Gay marriage law goes into effect

Clark County official, partner will be first to apply for license

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



For more than 15 years, Paul Harris of Camas has been manager of the Clark County department that issues marriage licenses. Yet Harris and his partner of 40 years, James Griener, have been barred from obtaining a license for themselves, until now.

Today, Harris, 64, and Griener, 68, will be the first gay couple in Clark County to apply for a marriage license.

Marriage license office extends hours

Clark County’s Marriage License Department at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., will offer extended hours for the next three days to accommodate an expected influx of gay couples wishing to marry:

• 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and Friday and 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Equality Southwest Washington volunteers started welcoming couples at midnight at the service center. They were issuing numbers to the first 200 couples in line.

The doors at the service center open at 7 a.m. so visitors can use restrooms and purchase snacks at the cafe. Refreshments will be offered to people waiting in line throughout the day courtesy of Starbucks, Women Democrats of Clark County, First Congregational United Church of Christ of Vancouver, Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver and other donors and volunteers. Marriage applicants are required to enter the service center through the parking garage in order to keep an orderly line. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt will read a proclamation and congratulate couples at noon.

Equality Southwest Washington has also organized public wedding events beginning Dec. 9, the first day gay couples may wed, due to a mandatory three-day waiting period.

Public weddings will be held:

• Dec. 9-12 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Esther Short Park, 610 Esther St.

• Dec. 9 from midnight to 4 a.m. at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1220 N.E. 68th St. in Vancouver.

• Dec. 9 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Red Cross Building, 605 E. Barnes St.

— Paris Achen

Harris said he recognizes the historic value of being first in line, but the impetus for going first also has a practical purpose, Harris said. The couple's marriage license application will be the first test for county software updates that reflect marriages of same-gender couples. The updates didn't go into effect until midnight.

"I figure we'll be the guinea pigs," Harris said. "If it works for us, it should work for everybody else. If it doesn't, I have to make some phone calls that we need someone down ASAP."

Harris will spend the rest of today helping other gay couples from Washington and out of state apply for marriage licenses.

(Harris has the same name as Paul Harris, a Republican state lawmaker who represents Vancouver and voted against gay marriage in Washington.)

Harris' account of how he and Griener met unfolds like a romantic screenplay.

Both were bundled up in winter clothes, strolling along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade just before dusk on a crisp December day in 1972 to enjoy the view of the Manhattan skyline.

"I saw this handsome man standing there," Harris recalled. "We were both looking at the Manhattan skyline. … It was a lovely place to go. We looked at each other and decided to strike up a conversation. It sounds like a fairy tale, very romantic, but it did happen that way. … I'll never forget it."

Harris said he and Griener talked and got to know each other for a couple of months before moving in together in February 1973.

The couple moved to Oregon in 1985, the same year Harris took a position as an internal auditor with Clark County. They moved to Camas in 2005.

In 2004, Harris and Griener were among hundreds of gay couples who married when Multnomah County in Oregon briefly issued licenses. The Oregon Supreme Court later nullified the marriages.

"I was disheartened, but it was not unexpected," Harris said of the Supreme Court decision. "That's why it's so hard to believe we are going to be married here (in Clark County), except that it's been ratified by voters. That sealed the deal."

The couple plans to marry on 12/12/12 in a small private ceremony attended by witnesses.

"It's symbolic in that those numbers line up like that only every 100 years," Harris said. "It's also easy to remember."

They will hold a wedding reception and a honeymoon in February to mark their 40th anniversary.

Since Washington voters on Nov. 6 upheld the gay marriage law the Legislature passed earlier in the year, Griener, a retired technical writer, has even helped Harris prepare for an influx gay couples expected to stand in line today to apply for marriage licenses.

"He put a map of the (Clark County Public Service Center) lobby in our garage (to help plan orderly ingress and egress of applicants)," Harris said.

Their journey together as a couple has made Harris' job overseeing the first day of legalized gay marriage in Clark County deeply personal.

"Every now and then, something happens in a person's life when you are in the right place at the right time," Harris said. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time, not knowing in my lifetime I would be able to issue a marriage license to same-gender couples. It's just historic. It's like winning the lottery. You happen to have those numbers, and those were the numbers that were chosen."

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551;;;