Photo by Heather Nelson
Liz Wagner and Kelsey Stokes will be legally married in April, something that was not possible before Washington voters approved same-sex marriage on Nov. 6.

For Phinney Ridge couple, marriage finally possible

For Liz Wagner and Kelsey Stokes, who have been dating for three and one-half years, it was always the plan to get married. But being able to do so legally was the last thing on their minds. As a same-sex couple, that right had been denied before to them before they were even born, and there was no reason to believe that it would be otherwise even within their lifetime.

Of course, sometimes, fate intervenes.

Just three days after Wagner proposed to Stokes in January of 2012, they were surprised by an announcement in the Washington State Legislature that a bill was moving forward to legalize same-sex marriage within the state.

Then, an opposition campaign gathered enough support to put take the matter to ballot. Considering the history -- no state has managed to both legalize marriage in the legislature and then win against opposition in the elections -- there was then little reason to believe that same-sex marriage would be approved once and for all.

But as we know now, Washington State had another surprise in store. On Nov. 6, the people spoke, and same-sex marriage won by a wide margin, 53.7 percent to 46.3.

The story of Wagner and Stokes, a Phinney Ridge couple who attend Our Redeemers Lutheran Church, is just one of many. And like others that have surfaced since same-sex marriage was passed, their story shows that they cannot be stereotyped. They are just as nuanced and complicated as any other couple, if not moreso.

Grappling with a gay identity

Stokes grew up in the small town of North Bend in a strictly traditionalist religious family.

“I didn’t even think it was possible to be gay,” Stokes said. “It was this very narrow, narrow close-minded view of the world.”

She said if people had thoughts about being gay, as she did, that they just ignored it and went on with their lives. But she said she knew she was gay as early as when she was 13 years old, at least on some level somewhere in the deepest part of her head.

Stokes didn’t acknowledge the fact, though, until she was 17. She had even dated a girl when she was 16 for six months, having first kissed her at a party, but she was still not convinced. Or didn’t want to be convinced.

“If you don’t say it, it’s not true,” she said.

For the most part, coming out wasn’t a problem for Stokes. When she told her friends, they simply said, “Yeah, well, I knew that.” Even her mom said she already knew.

Stokes said it was harder to come out to her sister, who was more conservative. But, after an awkward reaction, her sister grew to be one of Stokes’ most ardent supporters.

With Stokes’ dad, it was a different story.

She never really told him, knowing what his reaction would be, and left him to find out on his own. For the most part, he remained quiet on the subject.

“Even if he does feel something different or think something different, he’s not going to voice that because that’s the way the culture he lives in is like.”

One of the only times he brought it up, Stokes said he said, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll go to hell.”

Stokes said that while she was at first angry because of his reaction, she also understood to an extent. The religious world they lived in had narrow views, and having grown up in it herself, she knew better than most how hard it was to break those views.

When Stokes told him she was getting married, he simply said something along the lines of, “Well, you know how I feel about that.”

Wagner offered, “He’s come around.”

For her part, Wagner also had a hard time recognizing that she might be gay.

“I discovered that when I was seventeen,” Wagner said. “I had my best friend at the time and I imagined kissing her, and it totally freaked me out and embarrassed me. And I never knew what to do with that thought.”

When Wagner did come out to her best friend, her best friend pushed her away and their friendship dissolved. It hurt Wagner to lose her friendship.

“I actually decided I can’t be gay because I can’t handle disappointing my family and I can’t handle being an outsider,” Wagner said. “So I said no. Nope.”

Of course, it was never really a choice. “That only lasted for a week or two.”

Her family has been generally supportive. Wagner said her sister was 100 percent behind her and that even the more conservative folks in her extended family have been respectful of her identity. “I really appreciate that,” she said.

Still, it was slim pickings where she lived. She knew no gay women save for the gym teachers, and there was only one gay guy her age that she knew. “Very limited exposure there,” she said.

That changed when she went to college, where she became president of a queer women organization as an upperclassmen. Finally being able to talk freely about being gay and through discussion and movie nights, she grew to understand herself better, she said.

Then she moved to Seattle. “It was awesome,” Wagner said.

Being religious

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that face gay people is grappling with faith. How does one reconcile being gay with an institution that has often been hostile toward gay people?

Growing up fiercely religious, Stokes was initially hostile toward her own gay nature. She simply refused to believe it. But as she grew to accept herself more, she found that the church didn’t necessarily follow suit, essentially kicking her out.

“I left when I was about 19, and I had this screw it moment and went on with my own life,” Stokes said. But, she said, “that was miserable … in the last two or three years I’ve been really serious about it and it’s a huge part of my life.”

Stokes bounced around from church to church until she found one she liked. She eventually landed at Our Redeemers Lutheran Church, which as a congregation chose to support same-sex marriage. Last year, Stokes taught Sunday School there.

Wagner, who was never very religious in the first place, has come around to religion thanks to Stokes.

“I still have trouble with the churchy language,” Wagner said. Still, she said, “I could have really good conversations about spirituality and religion with people. But the group (Our Redeemer’s) as a whole is really accepting. Genuinely accepting.”

Wagner said that is what was important to her.

“I want a place that will actually truly love me,” she said. “You don’t want to be ‘tolerated,’ you want to be genuinely loved.”

Happily Ever After

Wagner and Stokes first started dating three and one-half years ago. They first met each other at a Rat City Roller Girls match, where mutual friends had encouraged Wagner to meet Stokes. Stokes said she had no idea that their friends were trying to hook them up.

“So we get there and I take the initiative to sit next to her, even though I was completely intimidated, think she’s totally out of my league … and we had a blast,” Wagner said.

“We were very engaged and chatty the entire time,” Stokes said.

Then their relationship blossomed much the same way as any couple. They texted; they went to Seattles Gay Pride Parade; they met for coffee and talked for hours; then dinner; Wagner took extra long bus rides just so she could talk with Stokes longer; they talked about their life, marriage, kids; then Wagner was looking at wedding rings; then she proposed.

Stokes said yes.

Now, they will be getting married at the Blue Bourbon Cooking and Culinary Center on the shore of Lake Union. Their wedding ceremony will be traditional, respecting Stokes religious background, but it will be short and sweet.

When asked if they are ready to spend the rest of their lives together, Stokes replied, “On some level it terrifies me, the idea of forever. But at the same time, I can’t imagine a time without her.”

“I feel like we have a really awesome relationship and I’m happier with her. I feel like I’ve become a better person because of her,” Wagner said.

Then Wagner paused, reflecting.

“Yeah.”

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