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Washington State voters set to decide on same-sex marriage

On an overpass near Seattle, Wash., on Oct. 30, 2012, ‘Norsky,’ an advocate against gay marriage, implores drivers to vote no on Referendum 74, which asks voters to endorse or reject a state law legalizing same-sex marriages that has been passed but not implemented.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As storybook weddings go, the union of Colleen Ozolitis and Lee Ann Martinson is hard to beat.

The couple was married on a gorgeous fall day in 2006 – to the cry of seagulls and the roar of pounding surf – by a B.C. marriage commissioner, who presided over the ceremony on the sublime white sands of Long Beach on Vancouver Island.

Despite the magic of the moment, however, there was something missing. "We eloped," Ms. Martinson recalled with a laugh this week.

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The two Seattle women were among more than 600 gay men and women who travelled north from the United States that year to be married in British Columbia, where such marriages have been legal since 2003. The pair left family and friends behind.

Now, notwithstanding their romantic memories from Long Beach, they want to get married again – this time in their home state.

Their moment may be at hand. Next Tuesday, along with choosing a president, a myriad of state and county officials and deciding whether to legalize pot, Washington State has a chance to make history as the first state to vote in favour of same-sex marriage.

"We are very much appreciative of our northern neighbours, but we really want to get married here. It's time to bring our families together," said Ms. Martinson, a 43-year-old banking executive, as she took a break from working the phones on behalf of Washington United for Marriage at a volunteer centre in the heart of Seattle's gay area.

Referendum 74 asks voters to endorse or reject a state law legalizing same-sex marriages that has been passed but not implemented.

There are implications for B.C., too. The province would lose its favoured status as the only jurisdiction in the Pacific Northwest to sanction gay marriage, a factor that has sent several thousand American couples to tie the knot in B.C. over the years.

Although yearly totals have gone down since the first rush of matrimonially minded gays to the province, local tourism boosters continue to market Vancouver as a "gay-friendly" destination, pointing to same-sex marriages as part of the attraction.

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"Marriages do cost money, even small weddings, so obviously there's a positive economic impact for us," said Candice Gibson, manager of consumer marketing for Tourism Vancouver.

Ms. Gibson hastened to add her hopes that Washington votes "yes" to same-sex marriages. "Advancing civil rights is always a good thing. … Besides, Vancouver remains an excellent honeymoon location."

Asking Americans, with their country's strong conservative and religious roots, to sanction gay marriage, however, is a daunting task.

Advocates are on a grim losing streak. The question has been put 32 times to different state voters across the U.S., and 32 times they have said "no."

This campaign may be different. Big donations from liberal corporate moguls such as Jeff Bezos of Inc. ($2.5-million), Bill Gates ($500,000) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($250,000) have the "yes" forces awash in cash. Large companies, including Nordstrom Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Nike Inc., have also weighed in, urging employees to support the right of gay couples to marry.

And Washington is one of the most Democrat, secular states in the country.

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Pinched for funds, the headquarters of the anti-gay-marriage side is no grander than a few modest rooms in a nondescript, suburban Seattle plaza.

There, Chip White, the cheery, relentlessly upbeat spokesman for Preserve Marriage Washington, brought in from California to direct the group's messaging, is undeterred by the other side's financial war chest. This is a grassroots campaign, based on volunteer groups across the state, he said.

They are fuelled by the conviction that marriage is solely a union between a man and a woman, and it's best for kids, too, according to the unmarried, 37-year-old real-estate lawyer from California. "You can be a creationist or a Darwinian. It still takes a man and a woman to have a child."

This dedication was evident on a highway overpass later in the day, when a dozen opponents of same-sex marriage braved a drenching downpour to wave their signs at motorists speeding below on the busy I-5.

Clad in a black rain suit, water streaming across his glasses, a retired government employee, who identified himself only as "Norsky," predicted "a tsunami of consequences" if gay marriage is approved. "I believe it's just a matter of time before they'll be teaching about homosexuals right in the classroom."

That's the message pounded home by the "no" side's not-so-secret weapon, Frank Schubert, the champion of anti-gay-marriage campaigns in the U.S.. He has yet to lose a public referendum on the issue, often turning around pre-election polls late in the race with TV ads playing on voter fears about the implications of same-sex marriage.

They argue that those opposed to gay marriage will be harassed and discriminated against, while youngsters will be taught in school that "a prince can marry a prince," as one controversial ad claimed. Another features Ontario sportscaster Damian Goddard, who was let go by Sportsnet last year, a day after tweeting in favour of traditional marriage.

"Washington is a tough state, because it's very liberal," Mr. Schubert said in an interview, and the stress of maintaining his campaign winning streak is high. "This is life on a high wire. I expect victory. If not, then the Lord has some plan that I don't understand."

For Colleen Ozolitis and Lee Ann Martinson, who already receive full couple benefits as registered "domestic partners," it's all a matter of their place in society, especially now that they are parents of five-year-old Callum.

"I want my son to be able to tell people his moms are married," Ms. Ozolitis said. "I don't want to redefine marriage. I want to be included in it."

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