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Alumna’s listening, persistence pay off in tribe’s journey to marriage equality

Heather Purser ('08) successfully lobbied her tribe to make same-sex marriage legal

Story by Peter Jensen ('10)

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Heather Purser ('08) successfully lobbied her tribe to recognize same-sex marriage. | Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP

Heather Purser (’08, English-Creative Writing), a Seattle-based commercial diver and Suquamish Tribe member, successfully lobbied her tribe to make same-sex marriage legal in August 2011. The Kitsap County tribe, with 1,000 members, is the first in Washington state to legally recognize same-sex marriage, according to The Seattle Times.

Purser came out as a lesbian while at Western and, after graduating, spent three years working with her tribe on same-sex marriage. She recently spoke to Window about the experience.

“I was really scared about being gay. When I got to Western, people were accepting and open. I decided to bring the comfort and compassion I felt at Western home with me. My tribe is supposed to be very open and accepting. I wanted us to prove that by accepting me.”

Lessons from the experience: “I think I learned a lot about how to speak up for myself, and to not back down. I had a lot of people who were supportive, but they wouldn’t come support me so I had to talk to the council by myself.”

Finally a breakthrough: “For a long time I didn’t think it would happen. It wasn’t until March of this year (at an annual tribal meeting) I decided to get up in front of everybody in the tribe and ask them for the permission to do this. After that it was fast-tracked.”

Reaction to success: “I was a little bit shocked. I didn’t think everybody would say yes. It still kind of makes me choked up thinking about it. I had never been more proud to be a Suquamish person in my life.”

On winning support: “I try to listen really well and establish a connection. Then I tell them my side. I find that they usually listen … and after that they usually get it. I think (same-sex marriage) is all about personal happiness. It doesn’t make any sense that we wouldn’t have the same rights as any other American.”