Voters in Wisconsin’s Nov. 7 election decided, by a large majority, to define marriage in the state constitution “to provide that only marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.” According to MSNBC, 59 percent of electors voted in favor of the amendment, and 41 percent voted against.
The state has previously been known as a progressive leader on many issues.
In 1854, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, making Wisconsin the first state to stand up to the United States Supreme Court on this issue. During the mid-eighteenth century, the Labor Movement largely began in Wisconsin, when legislators passed unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation laws which became models for other states. By the year 1900, Wisconsin was one of the most conservation-minded places in the country. Shortly thereafter, former Governor Robert La Follette’s Wisconsin Idea became known nationwide, emphasizing Wisconsin’s cutting-edge thinking. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, “Faculty from the University of Wisconsin, therefore, played a significant part in Progressive reform efforts, helping legislators draft laws and serving as experts on governmental commissions.” Wisconsin’s advanced thinking was again made known when, on June 10, 1919, Wisconsin ratified the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. The state was the first to do so. Finally, in 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public places on the basis of sexual orientation. Wisconsin was a pioneer on many other issues, including welfare reform, seat belts, recycling, DDT, primary elections, income tax, city planning, and prisoner work release.
For a very long time, Wisconsin had an extremely impressive and proud history. Yesterday, though, Wisconsin voters decided to try something new, to the detriment of the state’s pioneering history. For the first time, Wisconsin’s constitution has been used not to expand civil rights, but to constrict them.
The constitution of the state now essentially classifies homosexuals as being inferior to heterosexuals, and as having inferior rights as well. According to Fair Wisconsin, “A marriage license extends over 1,000 rights, benefits, and responsibilities under federal law and nearly 200 more under Wisconsin law.” All of these rights are unavailable to homosexuals under this amendment.
Furthermore, the amendment’s language also bans any type of civil union or domestic partnerships in Wisconsin. This makes very difficult managing things such as health insurance coverage for partners, the making of medical decisions, and child custody. An extensive study of the impact of such bans has been conducted by the national Human Rights Campaign. One such impact is the very real possibility that victims of domestic abuse will not be afforded the same protections that they would if the state were to recognize domestic partnerships.
The passage of this amendment added Wisconsin to the group of 20 other states that previously added similar amendments to their constitutions. Pro-amendment group Vote Yes for Marriage expressed its satisfaction with the results, for the institution of marriage will now be protected for Wisconsin’s children. Julaine Appling, head of Vote Yes and executive director of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, stated that “The church is the moral gatekeeper of our society.” (Badger Herald, Nov. 8) Such arguments now drive lawmaking in a nation where separation of church and state was once a cherished ideal.
Mike Tate, Fair Wisconsin campaign manager, spoke to an audience of more than 400 in the Monona Terrace ballroom following the election. He praised Gov. Jim Doyle for his opposition to the amendment, and explained his feeling that the battle was lost not because Wisconsin dislikes gays, but because “Wisconsin does not know gay people.” Gov. Doyle was reelected with 53 percent of the vote, 8 percent more than Republican candidate Mark Green received. Although the amendment passed, Fair Wisconsin is still committed to continuing the fight for equality in Wisconsin and across the country.
That fight should be aided by the considerable number of seats that Democrats gained in the US Congress. The House of Representatives is now comprised of 234 Democrats and 201 Republicans. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., an openly lesbian politician, was reelected to serve a fifth term in congress. The Senate is also much more Democratic now, since Democrats won 11 more seats than did Republicans, as of 6 a.m. Nov. 8. According to MSNBC, Republicans currently have 49 seats, Democrats have 47, and independents have two. The two undecided seats, belonging to Montana and Virginia, are leaning Democratic, but by less than a one-percent margin.
Only time will tell what happens next in the fight for equal rights for everyone, but a lot of hard work and discussion will be necessary to effect change. I am sincerely ashamed of Wisconsin, though, for virtually erasing 40 years of progress. One day, gay Wisconsinites will have equal rights, just as women and blacks now do. This should not be a moral issue – it is about rights and equality for all citizens. Do we not believe in these things? The current Wisconsin electorate leads me to believe that we do not.
My position: part of an e-mail to a reporter
I’m pleased that you are covering the amendment – as always, I believe the more exposure this issue gets, the more people will come to the reasonable conclusion that we are all equal and deserve equal rights.
I feel the amendment was passed for several reasons. Religious beliefs played a roll, but more importantly, people allowed bigotry and fear to skew their judgment. By bigotry, I mean that some people are simply intolerant of beliefs and lifestyles different from their own. By fear, I mean two things: Many people feared what might happen if the amendment did not pass. For example, some may have thought that gay couples getting married would threaten their own marriages in some way. Another type of fear is the simple fear of homosexuality. This may not be rooted in bigotry, but rather in lack of education or knowledge of the issue. Many people are unaware that they almost surely have gay friends, family members, and coworkers. Lack of discussion about and exposure to homosexuality tends to cause people to think homosexuality is weird, or somehow wrong. Learning more about gay issues and talking with homosexuals or allies tends to cause people to accept that gays and lesbians are people too, and they deserve to be treated as such. Increasing exposure to and discussion of gay issues spreads tolerance and understanding, two things which America needs very much right now.
Obviously I wish the amendment had not passed, but the fact that it did does not signal defeat. Just a few years ago, it was unthinkable that businesses or government institutions would talk openly about homosexuality or the marriage amendment, much less take up a position against discrimination. Since then, we have seen companies such as Microsoft take over where government failed and offer benefits to domestic partners of gay employees. Many other businesses have done similar things, and even more have publicly stood against the amendment. We have also seen the common councils of Milwaukee and Madison, and the mayors of those two cities, release statements opposing the amendment. Several departments withing the UW system have encouraged citizens to vote “No” on the amendment. Just two weeks ago, the UW-Madison Faculty Senate outlined its position against the amendment, explaining all of the reasons it will hurt Wisconsin.
My point is that much progress has been made in recent years, and progress will continue until there is equality for gays and lesbians, not just in the state, but nationwide. There is good reason that our state motto is “forward.” Yesterday’s decision was a step backward, but we can recover. I truly hope Wisconsin redeems itself as a problem-solving and cutting-edge state where people live together and prosper in peace, and where everyone is proud to be a Wisconsinite.
Photos of Bascom Hill, Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 7

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