John Singer and Paul Barwick are denied a marriage license in Seattle on September 20, 1971.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/04/2012
  • Essay 10262
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On September 20, 1971, John Singer (later Faygele benMiriam, 1944-2000) and Paul Barwick (b. 1947) walk into the King County auditor's office and demand a marriage license. Their request is denied, and they later file one of the first same-sex marriage lawsuits in the United States. The courts reject their claims of discrimination, but decades later Washington will become one of the first states approve marriage equality by popular vote.

Making a Point

Both Singer and Barwick were against the institution of marriage, but instead wanted to make a point that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals. The two men were members of the local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, a national activist group known for its confrontational methods of promoting sexual liberation.

Months earlier, Singer had attended a meeting of the Dorian Society, a less radical gay rights group. The invited speaker was State Senator Pete Francis (b. 1935) who talked about efforts then underway to update Washington's laws. The state's marriage law had been changed in 1969 to lower the legal age of marriage to 18 without parental consent, and Francis noted that there was no mention of gender in the revision. Singer took this idea and ran with it.

Before Singer and Barwick arrived at the auditor's office on September 20, they had alerted the media so that their efforts would be documented. The county had never before received a marriage license request from a same-sex couple, and after receiving the request auditor Lloyd Hara (b. 1939) contacted the county prosecutor's office seeking advice. Norm Maleng (1938-2007), then chief civil deputy prosecutor, told the auditor to deny the application.

Filing a Suit

When asked by a reporter which of the men was the bride, Singer told the press, "We don't believe in role-playing. We’re two people. We happen to be genital males, but two human beings who happen to be in love and want to get married" ("County Balks ..."). Both men were ex-servicemen, and Singer noted that he would receive more benefits if he had a spouse. Barwick, who was wearing a T-shirt with the word "Gay" printed on it, mentioned that being married would also give them an income-tax break.

After the application was denied, the auditor's office explained that the only recourse Singer and Barwick had was to thrash it out in the courts, so the two men sued Lloyd Hara, claiming that their constitutional rights had been violated. Years later, Hara stated that he agreed with the couple's request for a license, but his hands were tied. "As a person of color, I've always been concerned about discrimination against anyone. I thought it was wrong then and I still firmly feel the same way" ("Gay Man Sees ...").

Singer and Barwick's claims were rejected by the King County Superior Court in a ruling later upheld by the state Court of Appeals. By this time, both plaintiffs were out of money and were concerned that if they appealed again and were rejected by the Washington State Supreme Court, the debate over same-sex marriage would come to an end. It didn't, but decades passed before state voters enacted marriage equality by approving it at the polls on November 6, 2012.

Sources: "County Balks at Two Men Marrying," The Seattle Times, September 21, 1971, p. A-4; "Two Men Refused License to Marry," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 21, 1971, p A-14; "Homosexual Case Opens in State Court of Appeals," The Seattle Times, May 9, 1973, p. A-4; "Gay Man Sees Big Changes in '72 Lawsuit," The Seattle Times, April 4, 2006 (; Gary L. Atkins, Gay Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).

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