Writing this story has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. When I was approached to tell the story of Students for a Fair Wisconsin I never anticipated the amount of emotion it would resurrect, nor did I predict the explosion of pride that I would have felt for the people who will be described in the next couple of pages. I hope that, by giving you a glimpse of what happened a year ago at this time, you might be able to get an idea of how a group of students became warrior poets and how, at least in one area of our state, a line was drawn in the sand and through the fabric of our society. To do this, though, I must start at the beginning.
I arrived at the UW-Madison campus in September of 2005. Having come out of the closet just three weeks before I showed up at the Lakeshore dorms, I hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into what I would do with my newfound freedom. I knew only that I had an urge to get involved.
True to form, the students had begun to organize against the ban. But with the vote a long way off, they found it difficult to attract a lot of interest. This small group of five to ten students, known at the time as the LGBT Student Action Network, was what I joined about three weeks after moving in. I hadn’t put much thought or passion into the cause at that point; my logic was comprised of the typical, “I’m gay, I should fight for gay marriage” paradigm. The Student Action Network typically sent various speakers and volunteers to student housing floors to hold “listening sessions” or talk about the adverse effects of the ban. The statewide group, Action Wisconsin, had sent their regional Speakers Network director, Lindsey Saunders, to help us occasionally and after I had a few floors under my belt, she asked me to help her with one of their sessions in an off-campus neighborhood training being held in our Union South.
The structure of these events consisted of providing some information about the ban, a short speaker’s training, a practice, and a feedback session. Having been through the training a couple of times before, I sat off to the side and twiddled my thumbs for the first hour. People sat attentively and asked a question here or there, but for the most part things seemed to be going as they had in the past. We moved on to the speech practice and I decided to help keep the numbers even by pairing up with the odd woman out.
We did our introductions. She seemed like she didn’t want to be there, constantly distracted but determined to get the job done. She offered to have me go first, but I revealed that I had done it a few times before. I insisted that she should practice so I might be able to offer some advice. We went through the motions of her practice and my pointers but, due to my lack of a need to try the script, we had extra time to spare. She began to ask several questions about the student efforts against the ban on campus and how I was involved. I was happy to answer until the end of the exercise cut us off. The usual feedback about what seemed to be effective in the speech, and what didn’t, followed and it seemed that we were about to be done for the night.
All of a sudden, the woman I had been working with stood up to speak. Her hands were shaking and it seemed as if she wasn’t breathing. She stood in a silent room for a couple seconds, obviously wrestling with the words in her mouth, and eventually began to tell her story.
She told us that she was from a neighborhood in Madison. She was there with her partner, whom she pointed out, and told us that this was the fourth event that they had tried to go to. It turned out that this was the first time they made it without turning the car around in fear. They lived together in the closet, both afraid that they would lose their jobs should their colleagues ever find out that they loved each other. She told us that they didn’t expect to ever give the speech they had both just practiced, but had wanted to see what was being done to combat the ban.
She then turned to me and said that I was the reason she decided to stand and talk. It was the students, the “young people”, with their passion toward the ban’s defeat that gave her hope. With tears rolling down her face, she told the group and told me, that she thought that, if the ban were to be defeated, that it would be the students, the next generation, which drove the deathblow through its heart.
The woman’s statement, and the emotion and hope behind her words, was what I have based my passion for LGBT rights on since that day. Seeing her and her partner come out to see just one event, against the weight of society and the threat of losing their livelihood, gave me a new perspective on the fight against the ban. It no longer became a fight between right and wrong, or a struggle for civil rights. For me, it became a fight for the ability to love.
I left that place and returned to my dorm. That night I called home and told my parents about what the woman had said. I told them about the standing ovation the people gave her after she had finished speaking, and about the many couples who came to me and admitted that they had gone through the same thing as the speaker. They told me that the students fought against more than just a simple constitutional ban. We fought for the silent masses, the ones who dared to love.
The next morning I woke up and continued my work with the student organization but with the new motivation of the woman’s story. Unfortunately, as finals and winter break got closer, the group began to shrink and, in late December, the LGBT Student Action Network ceased to exist.
In January, I got a phone call from Lindsey Saunders asking if I could sit down to talk about where UW was going. I agreed and on January 21st we met up at Espresso Royal on State St. There, Liz Sanger, the former Chair of the College Democrats and a 4th year student, met with us and we started to talk about what the next step could be. We decided to start over and with a new structure. Positions were assigned, roles were drawn out, and Students for Equality was created.
Those months with Students for Equality were some of my favorite times at the UW. We were a group of people working together against the ban, but we all had different tales about how we got there. I wasn’t alone in having a story like the woman at the training. Most of the central SFE-ers had more specific reasoning about sacrificing their days and late nights. The unique thing I noticed during those times, though, was that at the quieter moments of our meetings or conversation, there seemed to be a different element in the air among us. Perhaps it was an unspoken understanding or a simple acknowledgement of the fact that we fought for more than ourselves.
The spring semester trucked along without any real opposition or trouble. The State Assembly, despite the efforts of many of its liberal members, passed the ban the second required time on February 28th, 2006. Students for Equality, and the newly named Fair Wisconsin, then had a date to focus on, as the final step the ban had was the November 7th ballot. Regardless of its progression, the semester’s activities eventually culminated in a collaborated Day of Silence march and rally in mid-April. The UW-Allies were hosting the event with the theme of fighting against the ban and invited Students for Equality to provide speakers and volunteers.
The event went off without a hitch and also provided another moment to give us hope. High school students from all across Dane County started showing up in droves to join our march. Most weren’t 18 and could not vote. Even though that was the case, many, on the spur of the moment, took to the steps of the capital to give speeches about why they were still fighting against the ban. The reasons given weren’t simply about people having gay friends or relatives. Most, ironically, echoed the sentiments of our opposition in that they claimed it was a simple matter of morality. Fighting the ban was the right thing to do.
As we moved into finals and summer vacation we left the group in good spirits. I returned in mid-August to some changes and adjustments. Liz Sanger, along with another leader of Students for Equality, Matt Berg, had both met with the new Fair Wisconsin Campus coordinator, Andy Gordon, to discuss the direction the student group needed to take in the final stage of the campaign. I had been out of town for the summer but, through email, was apprised of most of the changes before I arrived. The structure was to change to a more streamlined, efficient form, complete with new responsibilities, support from the statewide organization, and the name Students for a Fair Wisconsin. The race was on to set up the rest of our structure before the September 7th kickoff date, and we got to work planning our visibility campaign for the fall.
As I was appointed to the newly created position of “Chair”, my responsibility included outreaching to other groups and consolidating our volunteer support through person-to-person and student organisation contacts. We did what we could with the campus and city papers, but the only real way to make things a success was to show people how committed we were. We stood outside of freshman convocations for hours, walked through pouring rain, and even went toe to toe with a band of very offensive fundamentalists on Library Mall. We were worried that the summer hiatus, coupled with a very busy level of competition from other student organizations, would lead to a less than spectacular maiden meeting.
“Alright, lets get started.”
I’ll never forget saying those words, nor will I loose the memory of the roar that came from the almost 400 students who arrived to pack one of the largest lecture halls on campus for our kickoff. There was an air of excitement and dedication that I had never experienced before. Overnight, Students for a Fair Wisconsin became one of the largest, most active student organizations in our state.
We hit the ground at a dead sprint. All of the visitors were signed up for activities varying from chalking to writing letters to editors of all forms of relevant media. With the help of financial support from Fair Wisconsin, thousands of window signs and pieces of literature were created and were quickly dispersed throughout the student population. Voting No was no longer a simple decision or ballot cast. It quickly became an absolute; it was a cultural norm that was not only assumed but also something almost everyone was more than ready to fight for.
In the days leading up to the November election, I frequently said that it felt like the campus was rumbling with the energy that the campaign was generating. Our “get out the vote” efforts had, going into E-Day, close to 500 people signed up to fill a twelve hour election day with a huge variety of activities. We were constantly running out of window signs, and our ability to focus on anything but the most important of days soon disappeared.
The night before the election left most of the officers of Students for a Fair Wisconsin with an average of an hour of sleep. This wasn’t due to restlessness, but rather because most of the volunteer force was awake all night hanging door hangers on almost every student dorm, apartment, and house door on the isthmus. There was no worry in their eyes, only the audacity of hope in the pursuit of the historical victory we were trying to achieve.
The November 7th morning greeted campus with beautiful weather and the clanking of the construction of the Students for a Fair Wisconsin tent on library mall. Hundreds of students rallied in that primary staging point to be deployed to every ward within our charge. From there they went out in all directions to go door to door, hold signs, and, in some cases, simply shout in the streets so that their peers would remember why that Tuesday was more important than the rest. Representatives from the College Democrats, the LGBT Campus Center, the Multicultural Student Center, the Campus Women’s Center, Delta Lambda Phi, and the Associated Students of Madison comprised just a fraction of the hundreds of groups that provided full support on that most important of days. And so, with the stage laid down in front of us, Students for a Fair Wisconsin was there for all to see.
As Matt Berg and I took down the couple dozen “Vote No” signs placed all around Bascom Hill’s base, we took a moment to stare at the Capitol in silence as the church bells all across Madison chimed eight times. The ringing echo of the various towers disappeared into the distance just as we heard cheers from the College Democrat and Fair Wisconsin tents down on Library Mall. The polls had finally closed and the fight on which we had spent a year and a half had finally ended. Matt and I looked at each other, nodded in absolute exhaustion, and continued down the hill back to our companions. The College Democrats were excitingly following and shouting out voting returns in other states, eager to know where congress had landed on the political spectrum. I looked around at the Fair leadership crew, all of whom had managed to find their way back to the tent. Although there was no excited chatter or real urge to see how the rest of the state had done, the looks on their faces were content. Hygiene and energy deprived, we broke apart to collect ourselves before heading to the Fair Wisconsin gathering at Monona Terrace.
Most of the group never made it there.
A couple days later, after we felt ready to be around others, we met together to simply talk for the first time since the 7th. When we were all finally together it was more like gathering with family than sitting down with friends.
We had no regrets. We had done everything we could have done on campus. Together, with the thousands of friends our campaign had produced, we generated one of the most visible issue-based student groups the UW has ever seen. With the help of our coalition, we broke every off-year student voting record by thousands and, at the same time, produced a Vote No average rate of over 87% in all student wards.
The statewide returns were a disappointing reality, but the students of UW-Madison knew what it was like to be in the service of those who could not protect themselves. Over the days and weeks following the vote, I received several anonymous emails, all expressing gratitude toward what we had done. Most were self identified students and faculty, all regretting that they could not have done more to help us in the fight. If you are one of those people, please know that we could not have done it without you.
My hope is that, when we stand together on the steps of the Capitol on the day of the ban’s inevitable destruction, you will feel confident knowing that we did it for you; and also that I did it for Barbra.