Island of Inequality

Fair Wisconsin Executive Director Katie Belanger lays out the steps to be taken on the path to equality in Wisconsin.

hen I picture myself on an island, usually there’s a piña colada in my hand and a warm sun overhead.

But recently, the thought of island living has soured for me, as Wisconsin has become an island of discrimination in a sea of marriage equality.

I’m often asked when we at Fair Wisconsin will start working on marriage equality. I’m always befuddled by this question. From our perspective, we’ve never stopped.

Legislative action on marriage equality is often the most visible part of a long-term vision for achieving true equality in Wisconsin, but it is only one piece of the puzzle, and it’s not where we start. At Fair Wisconsin, we have a holistic approach to how we will continue building the capacity we need to accomplish the same victory our neighbors in Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois have achieved.

First, building a strong, diverse movement is the foundation of our ability to advance LGBT equality.

We need a robust grassroots infrastructure to support a statewide effort. Volunteers, donors, and local leaders need to be active, committed, and determined to create an environment that is ripe to move amendment repeal and marriage forward. That’s why in 2012 we launched the Wisconsin LGBT Leadership Conference. Entitled “Connecting Leaders, Advancing the Movement,” the conference is a partnership with Diverse & Resilient and seeks to build a more skilled and connected network of LGBT and allied activists advocating for equality in their local communities. This year’s conference will be held in Milwaukee on February 7-9.

Second, linking local work to building statewide support and momentum is key.

The lack of majority support in the state capitol for pro-fairness legislation does not mean that tangible victories cannot be had in Wisconsin. In fact, over the past two years it has been clear that local activists and elected leaders are craving opportunities to make their communities more inclusive for LGBT residents and employees.

When communities outside of Madison and Milwaukee take a proactive stance on LGBT equality, it demonstrates the depth and breadth of support LGBT people and their families now have across the state, and highlights how out of touch many of our state legislators are with their districts and constituents, creating more pressure in the capitol to move forward.

Third, defending the statewide domestic partnership registry is necessary to protect past victories and continue moving forward.

It seems passé to still be defending such a limited set of legal protections when our neighbors now have full marriage equality. But nevertheless, our past victories are the foundation upon which we can continue to build. We also cannot forget that people are relying on this legislation to protect themselves and their families.

Fourth, strategically assessing all options for constitutional amendment repeal allows us to be prepared to work on multiple fronts.

Before passing marriage equality, we have to tackle the 2006 constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and civil unions. This process is neither short nor easy, as it requires two consecutive sessions of both houses of the legislature to pass the repeal, followed by a statewide referendum.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Proposition 8 and DOMA cases, marriage equality litigation is sweeping the nation as couples and organizations seek legal remedies to their state bans on marriage equality. A litigation strategy needs to be fully vetted before moving forward in Wisconsin. Legal cases are a complicated equation; in order to be successful you need to have the right case, the right argument, in the right court, with the right legal team. One unknown variable in Wisconsin’s equation is the outcome in our domestic partnership registry lawsuit, which could have a tremendous impact on how we could build a case for marriage in Wisconsin.

Fifth, engaging in the electoral sphere is critical to our success.

When you can’t change the hearts or minds of elected leaders, you need to change the faces of the individuals deciding Wisconsin’s and our collective future. From electing more openly LGBT people to identifying and supporting pro-fairness champions, elections are an opportunity to directly impact our ability to achieve the change we seek.

Ensuring that LGBT people are able to participate in the electoral process is also of utmost importance. Whether registering young pro-fairness advocates to vote in their first election or working to protect the ability of trans* and gender non-conforming people to vote given the attempts to implement restrictive voter ID laws, LGBT people deserve and need to have their voices heard on election day.

Sixth, recognizing that marriage equality isn’t the only issue we need to address to achieve full equality for the LGBT community.

Without fully inclusive nondiscrimination laws, trans* people face twice the rates of unemployment and homelessness as their LGB brothers and sisters. Racism is alive and well in our country and means that LGBT people of color face multiple systems of oppression and discrimination. National studies have estimated that approximately 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ—a significant overrepresentation. LGBT-related hate crimes and bullying are on the rise as the backlash to pro-fairness progress swells. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the many priorities of a diverse community, but rather an attempt to demonstrate the complex nature of the LGBT equality movement.

Marriage equality solves many problems for families and signifies inclusion and acceptance for a great number of LGBT people, and should therefore be a priority. But when we make only one issue of importance a priority, we lose sight of the diversity in the broader community. We aren’t serving the full community, and we aren’t able to build the broadest support possible for the plethora of issues of importance to the community, including marriage equality. Most importantly, we lose the ability to dismantle multiple systems of oppression simultaneously.

I firmly believe that achieving marriage equality is not a question of if, but of when we are able to do so. The path is clear, but complicated, and how we achieve our victory is just as important as achieving it.

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.