Joan Downs was the first celebrant at the Capitol.
Word spread on Friday afternoon that U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb had ruled Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. And in Madison, that could mean only one thing: party at the Capitol!
But at 4:30 p.m., only a single woman hung out on the marble steps at the State Street entrance. She wore a pride T-shirt, though, so I took that as a good sign.
Sure enough, reporters and photographers trickled in. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which had filed a lawsuit in February seeking to overturn the ban, set up a podium. Cardboard placards started popping up: "Love Wins. Support Marriage Equality."
In the surest sign that a joyous celebration was about to break out, the Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus warmed up by the Capitol entrance. Franzo Law II, a member of the chorus and a UW postdoctoral student, said the group's director had put them on notice that Judge Crabb might issue a decision. He and the other members were ready to spring into action at a moment's notice with "Chapel of Love."
Law was there with his husband, Alexander Law, whom he'd married last year in Iowa. The two of them explained how complicated things can get when the federal government recognizes your relationship and the state government doesn't.
"Wisconsin is lagging behind its Midwestern neighbors," Franzo said.
Well, not today. Iowans are surely gnashing their teeth now that Wisconsin has finally caught up with them.
The huge crowd of wildly cheering Madisonians still hadn't materialized when Kristin Hansen of the ACLU took the podium. Speaking to a group of mostly journalists at the State Street entrance, she said that Judge Crabb "sees no reason why same-sex couples should be excluded from the freedom and liberty that are the cornerstones of the U.S. Constitution." The Constitution, she added, "does not have an asterisk after it."
Hansen introduced two of the eight couples who were plaintiffs in the case: Pam Kleiss and Salud Garcia, and Johannes Wallmann and Keith Borden. Kleiss expressed relief that she and Garcia, who've been together for 18 years and have a daughter, could "put this unmarried part of our relationship to the side."
At least for now. Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who fought the ACLU to uphold the marriage ban, is seeking an emergency injunction in federal court. On this joyous day for many in Wisconsin, Hansen's message to Van Hollen and his fellow Republicans was basically: chill.
"There's still time to change your mind, guys," she joked.
As the journalists dispersed, I caught up with the woman in the pride T-shirt who'd been first on the scene. Her name is Joan Downs, and she'd seen news of Judge Crabb's ruling on Facebook. Naturally, she made a beeline for the Capitol.
Downs was the opposite of giddy. She chose her words carefully, acknowledging the solemnity of the occasion. "I am a firm believer in constitutional rights for everyone," she said. "I want to thank the ACLU and the couples who brought the suit. They're very brave. It's a hard thing to do."