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Same-sex couples celebrate, wed on historic day in Island County

Grethe Cammermeyer watches as her fiancée, Diane Divelbess, fills out paperwork for a marriage license at the Island County Auditor’s Office on Thursday morning.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Grethe Cammermeyer watches as her fiancée, Diane Divelbess, fills out paperwork for a marriage license at the Island County Auditor’s Office on Thursday morning.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

One of the most famous gay couples in the country added to their legacy this week when they became the first couple in Island County to acquire a same-sex marriage license.

Camped out in lawn chairs and wrapped up in blankets, Langley residents Grethe Cammermeyer and Diane Divelbess showed up at the courthouse in Coupeville at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, insuring their place in the history books.

“I wanted us to be the first legitimate first (to get a marriage license),” Cammermeyer smiled. “This is home.”

Referendum 74, which was passed this November and upheld same-sex marriage in Washington, went into effect Thursday. According to the Seattle Times, more than 200 couples were in line at the Recorder’s Office in King County at midnight to get their marriage licenses.

Although Island County was far less busy, the Auditor’s Office did open shop earlier than usual to accommodate a small crowd of couples like Cammermeyer and Divelbess who were eager to take the first steps to formally and legally cement their relationships.

“We’ve waited 15 years for this form,” said Fai Dawson, holding up a marriage license application.

She and Becky Dawson, who live part time in Coupeville, were also at the Auditor’s Office before 7 a.m. While the application may be just a piece of paper, for a couple who were best friends for 10 years before they realized they were in love, it represented so much more.

“All of a sudden, we can hold hands without people screaming at us; I can introduce my fiance and people celebrate it,” Fai Dawson said.

“It’s like I’ve come out of a really dark space and stepped into brilliant sunshine,” she said.

The couple has endured trials and tribulation. In 2004, they secured a marriage license from Multnomah County, in Portland, Ore., but it was a moment of joy that turned to heartbreak.

The county’s new policy led to a political fight at the state level, which ultimately led to an amendment to the state’s constitution. In a crushing move, their check was returned and their license never recorded.

Their love has also been difficult to accept for those closest to them, even members of their own families. They have since forged new relationships, but those hurts are never forgotten.

Now, in just one year, the state Legislature followed by a majority of voters decided their union was not only just as important but equal to that of a man and a woman, leaving them feeling surreal.

“I’m still trying to figure out if it’s really real,” Becky Dawson said.

“It’s like a new era has dawned,” she said.

Cammermeyer and Divelbess, whose relationship began about 25 years ago, have similar feelings on the matter but they said it’s hard to convey just how much this means to them.

“There is a legitimization of our existence that’s difficult to explain,” Cammermeyer said.

Both are active in the community, with Cammermeyer a member of the Whidbey Island Hospital District board and Divelbess on the Whidbey Island Fair board.

Their story has been made famous by a major motion picture that detailed Cammermeyer’s legal challenge of her involuntary discharge from the Washington National Guard in 1992 for admitting she was a lesbian.

She went on to fight on the front lines of the military’s controversial “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for years and both were used to difficult and public battles concerning gay rights.

Yet, they too were emotionally traumatized when the marriage license they secured from Multnomah County was suddenly ripped away. It still hangs on their wall but it is legally void and neither expected that to hurt so much.

Becoming the first couple to get a license in Island County was special, yes, but there was so much more to it than that, Cammermeyer said.

“You realize when you go through it, it’s much more than a piece of paper,” she said.

Cammermeyer and Divelbess, along with nine other couples, several of whom are from out of state, will be married in a private ceremony at their South Whidbey home this Sunday.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard will officiate.

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