Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Standing in the Threshold: Reflections on the Morning After Wisconsin Passes a Constitutional Ban Against Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions

Bittersweet would be the simple and rather cliché way to describe how I’m feeling o this post-election morning. I’m experiencing feelings much more intense and complex that can be captured with just one word – proud, angry, grateful, grief-filled, hopeful, rage-filled, heart-broken, exhausted, and enlivened.

My pride is huge. Even though our constitutional ban passed, my pride in the citizens of Wisconsin fills my heart. I am proud that

  • Ten thousand of us stepped forward around the state to volunteer - take time off work or give up our free time to make phone calls, walk door-to-door, enter data and basically do whatever was asked of us.
  • 450,000 Wisconsin citizens voted “no” on this constitutional ban.
  • The Fair Wisconsin campaign ads were positive and conveyed a sense of compassion and dignity – not fear and manipulation.
  • Our straight allies “outted themselves” publicly as allies and saw this issue as one of basic human rights; not just a “fringe” issue.
  • Many of us had difficult and moving conversations with friends, family and complete strangers about our private lives – our families – to help build understanding, open the doors to communication and dispel the myths.
  • Such a diversity of people stepped forward to say no to discrimination – a diversity of ages from our eight year old daughter riding her scooter ahead of us to point out which houses we needed to visit on our canvas list, to the high school aged students working the phones after school, to elderly folks who’d never worked a phone bank in their lives – across race and disability and class – amazing!!

My gratitude flows right from my pride. I am profoundly appreciative of –

  • The people we may have contacted numerous times through phone and door knocking, who treated us with dignity – thanking us for our dedication – who didn’t feel compelled to be slam down the phone or the door, who opened their hearts no matter the number of contacts.
  • The organizations that offered their space so that phone banks and staging areas could be set up around the state.
  • The religious leaders who spoke out against the ban – naming the truth about what really threatens Wisconsin families – poverty, unequal access to education, addiction.
  • The people who brought us food, coffee, water and soda as we spent hours with phones glued to our ears.
  • Those who find this work so very challenging – right out of their comfort zone – who did it anyway because they understood why it had to be done.
  • The young woman who called me while I was making phone calls. I had called her to remind her to vote. Shortly after we’d hung up, my phone bank extension rang – not a typical happening. When I picked up, it was the young woman, asking where she could go to help.
  • The poll workers who had a long day too – with our city voter turn-out high, they saw a steady stream of voters and got very few breaks in their 13 + hour day.
  • The staffers at Fair Wisconsin and Action Wisconsin who have worked insane hours, often running on empty themselves, to keep things moving.
  • The young woman who worked our call site, who enlarged all my phone lists to make them easier to read, found comfortable seating for the person with her leg in a cast and open space for someone else in a wheelchair to accommodate or diverse needs so we could be effective in what we were doing.
  • Those who I know and those who I've never met who donated money and sponsored house parties as fundraisers.
  • Again, those known to me and those not who found their center and their courage to talk about this issue and whose stories we may never know.
  • The friend who sent me a beautiful Maya Angelou poem this morning that really speaks to the bittersweet ness of this day.
  • The other friend who called to offer her support as I go into another day tomorrow of meeting new clients and working with them around the importance of respect and care of differences.
  • And still another friend who I swapped stories of pride with about our two different campaigning experiences.
  • My partner and my children – just because they are my family.

Often the big picture optimist, I also feel hopeful, because –

  • The issue of fair treatment of Wisconsin’s gay, lesbian and bisexual citizens and our families is no longer a “closeted” issue and that we have gained some amazing allies along the way.
  • I believe the tide may be turning – albeit if slowly – on our political climate. I feel hopeful to see our democratic governor re-elected, see us gain some seats back in our state legislature and see the House of Representatives again turn in a fair-minded direction.
  • The candidates here who aligned themselves with our issues were elected handily to their offices, despite being told that they would be committing political “suicide” by standing up for “gay rights.”
  • 70% of voters under the age of 30 voted against the constitutional ban.
  • So many young voters turned out at the polls, many voting for the first time in their lives. A friend who worked a polling place on the University of Wisconsin campus reported taking many pictures of students voting (at their request) for the young people to text message off to friends and family – very proud of themselves for voting.

Along with these feelings that fill my heart co-exist the ones that sadden and burden my heart.

I am angry, because –

  • The Associated Press called the results early in the game – before our polls were even all officially closed! We had one polling site still open under a judge’s order. The site (a high school on our side of town) had received a bomb threat earlier in the day. The building, including the 2,400 students, the faculty and all pollsters had to be evacuated. All voting machines were moved outside and voting continued while the building was searched for explosives. The site was allowed to stay open an extra hour to accommodate the transition out and then back into the building. That site still had ten more minutes to accept voters by the time the AP had called the election.
  • The State Elections Board distributed voter registration information that was unclear and confusing. I don't believe this had anything to do with the outcome of the election - it just troubles me greatly that with something so important more care wasn't taken in conveying a complete and accurate message.
  • The “yes” campaign” people would not let any press into their “victory” party last night – while I try very hard in my life to not run up my escalator of assumptions too quickly, it does beg the question of why this was a “closed door” event.
  • Despite having record turn-outs in many places around the state – particularly in our county which was really pushing for the “no” vote on the amendment, we still saw only about a 50% turn-out and we think this is “good.” There are places in the world where people travel miles to vote and risk their lives. There are countries that declare Election Day as a holiday to create more equal access to voting – and we’ve become so complacent that if the weather is bad, the lines or too long or we’re just “too busy” we don’t step up to participate in the political process.

My anger taps into my rage – rage that

  • This ban was even put forth in the first place – that key leaders used a “hot button” and emotional issue for their own gain. While the voters of the state of Wisconsin are starting to see these people for what they are (some of most hateful people lost their seats), they have carved out their legacy and it will take time and energy to undo the damage.
  • Fear was the motivating theme used by the “yes” campaign.
  • Ignorance of the law was used to manipulate voters. In Wisconsin before the constitutional amendment even passed, it was illegal for same-sex couples to marry and our state does not recognize civil unions granted in other states. This constitutional change just thickens the layers of pollution – illegal is illegal. And it risks the benefits we do hold through domestic partnerships.
  • Despite many logical and well-researched arguments from diverse communities (business leaders, educational leaders, some religious leaders) that this ban would be bad for Wisconsin citizens in the end, people either operated out of fear or didn’t fully examine their decision and voted “yes.” So much for logic and deductive reasoning.
  • Discrimination based on people’s differences continues to exist at all and that homophobia through jokes, slurs, emotional and physical violence is still allowed to exist in our society – in families, schools, work places and the larger community.
  • People use their religion to wield weapons of hatred. My understanding of Jesus’ teachings is that they are about acceptance and compassion (perhaps I missed something at Vacation Bible School). I can’t help but think Jesus would be jumping off his cross in a fit of rage to witness the hatred all wrapped up in his name.
  • The true threats to our families – poverty, discrimination, unequal access to education and chemical addiction still exist and people still wring their hands over what to do about these issues.

I have incredible grief and heart-ache when –

  • I look into the big round bewildered eyes of my daughters as they try to comprehend why people would even want to create a ban against our family in the first place and then why people would vote to constitutionalize it. Our older daughter questions why we say “liberty and justice for all” during the pledge when we vote to make sure it is not true.
  • I think about the elderly woman I talked with yesterday who said she’d already voted and that she’d voted for the ban – using a tone of voice that radiated “so there you go missy” and I think what her life must be like if she takes pride and finds satisfaction in the disparaging and unkind way she talked to me. Is her life experience so disempowered that she needs to take solace in making sure she lets me know she has treated badly (I am less troubled by her vote than her behavior on the phone).
  • I think of the countless hours spent defending people’s basic human rights when we could be doing other things – like caring for the sick, teaching, reading to our children, caring for the environment, singing, walking in the woods, enjoying life.
  • I think of the tens of thousands of us who dedicate our professional and personal lives to social justice as we witness backlash moments like this. To quote myself on something else I wrote awhile back “it’s like spitting in the ocean and expecting the pH level to change.”

I feel exhausted

  • My ears literally have sores on them from holding a phone to them for hours/days on end.
  • My eyes are tired from reading lists of numbers and addresses. I have renewed respect for those working at substandard wage, whose livelihood is dependend on telemarketing, after all of these phone calls.
  • I’m tired from sleepless nights wondering what the day-to-day ramifications of this will be – will we lose my health insurance, will we lose Gemma’s

And amazingly, I also feel enlivened to keep going, to take what is hopeful and what I’m proud of to gather those allies and to hitch a ride on that hoped for turn of the political tide. Often when I introduce myself to new client groups I tell them that I do this work because of my daughters and all children – that I want to help hand them a legacy where compassion and respect for all people are the norm – an everyday occurrence. So as one friend said to me this morning, “we stand at yet another threshold” and I wonder how will be walk through it and which path will be follow.


barb h said...

Denise, thank you for sharing your feelings with such eloquence (as usual), and with such compassion. I didn't think it possible, but my respect for you is even deeper.

Anonymous said...

Denise, you are wise,compassionate, articulate, and so very gracious in the face of all the ignorance sold as fear. Proud to be your sister! Even prouder still that the future voices of this compassion and honesty will come from our daughters.....small voices asking good questions and paying attention to the world around them.
Much love~Dawn

Sonya said...

Wonderfully said!

-llm. said...


I felt so sad when I heard the news that the ban in Wisconsin passed. Knowing your family has enriched my life and, like your daughters, I find myself bewildered by the hate and fear that would condemn your family. I would support marriage for all regardless but, knowing your family, makes it more personal and I grieve for the despair you must be feeling. You always inspire me with your ability to see the big picture -- in your position, I'm afraid that grief and rage would be all I was feeling just yet.

Anonymous said...


There is so much beauty and heart in what you say here...your words are a testimate to why this struggle will ulitmately push forward in our favor.
Thank you dearly for your sacrificies in making our community a more humane place. You are paving history!

Bless you and your family.