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In Washington State, gay domestic partnerships become marriages today

SEATTLE — Monisha Harrell and her partner of eight years, Tami Olson, will be getting married today.

The state set the date.

Some 3,600 gay and lesbian couples will be affected as their domestic partnerships convert automatically to marriage this week.

Some are happy their partnerships will roll into marriage, while others are likely unaware that they’re headed toward marital bliss.

Harrell, 39, who is chair of Equal Rights Washington — a statewide political advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — said the change in status will not change the commitment she has with her partner.

It’s a change in language, she said.

“We’ve been building our lives together and the law has finally caught on,” said Harrell, who also runs her own marketing firm.

This is the final piece of the state’s same-sex marriage law, which voters approved in 2012.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said domestic partnership was always seen as short-term relief and not full equality.

“There will be no second-class recognition of gay and lesbian relationships,” Murray said Friday. “There will be marriage.”

The marriage certificates will reflect two dates: the date of the marriage and the date the couple registered their domestic partnership.

The Secretary of State’s Office sent out two letters over the past six months to couples registered in domestic partnerships. Even though the office is overseeing the changes, the Washington State Department of Health is handling all conversions.

Pam Floyd, of the Secretary of State’s Office, said that since December 2012 — when gay marriage became legal — about 3,135 domestic partnerships have become marriages.

As of June 17, about 4,400 couples have terminated or plan to terminate their partnerships, or are old enough that their partnerships won’t automatically become marriages, according to Floyd. The conversions don’t apply to couples 62 and older, nor to couples who registered with their cities or counties.

Jason Holloway, president of QLaw Association — the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender bar association — said some same-sex couples he’s advised want to stay partners but aren’t ready for marriage, while other couples, who have been domestic partners for decades, have an old-school feeling about marriage.

Holloway said the point is that same-sex partnerships are now legitimate.

“It gives people the opportunity to question their relationship,” he said.

Regardless, people need to know what’s happening, he said.

There can be complications. There may be people who registered as domestic partners but broke up years ago and who are now married illegally to other people.

Some may be former Washington residents now living in other states where partnerships aren’t recognized and dissolution isn’t possible.

“We can fix anything,” said Holloway, who is also a divorce and family-law attorney. “It’s the folks that don’t know this is happening that need help.”

Washington lawmakers authorized domestic partnerships in 2007, five years before same-sex marriage became legal in the state. Same-sex couples were granted a range of marriage-like benefits.

Now, same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples.

Murray, who married his partner, Michael Shiosaki, last summer, said marriage makes the relationship stronger.

“When you say the vows, it’s a life-changing experience. Even if you have to wait like Michael and I for 22 years,” he said.

Harrell said she’s looking forward to no longer having to explain what a domestic partnership is.

“No one can question the rights you have in a marriage,” she said.

Michelle Johnson, director of development at Legal Voice, a law center that pursues justice for women in the Northwest through litigation and legislative advocacy, said she’s worked hard to help achieve marriage equality.

Johnson and her partner, Lara Thurman, are planning an August ceremony.

“I’m excited to say I’m marrying Lara,” she said.

Dan Shih, 42, has been with Ted MacGovern for 14 years. The couple have three girls together: a 6-year-old and 3-year-old twins.

Even though Shih is excited, he said he feels a “little weird” about the process.

“It’s something that’s considered a momentous thing that is happening without any action on our part,” he said.

The couple’s wedding is planned for September.

“It’s not starting a new life,” Shih said. “You’re celebrating the life you’ve already created together.”