It had come as a complete surprise.

But perhaps it shouldn’t have for Charlene Strong.

After decades of human rights work, she was one of three recipients of an Established Leader Pride Award from Mayor Jenny Durkan last month.

The chair of the Washington State Human Rights Commission, Strong is likely best known for her advocacy work after the death of her wife Kate in 2006. After she was rushed to the hospital, Strong wasn’t allowed by her bedside until relatives gave the okay over the phone.

“That night was probably more harmful than anything else that could have happened,” she said. “I was being kept from someone I loved dearly for 10 years and I didn’t want her to die alone, and I just wanted the decency of being able to hold her hand and to tell her that I love her, and to be there.”

In the following days, she met the same resistance from the funeral home.

“They wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me,” she said.  “I was just like, this is impossible. In the matter of a week, twice, I’m invisible.”

Soon after, she was asked by friend and then-state Rep. Joe McDermott to testify in Olympia on a bill that would create a domestic-partner registry.

“I remember when I sat down at that table, you could have heard a pin drop in that room,” she said. “I wanted everyone there to feel exactly what I felt that night, because I felt this is what’s finally going to get through their head, and it finally did.”

Though Strong had been galvanized by a personal tragedy, she had already long been making an impact in the community. Years before, she got involved with the Humane Society’s Pet Project, serving as volunteer coordinator for the effort to help those financially devastated by HIV/AIDS. Along with providing necessities like food and litter, and helping place animals in new homes in the event of their owner’s passing, Strong worked on the design of a portable veterinary clinic, as a way to make the most of their budget.

“It was very fulfilling because I could see we were making an enormous difference,” she said.

It was through that work that she met Kate — “a wonderful person who had such a heart for kind of reaching out to other people and helping them,” — and they would remain together for the next 10 years.

“We had a combined life,” she said. “We owned a mortgage and a house, we shared our faith, we shared our families, we shared our commitment to each other, and that was the best we could do because there were no legal protections. If we could have been married, we would have been married,” she said.

Her sudden passing during one of the city’s most intense rainstorms set off a new push of advocacy work on Strong’s part.

Some of that work came full circle with the birth of her daughter Etta Jean, by her wife Courteney.

“They brought in the paperwork for you to fill out for the birth certificate, and it said mother and mother,” she said.

It was a moment she realized that her late wife had not died in vain.

“The significance of being able to have my name on that birth certificate was powerful,  because prior to that I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and my daughter doesn’t look at me as any different than her mama,” she said. "I think about that, and I think about what are the next things we can do, what are the things that we can do for whomever you are that could actually bring that kind of relief and that kind of understanding and that kind of justice.”

A candidate for the at-large Position 8 on the Seattle City Council last year, Strong said she would be interested — though was not declaring — another political bid. She noted that city council positions, by the letter, are “nonpartisan.”

“That to me, in my mind, is that that makes you accountable to all of your constituents, not just the constituents that give you the most money, or not just the constituents that you think the same way as,” she said. “You have to have your door open, you have to be willing to be present, you have to be willing to address things, and sometimes you do have to still hold your ground and say, ‘Well, this is what I think is going to be best.’”

Strong said a disconnect of human understanding has developed over time, to the detriment of the country. In her mind, there has to be more collaborative efforts — both locally and nationally — in spite of peoples’ differences.

“There has to be a way that if you and I completely disagree politically that we have to be able to sit down and find a commonality,” she said, “so that we can keep moving through the world in a way that’s going to best benefit our families, our lives, the education of our children, the progression of things that actually support and take care of people and so I kind of try to stay focused on that type of thought process.”

Her concern is that with a lack of communication, and person-to-person interaction, that a lack of understanding will only continue to worsen.

“I think that if we get further and further away from that we’re going to continue to see discord and misunderstanding,” she said.

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