Nationally recognized civil rights spokeswoman Charlene Strong led a discussion on marriage equality Monday, filling the Barbieri Courtroom at the Gonzaga Law School with students, faculty and community members, sparking questions and pulling on heartstrings.
Strong, a practicing Catholic, said that she operates on “the concept of peace, dignity, and grace,” themes reinforced throughout her address as she discussed what love and marriage really mean, especially in regard to the LGBT community.
Strong has a presence in both the local and national spheres of the fight for marriage equality.
“[Strong is a] nationally respected advocate for social justice and civil rights issues including marriage equality and non-discrimination policies,” according to the official invitation written by Jaime Hollis, the program coordinator of the LGBT Resource Center.
“Charlene’s advocacy for equality has led her to the White House where she was invited to have a private meeting with President Obama and other dignitaries to discuss marriage equality. She has also spoken at government agencies across the country including the CIA, the Washington state Legislature and the World Affairs Council.”
Strong was appointed to the Washington State Human Rights Commission by Gov. Christine Gregoire; she is serving a five-year term. Her story is also the focus of the documentary “For My Wife.”
Strong did not become involved in politics until tragedy struck and she lost her partner in a horrifying flood. Strong’s partner of 10 years, Kate, became trapped in the flooded basement of their Seattle home. “She was screaming ‘I need you to be my hero, I need you to stay calm, I need you to save me,’ ” Strong said as she described the moments before firefighters arrived, when she was desperately trying to rescue Kate.
When Strong first arrived at the hospital that Kate had been rushed to, she was denied access to the hospital room since she was not legally recognized as family.
“I am her family,” Strong said. “We had spent 10 years of our life together ... and that wasn’t sufficient.” Eventually, Kate’s sister was able to give Strong permission to be with Kate, and Strong was able to anoint Kate with oil and kiss her goodbye in her final moments.
Strong’s tragedy was far from over. The funeral director wouldn’t even address Strong in making the arrangements, even though Kate’s mother had given Strong all rights in planning Kate’s funeral, seeing as Strong knew all of Kate’s final wishes. Strong describes this “collateral damage of inequality” the reason she began working for marriage equality.
Hollis describes Strong’s experience as “a story of working on social justice, of inspiration, of turning personal tragedy into a mission.”
Though GU is the 48th university Strong has spoken at in the past year and a half, including many Catholic universities, it was not without struggle that this event was approved.
Hollis played an instrumental role in bringing the event to campus by getting sponsorship from GU’s LGBT Resource Center, University Ministry and Women’s and Gender Studies program. According to Jennifer Campbell, a senior broadcasting major who worked on planning the marriage equality discussion, Sima Thorpe, assistant dean of student life who supervises the LGBT Resource Center, and Hollis are “the real heroes of this project.”
“They had to fight people on top to get this event approved ... there was a lot of controversy with having this event on campus,” Campbell said.
One of the main goals of having a marriage equality event was to inform the GU population, a point reiterated by all parties involved.
“There is a lot of apathy from both sides ... students should go to learn,” Campbell said.
“This is a big deal for Gonzaga ... it challenges us to examine who we are and better define our Catholic traditions,” Hollis said.
Fr. C. Hightower, director of university ministry, brought up a similar point, stressing that this event offered an opportunity for informing students who fall along all lines of the issue of marriage equality.
“In the Roman Catholic Church, the highest moral good is to follow your conscience,” Hightower said. “Your conscience needs to be well formed. We try to get as much information out there ... so students can make good decisions. As a priest, it is not appropriate for me to tell [students] what to think. Education is freedom.”
One of the requirements of hosting Strong on campus was that her talk was advertised as a marriage equality discussion, and the view of the church would be accurately represented. Although there was no official speaker representing the Catholic Church, Campbell said “we are producing a piece of paper ... [as a] legal stance for the church.”
Overall, the debate on marriage equality on campus has been “healthy,” according to Hightower.
“In this situation, it’s been fair and respectful,” he said.
Though there have been petitions and activities from students on both sides, students have expressed their views while respecting the opposition. Hightower noted that a Jesuit campus offers the opportunity for issues like marriage equality to be discussed, since Jesuits stress education.
“Faith, [at] its root core, is freedom,” he said. “Because it’s about love.”
And love is really what it is all about.
“We cannot redefine marriage ... it’s universally understood,” Strong said.
That’s why Strong is working so hard to create a country where couples of all genders can have all of the sanctions and recognition of true, legal marriage.
Strong faced an unbelievable tragedy, in which “ignorance was allowed to trump supposed rights,” but she used her pain to become someone working for human rights, so no family would have to go through the suffering she experienced.
“The most important thing is to instill a constructive discussion,” Strong said. “And for Gonzaga to host a speech like this, it speaks volumes about the mission statement.”
Strong is in a domestic partnership with another woman now, and is mother to a nine-month-old child. Strong travels around the country, speaking on behalf of marriage equality. Even though she struggles with leaving her family to travel for her work, her point is clear and she will continue to fight for marriage equality.
“Love is not a feeling,” Strong said. “Love is a commitment.”