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Moving Forward
How Wisconsin trails the nation when it comes to one equal-rights issue.

Photo by Sara Stathas

Pat Brown and Dennis Kohler are the picture of domestic life in rural suburbia. They live on a hobby farm in Germantown with their triplets – two girls and a boy. They grow a boxcar of vegetables every summer, raise chickens and ducks, and board a pony named Fritz in their barn. They’ve got a trampoline and an above-ground swimming pool out back for the kids. And to give them all a little more breathing room inside, they’ve remodeled their 126-year-old farmhouse.

I wrote about the family for Milwaukee Magazine in 2006. The triplets were then 3 years old and, because they were born three months premature, were slow to thrive. But they never were short on exuberance.

The triplets turn 10 this month. One girl is into Irish dancing; the other girl, gymnastics. All three participate in Destination Imagination, with the help of Dennis and Pat. And when referring to their parents – together now for 11 years – the kids call Dennis “Daddy” and Patrick “Papa.”

Yes, Pat is Patrick. And did I mention the dads are gay?

Patrick and Dennis are like any other working couple. They juggle family and work issues. They celebrate anniversaries.

They have disagreements. But despite holding a commitment ceremony years ago, their marital status is null and void in Wisconsin. When they file their tax returns, they file separately. Pat’s health care insurance covers their children, but it doesn’t cover Dennis.

Same-sex marriage has been forbidden in the Badger State since 2006, when voters in a statewide referendum approved a constitutional amendment that only validates marriage between a man and a woman.

Gay marriage wasn’t much of a rallying cry in the LGBT community until the early 2000s. Just nine years ago, the first same-sex marriage was held in 2004, when two lesbians tied the knot near Boston after a landmark ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Since then, bans in other states have fallen like dominoes – Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland and Washington. Illinois is on the brink of becoming the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Eight other states recognize civil unions among same-sex couples, which grant some rights similar to marriage.

The changes in state laws reflect a national swing in public opinion. According to a November 2012 Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, a reversal of a poll five years earlier that reported 53 percent in opposition.

But in Wisconsin, same-sex marriage has been stuck in neutral since the 2006 referendum.

Changing the Wisconsin Constitution is a lengthy process. A proposal to dump the ban would need approval in two consecutive sessions of the legislature, and then by voters.

That hasn’t slowed the movement. “Out of defeat, we actually built some significant opportunities that Wisconsin had not seen for the LGBT community,” says Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, one of the state’s largest LGBT advocacy groups.

Just three years after the ban was passed, then-Gov. Jim Doyle included in his budget legal protections for domestic partners, such as hospital visitation and medical leave to care for a sick partner. It was the first legislation of its kind in the country.

In the November 2012 election, history was made again when Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin became the first open lesbian elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate. “Voters in every corner of the state voted for a lesbian,” Belanger says. “To me, that’s a game-changer.”

With a membership of 30,000, Fair Wisconsin has lobbied successfully for domestic partnership ordinances in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Appleton, Manitowoc, Eau Claire and Janesville, while working to win support from Republican lawmakers, who control the Wisconsin Legislature.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability and momentum that has never been as strong as it is right now,” Belanger says.

As momentum builds, public opinion in Wisconsin moves steadily toward the tipping point. Polls by Public Policy Polling show the approval rate of same-sex marriages climbing from 39 percent in August 2011 to 43 percent in July 2012. And in October 2012, a Marquette University poll put the approval rate at 45 percent, with another 29 percent supporting same-sex civil unions. Just 22 percent said there should be no legal recognition for gay couples at all.

To Dennis and Pat, the changing attitudes are encouraging but not enough. Their nonlegal status continues to cast doubt on their marriage. They’ve acted as responsible parents, yet they’re still regarded as misfits by the state. “I don’t think the state should be involved in marriage at all,” Kohler says. “But since they are, our family should have the same rights as anyone.”

Back in 1982, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to legally bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law epitomized the state’s motto, “Forward.”


Today, Wisconsin lags behind. It’s time to shift the political machine out of neutral and back into forward. It’s the state’s tradition.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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