OLYMPIA, WASH. -- Two retired military women who fought for the rights of gays in the military were among the hundreds of couples who received their marriage licenses this week as Washington state's voter-approved law allowing same-sex marriage took effect.
Former Air Force flight nurse Maj. Margaret Witt, of Spokane, and retired nurse, Army Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, of Whidbey Island, both successfully challenged the military's ban on open service by gays and lesbians. They were first in line on Thursday in their home counties to receive their licenses with their partners.
"First, to be able to serve their country openly was in and of itself historical, and a significant step forward for our nation. And now to be able to legally wed the person they love is yet another historical milestone," said Anne Levinson, a gay rights activist who worked on the campaign to approve same-sex marriage. "They're remarkable women."
Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election on Wednesday afternoon, and the law took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, when couples in Seattle lined up to pick up their licenses just after midnight.
Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.
"It will be an amazing energetic, joyous experience," said Witt, who will marry her partner of nine years, Laurie Johnson, on Dec. 15 in Spokane.
Witt, 48, was discharged from the Air Force Reserve because the military learned she was a lesbian, but a federal judge found her dismissal unconstitutional in 2010, and Witt retired with a full military pension last year. She is currently a physical therapist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Spokane.
The policy that banned gay and lesbian members of the military from serving openly, known as "don't ask, don't tell," was repealed last year, but Witt said there's more to be done.
Since gay marriage is still not recognized under federal law, Witt said that military family members are still at risk of not being recognized as next of kin by the military.
"I'd like to see all military members and their families recognized and taken care of," she said. "As far as we've come in the military, my job's not done."
Cammermeyer plans to get married Sunday at her home in Langley, joined by nine other couples who will also get married there before her annual Christmas party that will also serve as a wedding reception.
Cammermeyer, 70, earned national attention with her fight to stay in the Washington National Guard. She was fired in 1992 after disclosing her sexual orientation during a 1989 interview for a security clearance as chief nurse of the National Guard. A federal judge ordered her reinstated in 1994; the government did not appeal.
Cammermeyer said her ability to now marry Diane Divelbess, her partner of 24 years, was an "opportunity to be treated as a family and as equals."
"There's still a lot of inequities that state law can't take care of, but it certainly shows that we are one of many states now that are moving toward recognition," Cammermeyer said.
Last month, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. They joined six other states -- New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont -- and the District of Columbia that had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Referendum 74 in Washington state had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure.
The law doesn't require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and it doesn't subject churches to penalties if they don't marry gay or lesbian couples.
In addition to private ceremonies that will start taking place across Washington state this weekend, Seattle City Hall will open for several hours on Sunday, and several local judges are donating their time to marry couples. Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, said that more than 140 couples have registered to get married at City Hall, and weddings will begin at 10 a.m. In Olympia, a group of local judges has offered to perform wedding ceremonies just after midnight on Sunday at the Thurston County courthouse.
Married same-sex couples will still be denied access to federal pensions, health insurance and other government benefits available to heterosexual couples because the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, bars federal recognition of gay unions. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up gay marriage sometime during the current term. Several pending cases challenge the federal benefit provision of DOMA, and a separate appeal asks the justices to decide whether federal courts were correct in striking down California's Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by courts in the nation's largest state.