Updated August 1, 2005 Compiled & written by Mike Fitzpatrick
Wisconsin Amendment Fight Heats Up
Six Join Action Wisconsin Board, Fundraising Increases, Statewide Labor Union Opposes Ban
Madison -- The campaign against a state constitutional ban on civil unions and marriage for gay couples has gained steam in the last few weeks as Action Wisconsin continues to expand its network of activists opposing the proposed amendment. The civil rights group also announced that along with Milwaukee-based partner Center Advocates, i t has already raised over 70% of a matching grant awarded the organizations three weeks ago. Additionally a statewide labor union representing over 3,500 workers formally announced its opposition to the Republican-sponsored bill.
On July 27 AW announced that six new members from eastern, southern, northwest and southwest Wisconsin had joined the organization’s board of directors. The new board members include Francie Ball, Peter Bock, Angie Nichols, Beth Olson, Michele Perreault and Aaron Sherer, AW is the statewide advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and is leading the campaign against the amendment.
Ball, from La Crosse, has been active in LGBT advocacy in the Coulee region for nearly two decades. She has been involved with the LLN newsletter, one of the longest-lived lesbian newsletters in the country, the LGBT youth group GALAXY, and the Seven Rivers LGBT Resource Center. She and her partner Mary O’Sullivan have been together for 22 years. Ball has worked as the dietary director for Bethany St. Joseph Care Center for 16 years.
Two Superior women, Angie Nichols and Beth Olson, also have joined the board. A native of Minnesota, Nichols has lived in Superior since June 2004. Nichols is the LGBT Services Director at the University of Minnesota - Duluth. Olson has lived in Superior for eight years and works for the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault in Duluth. She and Nichols were married in Canada last year.
“I decided to get involved with Action Wisconsin because many state lawmakers want to make it even more difficult for gay couples to have critical rights and responsibilities,” Nichols told Quest. “I’m committed to informing northwestern Wisconsin communities about this amendment that would hurt real Wisconsin families, including mine.”
Olson cited concerns for the child the couple is raising. “I want to make sure that our seven-year-old daughter does not grow up in a society where hatred is not only tolerated, but is written into the constitution. We are teaching her about fairness, justice, equality and community mindedness. This amendment runs contrary to those values,” Olson said.
Nichols and Olson are planning a number of house parties and speakers trainings in the region to raise public awareness about the amendment. Last November, Action Wisconsin helped organize a town hall meeting in Superior about marriage equality and the amendment.
Oshkosh resident Aaron Sherer moved to Wisconsin from Massachusetts with his partner Paul Smith in 2002. They live in Oshkosh, where Sherer is the director of the Paine Art Center and Gardens, and Smith teaches special education at West High School. Sherer says, “When we moved here, the rights of gay citizens were essentially identical in both states. Now, Massachusetts offers full marriage equality for gay couples, while Wisconsin is moving towards banning all legal protections for our family.”
Sherer’s primary reason for serving on the board of Action Wisconsin is to help defeat the amendment in the Oshkosh area. “We like living here and would like to stay. We think we’re making a contribution to our community. But this amendment goes too far. Paul and I are each other’s family, and this amendment would hurt our ability to take care of one another.”
Sherer also serves on the boards of the Oshkosh United Way and the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a religious congregation, recently took a stance in support of marriage equality for gay couples.
In 2004, most Oshkosh-area lawmakers supported the amendment. Senator Carol Roessler and Assembly Representatives Carol Owens and John Townsend voted for it, while Rep. Greg Underheim was one of only two Republicans in the Legislature to oppose the amendment.
Also joining the board earlier this summer were former Milwaukee Assemblyman Peter Bock and Madison attorney Michele Perreault. Several other individuals from southeast Wisconsin are also in discussions about joining the AW board.
“Having these six highly qualified activists joining the board will be a major boost to our effort to increase support for equality around the state,” Action Wisconsin executive director Christopher Ott said.
The proposed constitutional amendment is likely to be on the November 2006 statewide ballot. Lawmakers passed it once in March 2004, but the Legislature must approve it a second time before it goes before voters
in a statewide election.
The amendment would not only permanently ban marriage for gay couples but would also foreclose the possibility of civil unions, which could offer many of the rights of marriage in Wisconsin, for unmarried couples regardless of their sexual orientation.. States that have already passed similar amendments are seeing them used to overturn straight and same-sex domestic partner health insurance policies and domestic violence safeguards for unmarried heterosexuals.
Action Wisconsin also is conducting a nationwide search to hire a campaign manager and additional staff to build the statewide campaign, including an organizer to be based in northeastern Wisconsin. To fund these positions the group has been aggressively raising funds in what is typically a fallow period for such outreach. Activists have repeatedly pointed to the $3.9 million raised by Oregon in its unsuccessful 2004 ban battle as the kind of money needed at minimum to turn the tide in Wisconsin. Others suggest the dollar amounts might have too be double the Oregon campaign for the lower turnout mid-term election.
In early July, the Human Rights Campaign and the Milwaukee-based Brico Fund announced their $125,000 contribution to defeat the ban on civil unions and marriage. This early investment suggested their confidence in Wisconsin’s potential to defeat the constitutional ban on civil unions and marriage. The organizations made this gift in the form of a challenge grant for the state’s citizens, gay and straight, to match that amount to support the AW campaign. AW reports that of of Quest’s deadline, supporters have responded by giving 72% of the total - over $90,000 - leaving the organization just $35,000 away from meeting their goal.
Opposition to the amendment has been growing in many communities, but there is particular momentum among people of faith. Recently, a number of regional mainline Protestant denominations voted to publicly oppose it, including three Lutheran synods and the statewide United Methodist conference.
On July 28 the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199W joined the ranks of non-gay groups taking formal positions against the amendment. SEIU is the largest and fastest growing union in North America, and this branch represents over 3,500 healthcare workers working at more than 300 facilities throughout Wisconsin.
For more information on Action Wisconsin and Milwaukee partner Center advocates, visit their respective websites at www.actionwisconsin.org and www.centeradvocates.org.