Eleven years ago, Wisconsin voters approved a constitutional amendment that banned marriage between two people of the same sex. Religious organizations that hold tax exempt status engaged in de facto lobbying and campaigns to influence voters. Though there were decades of evidence to support the perspective that marriage was generally beneficial to the social, emotional, and physical health of many people, these arguments were not put forth by major professional groups in the state. Their members were ambivalent about that level of support.
Political careers were built on both sides of the issue of marriage equality in Wisconsin. Families were also divided on many aspects of same-sex marriage. A certain formal stiffness grew up between straight and gay neighbors because we had no way to talk about the different application of rights to one group at the expense of another. [I have pointed out elsewhere that a straight person could marry three times and divorce each time after 10 years of marriage, and each of the three surviving spouses would be entitled to death benefits. Paul and I had not been able to marry and thus neither of us would receive death benefits despite our full payment into the program since we were teens.}
Many LGBT people were ambivalent about devoting so many community resources to extend marital rights to themselves as individuals and as a class of individuals. The history of marriage, so enmeshed with the egregious practices of patriarchy, challenged our thinking. As with the right to serve in the military as openly queer, we could find ourselves fighting for the right to belong to something we disagreed with personally.
By the time this decision to memorialize the otherness of LGBT people in Wisconsin was made in the form of a constitutional amendment to limit rights, my late spouse Paul and I knew we would not marry. We had wanted to do so — had planned it and celebrated our union in many ways throughout the course of our 32 years together. But his chronic health issues would mean that our marriage would have opened my retirement savings for spend-down requirements to provide him with health care coverage as part of our marital responsibilities and joint property. Nevertheless, we contributed funds to the cause of marriage equality in Wisconsin, spoke of its importance, and bemoaned the passage of the constitutional amendment.
I was also angry after the vote. The groups leading the charge in Wisconsin pretty much closed down or severely downsized after the vote. They didn’t go to Green Bay, Wausau, Stevens Point, Rhinelander, Waukesha, or Milwaukee to help people deal with the loss and its consequences in people’s lives. The gay community’s financial resources available to do anything else besides marriage were already significantly stretched, so there was no other real infrastructure in place to help more than 100,000 people cope or to address the wounds freshly re-opened in their families. At the time, I would sometimes say to friends, “We can’t seem to afford HIV, a lesbian congress woman, HRC, and marriage all at the same time. So, for me, I choose to support Tammy Baldwin and HIV prevention.”
I also knew that my own siblings, mother, nieces and nephews almost surely voted to codify limits to my rights. They also voted for a governor and president who despise us. They did not call to express their horror over the mass killing in Orlando a year ago. My late brother went so far as to suggest that my late husband’s MS was actually a cover up for HIV. With their myriad of June weddings, graduations, birthdays, and Father’s Day, they do not think to call in honor of Pride month or ask what it is like to be gay, old, and widowed today.
So, what am I looking for during June and why am I looking for it?
I am looking for a full-out, unabashed, celebratory party to end all parties. I am looking for greeting cards and flowers sent to the house. I am looking for mayoral proclamations, and calls of appreciation from straight community leaders. I am fine with this shindig lasting for a month. [On the other hand, I am irked that Black History Month is only a month long instead of every day, every year for the foreseeable future.] I want our queer doctors, lawyers, sports figures, STEM professionals, carpenters, road pavers, florists, nuns, teachers, and drag performers to show up on the street, hanging out, and wearing shit-eating grins. I want LGBT pastors and priests and rabbis to preach about being afforded greater respect by people in their congregations. I want all gay bars to turn up the lights and lift the shades. I want straight bars to hang out rainbow flags and offer big rounds of apologies with every order. I want to hear the recording of crickets chirping from the empty aisles of Menards, Chic a fil, and Cracker Barrel.
In my view, June weddings should feature special dances for same-sex partners, whether they are queer or not. I want to see Father’s Day celebrations for all of the lesbians, gay men, bisexual folks, and transgender people who have parented their own children and the children of others. It would be great to see rainbow banners over workplace entrances that said, “We could never do this without you.” Before a business offers to sell me something, I’d like to hear an apology for the years that they were reluctant to do so. I’d like Sandals resorts to close for the month of June in recognition of their rabid anti-gay discrimination.
Some June, I would like to read in the New York Times that the phrase “because he was gay” had gone out of usage because no one any longer believed that something happened to LGBT people because of their sexual identity, but rather it happened because of the pitiable fragility of those who perpetrated any marginalization or violence against them.
I am looking for this sort of celebration because of what Pride is about. Pride is about being visible and about getting together. When I was 21, I narrowly escaped arrest for being in a gay bar –for just daring to be with other gay people. This was the same year as the Stonewall Rebellion. I had been out as a gay person for five years by then, but I still had no sense of what it meant to enjoy the freedom to associate, protest, express myself, or assemble with others in public.
More than four decades later, we have moved the dial on these rights and should celebrate that progress without pretending we have achieved victory on any of them. From our sorry-ass excuse for a President to those purported allies who neglect to wish us well during Pride month, there is clearly work to be done.