September 23, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
The making of an activist

It was a dark and stormy night in Seattle. A hard, pounding rain was falling.

Then the rising waters surged into a stampeding wall four-feet high, cascading down a hill to where it sloped toward the tiny house shared by Kate Fleming and her partner of 10 years, Charlene Strong.

As the water began to rise, Kate, an award-winning audio book producer and reader, dashed into the windowless basement recording studio to save her equipment from ruin. But when she tried to retreat back upstairs, Kate found the door stuck, blocked by the force of water. Frantically, she used her cell phone to call Charlene, who was at work, to save her.

When Charlene arrived, Kate was still alive struggling to remain above the flooding water. “I fought with all my might to pry open the door to the studio,” Charlene remembers about that horrible night of Dec. 14, 2006. Soon Charlene herself was being submerged and had to grope for the safety of the stairwell.  ”Before I knew it, the water rose above my head, and I was forced to swim away.”

“I knew she was underwater by then and nothing would budge.” A long 15 minutes passed until rescue workers arrived and cut a hole through their bedroom floor. A fireman then leaped into the black water and pulled out a comatose Kate, and a pulse was found.

Rushing after the ambulance, Charlene arrived at the hospital and “I instinctively ran to be with Kate,” she remembers. “But as I neared the entrance to the emergency room, a social worker stopped me in my tracks. After I explained that I was Kate’s partner of 10 years, the social worker told me that the state could not recognize same-sex partners in emergency situations.”

“As if I were a stranger,” Charlene says, she was then forced to contact Kate’s sister in Virginia, who could OK Charlene being at Kate’s side. Grief-stricken, she could finally hold Kate’s hands in the moments before she died, and whisper that she loved her. And she held Kate, then just 41, in her arms until death came.

But the ordeal was not over. At the funeral home, the mortician would not address Charlene as Kate’s family but only would speak to Kate’s mother, who had to sign the request for cremation, and the death certificate stated with unfeeling bluntness that Kate had never been married.

“My partner, Kate Fleming, touched thousands of lives with her voice,” declares Charlene today. After Kate’s tragic death, Charlene decided to take a stand against the discrimination faced by LGBT partners then legal at hospitals and funeral homes in Washington State

Last month, the story of Charlene and Kate’s love — now told in a powerful, emotionally wrenching hour-long documentary “For My Wife: The Making of an Activist for Marriage Equality” — was released on DVD here. It tells the tale of how she was thrust into the national spotlight after Kate’s death, and then fought for enactment of the landmark Washington State domestic-partnership law ending same-sex-couple discrimination.

That measure was signed by Gov. Gregoire in April 2007, with Charlene at her side, and now covers more than 7,000 same-sex couples in the state. Same-sex marriage there is still against the law. Charlene, meanwhile, is pushing for repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.

DOMA, passed in 1996, bans federal recognition of any same-sex spousal benefits including pensions and Social Security, and also permits any state to deny “full faith and credit” recognition to any same-sex marriage legally performed in another state.

Last month, DOMA’s Section 3 — the part of the law that defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of a man and a woman — was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Charlene’s love for Kate will never die, though she “remarried a year ago” her new wife Courteny Bealko, a longtime dear friend.

“I am not fighting for my rights alone, she said. “I am standing up and fighting for every gay and lesbian couple who pay their taxes, contribute to society and who want the same protections every other American is afforded if and when they choose to marry.”

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