December 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Discharged service members among first to marry in Wash.

Grethe Cammermeyer (left) and Margaret Witt will be among the first to marry their partners in Washington State. (Blade file photo by Pete Exis)

A number of those who will be among the first to enter into same-sex marriages in Washington State are high-profile gay service members discharged for their sexual orientation who say the legalization of same-sex marriage represents the next step forward for LGBT rights.

In Washington, where voters legalized marriage equality on Election Day by a 54 percent majority via a measure known as Referendum 74, same-sex couples were set to be able to obtain marriage licenses on Thursday. The three-day waiting period in the state means gay couples that obtain licenses on that day will be able to legally marry beginning Sunday.

Washington is the first of three states — which includes Maine and Maryland — where voters legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot on Election Day to allow same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses and legally wed.

Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, who in 1992 was discharged from the Washington National Guard under the military’s gay ban in the years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is set to marry her partner of 24 years, Diane Divelbess, in their Langley, Wash., home on Sunday after obtaining a marriage license from the clerk’s office in Island County.

For Cammermeyer, the ability to marry in Washington represents the next step in advancing LGBT rights following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — and she said the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act is in her sights. That ban on the federal recognition of same-sex partners precludes gay service members from obtaining health and pension benefits for their partners.

“I think, for me, it was a 20-year battle to overturn ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Cammermeyer said. “That felt like a vindication of those who started to change the policy and was truly monumental for me on a personal level. What you realize is that once you get done with one hurdle, there is another one right ahead of you, and that now is marriage equality. Because until the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed, those serving in the military now who happen to be gay service members who have family still are treated as second-class citizens and their families have no standing.”

Cammermeyer, 70, and Divelbess, 77, said they’ve invited other same-sex couples into their home to marry on the same day and are expecting 10 couples to wed during their own individual ceremonies. It’ll be the third ceremony for Cammermeyer and Divelbess: the couple previously wed in Oregon in 2004, when marriage licenses were briefly offered to same-sex couples in Multnomah County for unions that were later nullified, and again in a religious ceremony in Washington State.

Divelbess said she’s already felt she’s like been married to Cammermeyer for years following their religious ceremony and expressed excitement that religious organizations that want to legally marry same-sex couples in Washington can now do so under the law.

“When we were married in 2004, all you heard was the voices of the churches that were unhappy with gay marriage,” Divelbess said. “The public was never aware of the churches who wanted their ceremony recognized as being legal by the state. I’m thrilled that now we’re going to have a legal status accepted as well as the spiritual commitment.”

Another couple planning to wed had a similar involvement in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Maj. Margaret Witt, an Air Force nurse who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2007, and her partner of nine years, Laurie Johnson, intend to be the first same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in Spokane. They’ll marry on Dec. 15 in a small ceremony officiated by James Lobsenz, Witt’s attorney from her ACLU case against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” known as Witt v. Air Force.

Witt said the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State is “absolutely thrilling and surreal all at the same time,” but, like Cammermeyer, she said it demonstrates the battle for gay service members must continue and DOMA must be lifted from the books.

“The work is definitely not done because now we can serve our country openly, but the marriages still aren’t recognized by the military or the federal government,” Witt said. “That’s kind of painful for those that are willing to serve their country and have been willing to serve their country for so long.”

The Defense Department could offer limited partner benefits to gay service members even with DOMA on the books — including joint duty assignments, issuance of IDs, use of the commissary and family housing — through administrative change. The Pentagon has said since the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in September 2011 that it’s been looking into these benefits, but hasn’t yet enacted them.

The couple has been talking about marriage for years, but Witt took the opportunity to make things final during a speech at an ACLU dinner on Nov. 15 where she received a civil libertarian award. Following her speech at an ACLU dinner, the couples joined onstage amid applause and tears in the audience and Witt announced her proposal to Johnson.

Witt, 48, said she decided to propose to Johnson, 54, at the dinner in part because of the ACLU’s effort as part of the campaign to win marriage equality at the ballot in Washington.

“I just thought it was really perfect to share it with the ACLU, not only for what they did for me, but all that they did for marriage, and I wanted them to see that in real life,” Witt said.

‘An overwhelming sense of joy’

These military couples are among the estimated 19,000 same-sex couples who will be able to legally marry in Washington State amid anticipation an increased number of couples will flock to the clerk’s office when same-sex marriage becomes available in the state.

County auditors’ offices have updated their forms and their websites to prepare for these same-sex couples. On Thursday, King and Thurston counties were set to open at midnight, Pierce at 6:30 a.m. and Clark and Island counties at 8 a.m.

Anne Levinson, one of Washington’s first lesbian public officials and strategic adviser to the Approve Referendum 74 campaign, said she’s hearing from couples across the state that intend to marry and many of them have been waiting for the opportunity for decades.

“There is an overwhelming sense of excitement and joy, among the couples themselves, but also from friends, neighbors and colleagues,” Levinson said. “What makes it even more special is that we have seen an amazing outpouring of support all across the state, from county auditors working with us on how they will issue licenses, from judges and clergy helping make sure ceremonies are all set, from businesses offering to help however they can.”

A retired municipal judge, Levinson said on Sunday she intends to officiate some of the first weddings in Seattle on the stage of its grand concert hall as the Seattle Men’s Chorus and the Seattle Women’s Chorus perform.

Other same-sex couples that intend to be among the first to marry in California are noteworthy, but not for their participating in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal efforts.

Paul Harris (right) manages marriage licenses at the clerk’s office and is now able to receive one for him and his partner, Jamer Griener (photo courtesy Griener)

One such couple living in Camas, Wash., is James Griener, 58, and Paul Harris, 64, whose wedding is noteworthy because Harris is the manager of marriage license and recording for Clark County. After delivering marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples for 17 years, he’ll finally be able to obtain one of his own.

Harris said he’s surprised that same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington because marriage equality had been defeated previously in every state where it’s come up for a vote.

“To me, it’s a great surprise because I never thought it would happen,” Harris said. “Since I have been responsible for issuing marriage licenses for 17 years, it makes me feel great to be able to get one of my own.”

Griener and Harris were set to claim their marriage license on Thursday and were planning a small wedding in their home on Wednesday — 12/12/12.

The couple, who’ve been together for 39 years after in meeting in New York in 1973, has many differences between them. Harris was born and raised in Brooklyn, while Griener was raised in Southeast Oregon on a ranch.

Griener said the upcoming ceremony makes more permanent their union and builds off a previous wedding they had in Multnomah County in 2004 that was later nullified.

“We’re very pleased that the legislature of Washington passed same-gender marriage, the governor signed it and even though it was challenged and put on a referendum, the majority of Washington citizens voted in favor,” Griener said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing, and everyone knows, a long time coming.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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