important in advancing your work for gay rights?

It is very much about keeping many balls in the air and, always, without question, keeping in mind what brings light and energy to the world to help others. We can do so much good as humans when we reach out to educate and inspire others. I feel very blessed that I have so many avenues that feed my soul as well.

You've been the Washington State Human Rights Commissioner since 2009. Your term ends this year; what's next in terms of working with the state on human rights?

My work will most likely never be done pertaining to human rights — it’s too important. I may have the opportunity to serve again and I would love to do that if asked.

You've remarried and started a new family — congratulations to you and your wife on the birth of your daughter! How has becoming a new parent affected you?

Becoming a parent has been my finest moment in life. I look at my little girl, Etta Jean, and I find myself choking up at how much love she exudes. In all honesty, I love parenting, and it has made my wife and me better people. We try harder and work each day to be the best we can be for our little one. It is darn near impossible to put into words the happiness I have been feeling since her birth.

The Internet and social media have become a vehicle for bullying, particularly for gay youth. What can parents do to protect their children from harassment online?

Pay attention! Most kids are given far too much time to explore on the Internet without supervision. I am already looking for a spot in my living room where I can put a desk for my child to use the computer while we are in the room supervising. The Internet is too much for young minds, and there are those on the web who don’t have our children’s best interest at heart. Social media is not always socially aware. I really believe that parents need to become very involved and teach compassion and help children understand that not everyone is kind and understanding.

What advice would you give parents looking for effective ways to teach tolerance for same-sex love and marriage or for friends who have two mothers or two fathers?

It seems we “adults” think we have to protect our children from differences. The only difference is our gender, and kids understand it better than we do. If we make it an issue, then it becomes an issue. My child is going to one day ask me why she has two moms and I will tell her that she’s very lucky. I want Etta to know that love is a family and she will know, without question, what I am saying. “Traditional” is a word that is used to exclude. “Traditions” are built by families that share their love and time and commitment to each other.

To learn more about Charlene Strong and her work, visit charlenestrong.com.

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