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Updated Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 01:01 AM

After 40 years together, Clark County men will be first in line for marriage license

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

Paul Harris manages the section of the Clark County Auditor's Office that issues marriage licenses. But as a gay man in a committed relationship for nearly 40 years, he's not been able to get one for himself.

Until now.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, Harris and his partner, James Griener, will obtain the first of the marriage licenses Clark County issues to same-sex couples.

The two met in New York in 1973, at the dawn of the gay-rights movement, when Harris was living in Brooklyn and Griener was pursuing a career in show business. Both now in their 60s, they are among thousands of gay couples expected to gain licenses across the state when the state's same-sex-marriage law takes effect Thursday.

After decades of handing out licenses to other people, Harris, manager of marriage license and recording, is ecstatic that he can finally get one to marry his partner.

"I guess it still hasn't quite hit me yet,"said Harris. He was among hundreds of gay couples who married in Oregon's Multnomah County in 2004 when that county decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A judge soon ordered the county to stop and Oregon's Supreme Court later nullified the marriages.

"I guess once I apply and get one, it will be real ... and permanent," Harris said.

Several other large counties have also preselected those who will receive the first marriage licenses issued under the new law. Among them are Col. Grethe Cammermeyer in Island County and Maj. Margaret Witt in Spokane County. Both are decorated military veterans who fought for years to help end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and each will marry her longtime partner in private ceremonies later in the month.

In Tacoma, Rudy Henry and John McCluskey, together 53 years, will be one of two couples to receive the first licenses issued by the Pierce County Auditor's Office when it opens at 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

In King County, the honor will go to Pete-e Petersen and Jane Lighty, longtime members of Seattle's gay community.

As the only place in King County where marriage licenses will be available during the first three days, the downtown Seattle office is preparing for as many as 2,000 couples. It will begin issuing licenses at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and continue until 6:30 p.m., with extended hours over the next two days.

A few other counties will also operate with extended hours.

Clark County, which will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. the first two days and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, expects large numbers of couples flowing north from Oregon, where gay marriage is constitutionally banned.

Hundreds of weddings

Couples obtaining marriage licenses will have 60 days to use them, and over the next few weeks hundreds, possibly thousands, are expected to do so, marrying at venues from City Hall in downtown Seattle to the MV Scansonia on Lake Union to the Little White Chapel at the Four Seasons downtown.

Some 142 sets of brides and grooms will queue outside Seattle City Hall for individual wedding ceremonies in the grand lobby that Sunday. After demand grew rapidly, the city capped the number at 142 to ensure enough time for each ceremony.

Local judges have volunteered to officiate the weddings, and artists are working to create displays as backdrops for each couple.

Seattle First Baptist Church on First Hill will be hosting a mass wedding ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday for the first 50 couples who register.

The church has been performing commitment ceremonies, "marrying same-sex couples since 1979, at least in the eyes of God, as far as we're concerned," said Pastor Craig Darling.

For those couples, the ceremonies have been the same as for straight couples but for one key detail: no marriage certificates — the permanent record of a marriage — are signed at the end. But they will be on Sunday.

Having performed so many ceremonies over the years, Darling said, "We knew there are many who wanted the symbolism of that day.

"I also think there are many couples who want a beautiful sanctuary wedding but can't afford it," Darling said. "We see this as a community wedding."

The service is available to anyone, regardless of their faith — or absence of it.

"It's going to be a spiritual ceremony that respects the spirit and energy of God," Darling said.

"Elated"

Harris and Griener, the Clark County couple, plan to take advantage of a unique date configuration — 12/12/12 — to marry in a private ceremony attended by close friends and family.

They are postponing a honeymoon until February, when they'll mark a milestone: their 40th anniversary.

Since their days together as young men living back East, the two have been open about their relationship — uncommon for many of their generation.

"We never tried to hide our relationship from anyone where we worked or lived," Griener said. "People around us always knew and I think we were very lucky in that we never had any trouble at all."

The men moved to Oregon in 1985 and then to Camas, in Clark County, in 2005. Over the years, as Harris built a career in public service, Griener, now retired, worked as a technical writer for local software firms and in the local theater scene.

In the weeks leading up the November election, Harris said he was anxious and nervous, afraid to get his hopes up for fear they would be dashed.

"I was elated," he said about the outcome. "It made me feel so great that people voted for this. The tide has certainly turned."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.


ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Paul Harris, right, has been issuing marriage licenses to other people for decades. He and partner James Griener will be in the Clark County Auditor's Office to get their own license Thursday.




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