Domestic Partnerships and Marriage Equality in Seattle

Over the course of four decades, the Seattle City Council took incremental steps to expand the coverage and definition of human rights. Marital status and sexual orientation were included in anti-discrimination laws, and families were defined more broadly so that domestic partners of employees could receive benefits. This led to the city's domestic partnership registration program and eventually to its support of statewide marriage equality legislation.

Expanding anti-discrimination laws

With support from Councilmember Jeanette Williams, the Seattle Women's Commission began to provide advice to the Mayor, City Council, and other departments regarding women's issues in 1971. Part of the Commission's mission was to establish goals, priorities, and immediate action objectives in alleviating discrimination against women.

Legislation mandating fair employment practices was first passed by City Council in 1972 (Ordinance 100642); it prohibited employment discrimination due to race, age, sex, color, creed or national origin. Amendments in 1973 (Ordinance 102562) widened the prohibition to include marital status, sexual orientation and political ideology. The legislation was sponsored by Councilmember Williams. Similarly, City Council had passed open housing legislation in 1968 to prohibit unfair housing practices in the sale and rental of housing; it was amended in 1975 to include prohibitions against discrimination based on sex, marital status, and political ideology.

Halloween Against 13 flyer
Flyer for the "Halloween against 13"
fundraiser, held by the Seattle
Committee Against Thirteen, 1978
Box 6, Folder 3, Charles
Royer Legal Subject Files
(Record Series 5274-03), SMA

In 1978, a citizen initiative, Initiative 13, was filed to delete the words "sexual orientation" from the fair employment ordinance and the open housing ordinance. This would have had the effect of making it legal once again to discriminate against gays and lesbians in housing and the workplace. Some anti-13 activists filed an initiative petition of their own, which sought to establish an Unnatural Practices Commission. This commission would "exempt certain purveyors of unnatural practices from the civil rights to employment and housing" - namely, the same thing Initiative 13 was attempting to do to gays and lesbians. The long list of those covered by the initiative included "males who shave the corners of their beards," "persons who work on the Christian sabbath," "persons who drink coffee, tea or alcoholic beverages," and "men who carry bags or purses, women who wear pants and eunuchs who wear anything."

The sponsors were mainly looking for publicity for the anti-13 cause and did not turn in signatures. However, Initiative 13 was on the ballot, and was defeated with 63 percent of votes against. Seattle thus became the first city in the nation to defeat a challenge to an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Appointed in 1984, the Human Rights Ordinance Review Panel was charged with reviewing all provisions of the Fair Employment Practices Ordinance and the Unfair Housing Practices Ordinance and developing recommendations to City Council for changes, if needed. Chaired by University of Washington Law Professor Arval Morris, panelists included Larry Sarjeant of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, Isabel Safora of La Raza Lawyer's Association, Anne Ellington from the Seattle-King County Bar Association, Jerry Sheehan from the ACLU, and many others. Panel meetings occurred every Friday from September to December 1984; the panel submitted their report to Councilmember Williams in February 1985. Williams met with a City Council committee to review the recommendations and submitted the resulting proposed changes to the two ordinances in May 1986.

Mayor Royer created the Mayor's Lesbian/Gay Task Force in 1985. Made up of eleven members, the Task Force was project-oriented. Ed Murray was appointed in 1987 and became a co-chair in June 1989. In December 1989, the name was changed to the Seattle Commission for Lesbians and Gays (SCLG) to reflect its new status as a full city commission.

In 1986, legislation was introduced by Councilmember Jeanette Williams to amend the Fair Employment Practices Ordinance to broaden the definition of marital status and define sexual orientation. The work of the Human Rights Ordinance Review Panel preceded the legislation and provided impetus for its introduction.

Police Chief Patrick Fitzsimons wrote Councilmember Williams to express his concerns, one of which was that the definition of "sexual orientation" was too broad and did not distinguish lawful from criminal sexual conduct, such as pedophilia. The legislation, approved in July 1986 as Ordinance 112903, specifically included "cohabitating" as a marital status protected from discrimination. The legislation also provided definitions of marital status and sexual orientation and designated the Department of Human Rights as the primary enforcement agency.

Among those who supported the 1986 legislation were the Northwest Women's Law Center, the Japanese American Citizens League, the Seattle Chapter of Local 17 representing the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the Puget Sound Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Local 8 of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Seattle Branch of the NAACP. Those who spoke out against the amendments included the Community Chapel and Bible Training Center, several attorneys and many citizens.

Domestic partner benefits

Dee Smiley
Dee Smiley, 1984
Image 203619, SMA
Dana Backiel
Dana Backiel, 1986
Image 203621, SMA

In December 1987, Seattle City Light employees Dee Smiley and Dana Backiel were denied permission to add their domestic partners to their medical and dental benefits package because they were not married and their partners were not eligible dependents. In May 1988, Smiley and Backiel filed claims with the Seattle Human Rights Department, which decided in their favor. The City was required to cover Smiley and Backiel's partners' medical and dental expenses from the time they applied for them in August 1986 through April 1990 when the case was settled. By this time, new City legislation was implemented, providing medical and dental coverage to all employees and their domestic partners.

The Mayor's Lesbian/Gay Task Force proposed in November 1988 that the City expand its recognition of families by granting benefits for domestic partners of city employees, as well as increasing utilization of sick leave to care for elder parents or other dependent relatives. On May 2, 1989, Mayor Charles Royer sent a memorandum to the City Council requesting approval of the Family Leave Ordinance (Ordinance 114648) which proposed changes to City employees' family leave policies and defined "domestic partnership," in order to be in compliance with Seattle's Fair Employment Practices Ordinance (FEPO). The proposal was supported by the City's Law Department and the Human Rights Department.

A Family Affair newsletter
"A Family Affair" newsletter, 1988
Box 1, Folder 5, Gay and
Lesbian Task Force Records
(Record Series 8405-02), SMA

While employees were largely supportive of removal of the restrictions for care of a dependent child, expansion of sick leave usage for the care of parents, and establishment of the Sick Leave Transfer Program, the bill was considered controversial due to the provisions regarding domestic partnership benefits. Opposition arguments included increased cost to the City for benefits, potential for abuse of the system (e.g., casual housemates could qualify as domestic partners to obtain benefits), and disapproval of City sanctioning of lifestyles which some found objectionable. Proponents pointed out that other cities had not experienced abuse or excessive costs, and emphasized the inherent civil rights issue.

In an 8-1 vote, the City Council passed the Family Leave Ordinance on August 14, 1989. The only dissent came from Council President Sam Smith who "argued against the changes on religious grounds, claiming the changes were anti-family," according to the September 16 Seattle Times. Smith encouraged citizens to challenge the law before it went into effect. Citizens for Family (a group formed solely to oppose the ordinance) circulated a petition to repeal the ordinance and initiate a referendum vote, but failed to gather the required 10,921 signatures. The law went into effect on September 17, 1989, bringing the City into compliance with its own Fair Employment Practices Ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation. The medical benefits portion of the ordinance did not go into effect until March 1990, however, in order to give the Law Department time to answer tax-related questions. Seattle was the largest city in the country to provide health insurance benefits to unmarried live-in partners of its employees at the time.

Initiative 35 petition
Initiative 35 petition, 1990
Box 17, Folder 17, Tom Weeks Subject
Files (Record Series 4691-02), SMA

A group of citizens filed Initiative 35 to repeal this law; the initiative went to the voters on the ballot in November 1990, with the redefinition of family at the core of the debate. One of the groups working against the recognition of domestic partnerships was "Citizens for Family." In a letter to Councilmember Tom Weeks, the group's treasurer Jim Worden wrote, "It is generally recognized that the family is the cohesive unit of a civilization. Weaken the family unit and you weaken the civilization. Destroy the family unit and you destroy the civilization."

Mayor Norm Rice responded to many citizens who disagreed with the implementation of domestic partnership benefits for City employees. In July 1990, he wrote to an initiative supporter, "In supporting the rights of lesbians, gays, and unmarried heterosexuals, I am not passing judgement upon anyone's beliefs or morality. I am working to ensure that basic human rights are not violated." The initiative was defeated and the benefits remained a part of the City's benefits package.

Domestic partnership registration

Norm Rice and protestors
Mayor Norm Rice and protesters
rallying against Initiative 35, 1990
Courtesy MOHAI 2000.107

After completing a survey of gay and lesbian community members in the early 1990s, the Seattle Commission for Lesbians and Gays (SCLG) brought a draft proposal to Councilmember Sherry Harris for creation of a Domestic Partnership Registration (DPR) program in Seattle for all the public, not just City employees. Domestic partnership registration was a means by which unmarried couples could publicly document their relationship, providing symbolic recognition of their relationships as well as the diversity of families, including lesbian, gay and unmarried heterosexual couples. At the suggestion of State Representative Cal Anderson, Councilmember Harris waited to introduce the draft proposal until the conclusion of the 1993 state legislative session where a Lesbian/Gay Civil Rights Bill was in process, but it did not pass. Although some members of the community felt that the proposal should be further delayed, Councilmember Harris decided that there would be no perfect political landscape and introduced the DPR legislation in 1994.

Domestic partnership brochure
Domestic Partner Registration
brochure, 1993
Box 1, Folder 12, Seattle Commission
for Lesbians and Gays Subject
Files (Record Series 8405-04), SMA

SCLG held three public forums, researched existing ordinances in other cities, and solicited feedback and comments from community groups and gay and lesbian community members. Ed Murray, then president of Privacy Fund, a lesbian and gay political action committee for human rights, wrote Councilmember Harris in July 1994 to express the support of the Fund: "DPR will be a great benefit to the City as a whole, and to the Gay and Lesbian community in particular, and your leadership is greatly appreciated."

After it was unanimously passed by City Council, Mayor Rice signed the Domestic Partnership Registration Ordinance (Ordinance 117244) on August 5, 1994. The application required a $25 registration fee. The ordinance did not impose any legal obligations or grant any benefits. Other cities with domestic partner registration laws included Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin.

On the morning of September 6, 1994, the Seattle Commission for Lesbians and Gays greeted registrants with a notary public and a huge cake outside the City Clerk's Office in the lobby of the Municipal Building. Scheduled to begin registration at 9:00, there was a line forming by 7:30. By 9:30 the Clerk's Office had registered 44 couples.

Conjugal Blitz flyer
Flyer for first day of domestic
partner registration, 1994
Box 1, Folder 14, Seattle Commission
for Lesbians and Gays Subject
Files (Record Series 8405-04), SMA
two men registering for domestic partnership
Domestic partner registration
in City Hall, 1994
Courtesy MOHAI 2000.107

The City continued to expand and support domestic partnership rights and responsibilities in the following years. In 1999, Ordinance 119707 was passed to include domestic partners in the retirement benefit package for city employees. Later that year, Ordinance 119748 added Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 20.45 requiring contractors working for the city to provide equal employee benefits to domestic partners. And in 2009, City Council unanimously passed Resolution 31154 in support of Referendum 71, the passage of which legalized domestic partnership in Washington state.

As of August 2022, over 11,700 couples have registered since the DPR program began, with over 10,000 registrants currently active. It is used by both same-sex and opposite sex couples. Registrations represent 48 states, two U.S. territories, and two Canadian provinces. Even after December 9, 2012, when same sex couples could legally marry in Washington State, couples have continued to obtain domestic partner registrations. Over 6,300 couples registered with the City between December 2012 and August 2022.

Same-sex marriage

In 1997, the Washington State Legislature considered a series of bills prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. In response, City Council passed Resolution 29535, calling the legislation "blatantly discriminatory" that "if passed, would seriously undermine the moral integrity of our citizens." The bills passed but were vetoed by Governor Gary Locke. A similar bill was introduced and passed by the legislature the following year, which was also vetoed by Locke. However, the veto was overridden by both houses, thus enacting Washington's so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

In February 2004, Mayor Greg Nickels issued an executive order "Acknowledging the Validity of Marriages Regardless of the Sex of the Individuals for Purposes of City Employee Benefits and Affirming the City's Support for Gay Marriage." Although same-sex marriage was illegal in Washington State at the time, the executive order directed city departments to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states in the same manner as opposite-sex marriages for the purposes of granting City employee benefits. Prior to the executive order, gays and lesbians in committed relationships had to file for a domestic partnership to receive city employment benefits. City Council unanimously passed three ordinances in April 2004, confirming that City benefits were available to all married employees regardless of sexual orientation.

In 2006, marriage equality suffered a setback when Washington's 1998 DOMA was upheld by the Washington Supreme Court after a two-year battle in the lower courts. It would be six more years before a bill to legalize same-sex marriage was passed by the state legislature. Senate Bill 6239, providing "equal protection for all families in Washington by creating equality in civil marriage," passed on February 8, 2012. City Council expressed their support of the measure by unanimously passing Resolution 31356, declaring that "the City of Seattle embraces legal equality and fair treatment for all residents, including the freedom to marry." Governor Christine Gregoire signed the bill on February 13, with the law slated to take effect on June 7.

Approve R74 button
Approve R74 button, 2012
Ephemera Collection, (Record
Series 9900-01), SMA

Almost immediately, gay marriage opponents challenged the law by submitting enough signatures to require a referendum asking voters to approve or reject it. Referendum 74 was placed on the November ballot, putting the law on hold pending the outcome of the election.

Washington voters approved Referendum 74 with more than 53 percent of the vote. Voters in Maine and Maryland also passed same-sex measures in the same election, making Washington one of the first three states in the country to legalize marriage equality by popular vote.

The first same-sex weddings in Washington State were held on December 9, 2012. In an event organized by Mayor Mike McGinn's office, 140 couples were married free of charge on that day in Seattle City Hall's main lobby. Local judges and photographers volunteered their time to perform and document the ceremonies. Artists created temporary art installations to decorate the lobby, and refreshments were served courtesy of local businesses. Community members gathered on the Fourth Avenue Plaza to celebrate the newly married couples as they emerged from City Hall. In a piece for Seattle Gay News, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw writes that the newly married couples "were showered with cheers as they walked down the west stairs where hundreds more of their supporters waited outside to welcome them as married couples. The crowd was electric and inspired."

Mayor McGinn, with City Council concurring, issued a proclamation declaring December 9, 2012 as Marriage Equality Day.

Sign in City Hall, 2012
Image 169824, SMA
Wedding in City Hall, 2012
Image 169830, SMA
Cupcakes in City Hall, 2012
Image 169815, SMA
Newlyweds greeted by crowd
on City Hall steps, 2012
Image 191954, SMA


Domestic Partnerships

Domestic partnership benefits under the Seattle fair employment practices ordinance (SMC Ch. 14.04), November 8, 1988. Document 5512, Published Documents Collection (1801-92)

Questions & answers about domestic partnerships, June 1, 1988. Document 1195, Published Documents Collection (1801-92)

Discrimination Case Files (3805-01): Box 45, Folder 56: Dee Smiley vs. City Light; Box 45, Folder 57: Dana Backiel v. City Light

Commission for Sexual Minorities Subject Files (3830-02)

Legislative Department Executive Director's Records (4600-01): Box 8, Folder 5; Box 9, Folder 8

City Council Committee Agendas (4600-10): Box 6, Folder 19: Finance & Personnel Committee agenda, June 1, 1989; June 26, 1989; August 3, 1989

City Council Audio Recordings (4601-03): Event 13225, Finance and Personnel Committee public hearing, June 26, 1989

Central Staff Analysts' Working Files (4603-01): Box 88, Folders 24-26

George Benson Subject Files (4614-02): Box 16, Folder 4

Sally Clark Subject Files (4616-02): Box 1, Folder 1; Box 26, Folder 9

Martha Choe Subject Files (4617-02): Box 10, Folder 10

Sue Donaldson Subject Files (4623-02): Box 5, Folders 4-5; Box 70, Folder 10

Virginia Galle Subject Files (4630-02): Box 1, Folders 1-13

Sherry Harris Subject Files (4633-02): Box 2, Folders 1-4

Nick Licata Subject Files (4650-02): Box 57, Folder 4

Margaret Pageler Subject Files (4667-02): Box 56, Folder 12

Tina Podlodowski Subject Files (4670-02): Box 30, Folder 10

Norm Rice Subject Files (4674-02): Box 11, Folder 6; Box 30, Folder 14.

Jim Street Subject Files (4683-02): Box 33, Folder 11

Tom Weeks Subject Files (4691-02): Box 17, Folders 12-14, 16-19

Jeanette Williams Subject Files (4693-02): Box 57, Folder 2

Mayor's Office Central Files (5200-07): Box 4, Folders 10-15

Norm Rice Departmental Correspondence (5272-01): Box 113, Folder 1; Box 135, Folder 7

Paul Schell Departmental Correspondence (5279-01): Box 22, Folder 4

Office for Women's Rights Subject Files (8401-01): Box 5, Folders 4-14; Box 6, Folders 1-5

Office for Women's Rights Departmental Publications (8401-05): Box 1, Folder 7

Gay and Lesbian Task Force Records (8405-02): Box 1, Folders 1-13

Seattle Commission for Lesbians and Gays Minutes (8405-03)

Seattle Commission for Lesbians and Gays Subject Files (8405-04): Box 1, Folders 12-15

Legislative records

Ordinance 100642, Fair Employment Practices Ordinance, 1972

Ordinance 102562, Fair Employment Practices Ordinance, 1973

Clerk File 286838, Initiative Petition No. 17 "relating to unnatural practices, and establishing a Citizen's Commission on Unnatural Practices," 1978

Ordinance 112903, Amending the Fair Employment Practices Ordinance to broaden the definition of marital status and define sexual orientation, 1986

Ordinance 114648, Family Leave Ordinance, 1989

Ordinance 117244, Domestic Partnership Registration Ordinance, 1994

Ordinance 119707, Including domestic partners in the retirement benefit package, 1999

Ordinance 119748, Requiring contractors working for the city to provide equal employee benefits to domestic partners, 1999

Resolution 31154, In support of Referendum 71, 2009


Same-sex Marriage

Same Sex Marriage Records (4405-01)

Central Staff Analysts' Working Files (4603-01): Box 332, Folder 9

Sally Bagshaw Subject Files (4613-02): Box 10, Folder 4

Sally Clark Subject Files (4616-02): Box 23, Folder 19

David Della Subject Files (4622-02): Box 4, Folder 11

Jean Godden Subject Files (4631-02): Box 16, Folder 26

Nick Licata Subject Files (4650-02): Box 100, Folder 19

Tom Rasmussen Subject Files (4672-02): Box 37, Folder 9

Legislative records

Resolution 29535, Opposing discrimination against same-sex couples in Washington State, 1997

Ordinance 121439, Ordinance 121440, and Ordinance 121441 - Gay marriage recognition ordinances, 2004

Clerk File 312686, Proclamation declaring December 9, 2012 to be Marriage Equality Day, 2012

Resolution 31356, Reaffirming the City of Seattle's support for marriage equality and urging the Washington State Legislature to pass Senate Bill 6239, 2012

Articles in the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer can provide additional information on events and individuals. Free online access to both newspapers is available with a library card through the Seattle Public Library.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.