Big Decisions

Fair Wisconsin Executive Director Katie Belanger explains how the recent Supreme Court decisions affect same-sex marriage here, and what the next steps are in the fight for full equality.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has ruled that same-sex couples who have been married in a state granting marriage equality should not be treated any differently than their opposite-sex counterparts.

It was a bold decision. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted in oral arguments, anything less than full federal recognition of these marriages amounts to “skim milk” marriages.

We’ve known it all along, and now we have the highest court in our country on our side. But what does this mean for Wisconsin?

The positive outcomes in both the DOMA and Prop 8 cases are victories, to be sure. In the Windsor case, the court struck down section 3 of DOMA, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing validly enacted marriages in states with full marriage equality. With 1,138 rights, obligations, and protections previously unavailable to those couples, this is a monumental step forward.

Proposition 8, which passed in California in 2008, was a constitutional ban on marriage equality similar to more than 20 other state bans currently on the books. It was not as broad as Wisconsin’s ban, which covers both marriage and civil unions. However, Prop 8 was the only ban in the country that actively took away legal protections that had been granted by the state. No other state that bans marriage equality previously allowed same-sex couples to join in marriage. It was a unique situation that limited the impact of the court’s decision to California.

As more states pass marriage equality, the federal government must determine the exact impact of its recognition of couples who are legally married in a marriage equality state but live elsewhere, like Wisconsin. As the Obama administration continues to work through the 1,138 ways in which the federal government already recognizes married couples, more information will surface. We already know that couples, regardless of their current residence, will be able to obtain visas for their bi-national spouses. At Fair Wisconsin, we are working with our partners at Lambda Legal to sort out the impact of the Supreme Court and subsequent administrative rulings on Wisconsin’s many caring, committed same-sex couples.

In late July, members of the Fair Wisconsin staff and I were able to join with state leaders from across the country at the Equality Federation’s annual Summer Meeting. Since 1997, the Equality Federation has worked throughout the country, strengthening state-based LGBT organizations, building the leaders of today and tomorrow, and making critical progress on the issues that matter most. More than 40 state-based LGBT advocacy organizations from 40 states joined with leaders of 24 national organizations to discuss the impact of these rulings, as well as share strategies, tools, and tactics with our peers to learn some of the best practices for advancing LGBT equality in our state.

As Wisconsin’s representative in the Equality Federation, we were able to participate in this convening, connect with leaders in states near and far, and share some of the work we’re doing in Wisconsin to advance equality.

Marriage was certainly a hot topic, but nondiscrimination was also a core issue throughout the sessions, and it is something that we at Fair Wisconsin see as a critical step in moving our state forward. Though we have the first law in the country that included sexual orientation as a protected class, until gender identity and expression are included, the law does not go far enough to protect everyone, including transgender Wisconsinites, from discrimination.

Expanding our statewide nondiscrimination laws to include gender identity and expression, and repealing our constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and civil unions, are two of Fair Wisconsin’s top priorities in the years ahead. The path forward to achieve these victories is long, and we have much to do to build the legislative majorities we need to support these measures. But the path is also clear.

Unlike the state legislature, local communities are ready and willing to tackle issues of importance to the LGBT community. Stevens Point, for example, just joined a growing list of public employers to offer domestic-partner benefits to their employees. In the past 18-24 months, Appleton, Racine, Manitowoc, Eau Claire, Janesville, Kenosha, and now Stevens Point have all taken this important step forward.

We are only going to see this pace increase. As we travel around the state, the Fair Wisconsin staff and I are excited to see a growing number of towns, cities, and counties preparing to take action. Just this month, domestic-partner benefit measures were introduced in Portage and Outagamie Counties and the City of Beloit.

What is exciting is that a number of cities
will be rolling out their fully inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. These laws will ensure that individuals are protected from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, in addition to race, age, sex, creed, ability, and more.

As more communities stand up for fairness, we will continue to put pressure on our elected leaders in Madison to move our state forward.

To that end, Fair Wisconsin just finalized a merger with Equality Wisconsin, creating one unified statewide LGBT advocacy organization. Over the past few months, teams from our Boards of Directors have engaged in a facilitated dialogue about how best to serve the LGBT community. We realized a natural alignment between our missions and our values that led us to take this important step.

By combining forces, we will maximize our collective impact and leverage the resources—both people and capital—to build the statewide capacity necessary to lead the LGBT equality movement now and in the years ahead.

From the Supreme Court of the United States of America to main streets across Wisconsin, we are moving our state and our country forward.

Katie Belanger has been Fair Wisconsin’s Executive Director since 2009. She also currently serves as the Board Co-Chair for the Equality Federation, the national alliance of state-based LGBT advocacy organizations.