Charlene Strong was born in Groton, CT. Like many military families at the time, Charlene and her siblings bounced around the country, spending time in Colorado, Mississippi and Louisiana. Eventually, the family established roots in Seattle during her high school years. Her father, a Native American born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1936, was a recruiting officer for the US Coast Guard. After her father’s retirement from the Coast Guard, her family moved to Seattle because Charlene’s father took a job for Riedel International, a Portland-based company that employed her father to do environmental work in Puget Sound. Here, Charlene got involved in youth organizations and finished her high school education.
After graduation, Charlene attended trade school and entered the dental field where she worked as a lab technician and clinic supervisor. Charlene has always believed strongly in volunteerism and become the volunteer coordinator for the Pet Project, part of the Humane Society of Seattle helping people living with HIV/AIDS connect with pets. During her time with the Pet Project Charlene designed a portable veterinary clinic that would be able to treat 30 to 40 clients a day. It was an experience that solidified in Charlene that one person can make a difference. While volunteering, she fell in love with a wonderfully spunky woman who had moved from Washington, DC to Seattle, Kate Fleming. Charlene and Kate became the best of friends and soon found that the friendship bloomed into an inseparable pair.
Charlene and Kate purchased their first home in the Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle, while Charlene was finishing her degree in design. Kate ran her thriving audiobook narration and production business out of the basement studio they had renovated.
No one knows the moment when your life will be changed forever. For Charlene and Kate, it was December 14, 2006, when a huge storm hit Seattle with punishing devastation. The extreme flooding that occurred in the Madison Valley area that night would leave Charlene standing in a house filling with water while hearing her beloved Kate, who was trapped in their flooding studio, begging for someone to save her life.
Kate was brought to Harborview Medical Center to fight for her life. When Charlene arrived after the ambulance, the pain and hopelessness of the evening was compounded when the staff refused to let Charlene see Kate because the law didn’t recognize their relationship. Kate died that evening and Harborview staff insisted that Charlene prove their relationship in order to grant Charlene time to say goodbye. She would again be reminded of how few rights and protections she and Kate had as a couple when she tried to make Kate’s funeral arrangements.
Charlene turned her sorrow and anger into action. The next legislative session, Charlene testified in Olympia on a bill that would grant some of the same rights and protections to LGBT couples as heterosexual couples, the first step of many in the march toward full marriage equality. She has flown across the country to speak at schools and universities, shared insights with federal agencies and departments like the FBI and Health & Human Services, and was invited in 2008 to the White House by President Barack Obama for an LGBT recognition ceremony. Charlene also became the subject of an award-winning documentary called, “For My Wife…, the Making of an Activist.”
It has been ten years since Charlene began her journey educating about the consequences of inequality in LGBT people’s lives. Now, Charlene is a mom, business owner, and Chair of the Washington State Human Rights Commission. Charlene leads the Commission’s important work to protect the rights and expand equality to all Washingtonians, like her recent work this legislative session on HB 2029, which would create a telephone hotline and website to refer people to assistance for immigration and citizenship issues.
Charlene is currently married to Courteney Bealko, a long time friend who had been very much a part of the people who helped Charlene put her life back together after the devastation of 2006. She and Courteney live in Magnolia and have been blessed with two young children: Etta who is five and Anders who is three. The family spends many winter days at Crystal Mountain where Courteney worked as an instructor when not running her physical therapy office with Charlene in the Interbay area of Seattle.