On August 1, 2011, the Suquamish Tribe votes unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages and grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The vote is largely due to the efforts of tribal member Heather Purser (b. 1983). The Suquamish are the second Indian tribe in the country to recognize same-sex marriages, following the Coquille Tribe in Coos Bay, Oregon, which married a gay couple in 2009. The Suquamish Tribe has more than 1,000 members, many of whom live on the Port Madison Indian Reservation in Kitsap County.
In 2007, Suquamish Tribe member Heather Purser came out as a lesbian while attending Western Washington University. Encouraged by the acceptance she received from her peers at college, she approached tribal members at home to discuss the tribe's traditions regarding homosexuality, and to help her understand their views as well as her own.
In an article she later wrote for Crosscut, an online newspaper, she stated, "Seeing so many people living their lives out in the open made me realize that I could bring the peace I felt home with me to other gay and lesbian members of the Suquamish Tribe"(Crosscut).
Purser discovered that many tribal members were tolerant and understanding of her sexuality. She attributed their views to the fact that many Native Americans had faced discrimination of their own over the years. Purser's own grandfather -- a full-blooded Suquamish -- was so traumatized by the bigotry he faced in boarding school, that he married a non-Indian and urged his children to do likewise.
Purser, who has pale skin and red hair, has noted that her complexion sometimes made her feel isolated from her community, because she did "not look like the idealized Indian" (Red Room). Over time, she realized that although she might look different, it did not diminish her tribal identity.
She also applied this reasoning to being gay. "I still forget that I look different. And it’s like I forget I’m gay, too. They’re just labels, you know?" (Indian Country).
After graduating from college in 2008, Purser returned home and approached the Suquamish Tribal Council to ask that the tribe recognize gay marriage rights. The council agreed to consider it, and assigned a tribal lawyer to help Purser, but after three years her efforts showed little progress.
In March 2011, Purser mustered the courage to ask the council again, this time at the annual meeting of the tribe's entire enrolled membership. "I reminded them that I’d been working towards this goal for a long time and that I’d connected with many of them individually. I also reminded them of our history as a progressive, open-minded tribe and I encouraged them to continue this tradition rather than discriminate towards our own people the way we’d been discriminated against in the past" (Crosscut).
The Suquamish leadership told her they would continue to consider it, but just as Purser began to sit down, those sitting near her urged her to request a vote of the entire audience. She returned to the microphone, made her request once more, and asked for the vote. She expected opposition.
There was no dissent. Tribal members voted unanimously to make the Suquamish Tribe a more open community for gays and lesbians. In June the Tribal Council held a public hearing to formally change its ordinances to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. The changes were formally adopted in a unanimous vote on August 1, 2011.
At the time the ordinance was changed, it had no effect elsewhere in the state, because that was before Washington recognized same-sex marriages. But on November 6, 2012, Washington became one of the first three states, along with Maine and Maryland, to enact same-sex marriage at the ballot box.In 2012, the Seattle Human Rights Commission honored Purser with the 2011 Seattle Human Rights Award.