“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
By Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Throughout the political process that has brought us to November’s vote on Referendum 74, activists and politicians have made the story of Charlene Strong and her partner, Kate Fleming, their favorite case-in-point in support of same-sex partner legislation. Grassroots political group Equal Rights Washington made Strong a minor celebrity with “For My Wife,” a documentary they funded with support from Three Dollar Bill Cinema and several corporate partners in Seattle. The film screened again as a part of the 2012 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on Oct. 16. Now four years old, “For My Wife” continues to be relevant thanks to the context of all that has happened since it premiered in 2008.
Four years ago, Equal Rights Washington emerged as one of the most prominent, capable grassroots political organizations fighting for marriage equality in our state. It took the momentum of the protests against California Proposition 8, which created a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as exclusively heterosexual, and used it to energize pro-LGBT efforts in Washington. In the ensuing years, Washington state legislators would fast track a landmark domestic partnership bill and eventually a full same-sex marriage bill. ERW commissioned “For My Wife” at the dawn of this political era. The film and the person on which it focuses have both spent in the intervening years on the road, championing a cause that continues to be a loud, contentious issue.
Today, Charlene Strong is a media-savvy activist who has honed her message at hearings in Olympia, press conferences at the White House, and on an ever-wider circuit of speaking engagements. She came to this position on a wave of grief and outrage when she lost her partner of ten years, Kate Fleming, to a flash flood in 2006. Strong was denied access to Fleming, who she married in Canada eight years prior, as Fleming lay dying in the intensive care unit of Harborview Medical Center. Strong was also forbidden to make funeral arrangements for her partner despite clearly stated support from Fleming’s mother, who was required by law to act as the next-of-kin.
Only one month after Fleming’s tragic death, Washington State Senator Joe McDermott brought Senate Bill 5336 before the state legislature. The bill outlined a series of new rights and responsibilities afforded to registered domestic partners that included hospital visitation rights. Charlene Strong presented her story amid several other speakers on both sides of the issue. SB 5336 passed with overwhelming support and then was later approved by referendum in 2008.
“For My Wife” devotes a significant portion of its one-hour run time to footage of the SB 5336 hearing. After several years, the film is still incredibly moving. It is at times deeply sad, infuriating, and inspiring, but today’s politics give it an occasional irony that is growing bitter in an election year. The hearing footage juxtaposes heartfelt but rehearsed statements from Strong, McDermott, and Senator Ed Murray with many of the most outlandish speeches from opponents to the bill. Anti-5336 speakers reference “the gay agenda” and compare homosexuality to incest, bestiality, and necrophilia.
But the most baffling moment actually comes from one of the bill’s supporters. State Senator Rosa Franklin, quavering in front of rising strings inserted by writer and director David Rothmiller, attempts to make an inspiring speech about social progress and civil rights. Much of what she says is true and meaningful, especially when she tacitly points out that the diversity of gender and race in the current Washington legislature would have been unthinkable just two or three decades prior. But Senator Franklin also frames her convictions about the importance of rights for same-sex partners by referencing her own support of the Defense of Marriage Act. It is unclear in the footage if Franklin is even aware that DOMA overtly denies rights to same-sex couples. The dissonance of her message only makes Rothmiller’s musical flourish seem that much more absurd, a piece of unintentional satire about the murky language of modern politics and the confusion it creates.
“For My Wife” has been billed as “The making of an activist for marriage equality,” and perhaps that is the most striking part of its second half. After 25 minutes of tragedy, the film goes on a rapid-fire tour of photo ops and award shows depicting Charlene Strong as an ideal political butterfly. Emerging from the studio apartment she occupied after moving out of the condemned house where her wife drowned, Strong becomes a better-dressed, better-spoken diplomat with each passing year. She chats with Gloria Steinem about how to be a top-tier activist and she gets name-dropped by Barack Obama. Strong herself was in attendance at Tuesday’s screening, along with her infant daughter, Eta, David Rothmiller and producer LD Thompson. The tour is moving onto several speaking engagements at Christian colleges around the country later this year.
When it premiered, “For My Wife” was intended as a story of loss converted to inspiration, and it maintains that message. It also highlights a number of stumbling points in the fight for marriage equality. It closes on the image of Charlene Strong lighting floating candles in an implied act of remembrance and hope while a sound clip of President Obama promising to repeal DOMA plays. The clip is from 2009. Today, DOMA is in the midst of several legal challenges but is still the law. Depending on how Washington residents vote in November and what happens in national politics in the next four years, “For My Wife” will tell yet again a different story. It may be the seed of victory Rothmiller and ERW intended, or it could be a totem of bitter irony.