by Michael Martinez, CNN
(CNN)—Shortly after the clock struck midnight, two Seattle women legitimized their 35-year love affair early Thursday by becoming the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in King County, Washington.
The two women met on a blind date in 1977, when homosexuality was highly taboo and gay people socialized privately in homes, never in public.
Now Pete-e Petersen is 85 and Jane Abbott Lighty is 77, and they have lived to see the world transformed.
In the twilight of their lives, they thought they would die without being legally married, though they had a church wedding in 2005. But Washington voters approved Referendum 74, legalizing same-sex marriage, last month, allowing the first licenses to be issued on Thursday.
“Oh, my goodness!” Lighty said. “We’ve been together 35 years and seen all kinds of change.”
“It’s been a long journey,” Petersen said. “We’re so excited to know we’ll get a license and then get married on Sunday.”
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified Referendum 74 on Wednesday, surrounded by the marriage equality bill’s supporters.
“This is a very important and historic day in the great state of Washington. For many years now, we’ve said, ‘One more step. One more step.’ This is our last step,” Gregoire said. “To the couples that are here today that will finally be treated with the equality they’ve deserved for many years, congratulations to each of you.”
This year has been historic on many levels for the marriage equality movement.
After years of saying no at the ballot box, American voters for the first time said yes to same-sex marriage this fall in Washington, Maryland and Maine. Marriage licenses for same-sex couples will begin being issued on December 29 in Maine and January 1 in Maryland. Voters in Minnesota rejected a measure that would have banned same-sex marriage.
Those approvals contrast with the 38 states that have passed bans on marriages between people of the same sex, mostly by amending their constitutions to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
In six states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York—and the District of Columbia, gays and lesbians have previously won marriage rights because of actions taken by judges or legislators, not voters.
A milestone also occurred this year in the nation’s executive branch: President Barack Obama became the first president to openly support same-sex marriage.
These political trends emerged as a majority of Americans say they support legally recognizing same-sex marriage at a time when the public demonstrates increasing comfort with gays and lesbians, according to a CNN/ORC International survey in June.
With 162 years between them, Petersen and Lighty can recall the dark days of being gay in America.
“Of course, we were in the so-called closet,” Petersen said. “Fortunately, we’re blessed by nice looks so people didn’t know right off the bat we were gay or homosexuals.”
They can leverage the unpleasant moments into humor.
For example, Petersen was an Air Force nurse in the Korean War. Stationed in Japan, she flew all kinds of air missions to retrieve wounded troops in Korea and take them to Tokyo—similar to what television’s M*A*S*H depicted.
She was eventually promoted to captain in the Air Force and also was put in charge of a clinic in San Antonio, Texas.
During that time, she recalls the military hunts for gay men and women. Military brass never suspected her, she said. Lighty enjoyed the same illusion as a young woman.
“I was fortunate,” Petersen said. “We passed.
“People would come up in the hospital, and they were always hunting for gay people,” she continued, talking about the military.
Captain, the investigators asked, “Do you have any…people being gay here?”
“I said, ‘Not a one,’” she recalled.
“It was just awful. It was a witch hunt, just really trying to oust people. If a military person, like an airman first class (woman), had short hair or walked like a tough person, they were questioning them and always quizzing them,” Petersen said. “I told them to leave them alone.”
Still, the couple honor Petersen’s five years of military service every November 11.
“Yes,” Lighty interjected, “on Veterans Day, I have to stand up very straight and say, ‘Ma’am!’ all day long.”
Petersen added: “She has to say, ‘Good morning, captain!’ Lots of respect, and that has gone on for 35 years.”
On their blind date at 5 p.m. on January 13, 1977, the couple rendezvoused for supper at an old town restaurant in Sacramento, California.
A mutual friend arranged the date.
Lighty cheated that evening: “I stayed in the parking to see what she looked like as she got of the car,” she said. “I said she’s cute and she’s short.”
Dinner was a success.
“Boy, we just hit it off,” Petersen said.
Two weeks later, they moved in together.
Lighty had earlier been married to a man for two years. Petersen had adopted and was raising her sister’s 10-year-old daughter. Their home also had two dogs and a cat.
The couple wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
At the time, Petersen and Lighty were nurses. In fact, Petersen was working in public health nursing, and was California’s first nursing home ombudsman for the state Department of Public Health under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, she said.
By 1986, they had moved to Seattle, where they slowly came out of the closet in the late 1990s.
First, they supported a gay men’s choral group called the Seattle Men’s Chorus. By the early 2000s, they started a lesbian counterpart, the Seattle Women’s Chorus.
In 2005, they announced to the world that they were longtime partners by participating in the documentary Inlaws & Outlaws, which examines the lives of straight and gay couples.
On Sunday, the couple will marry onstage before the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus at Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
Two men who have been together for 23 years will also marry onstage, the two women said.
When Petersen and Lighty tie the knot, the Women’s Chorus will be singing from “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story.
As they approach the 36-year mark of being a couple, Petersen observed: “We’re just blessed with the people we’ve met and the opportunities we’ve had.”