Wagner: Wisconsin had 'the first law in the nation that recognized gay people as a class, not just a bunch of criminals.'
The way Donna Burkett sees it, it is nobody's business whom she marries.
It's why Burkett and her partner, Manonia Evans, went to the Milwaukee County Clerk's office to get a marriage license. But because the women applied for the license in 1971, they were flatly and unapologetically turned away.
Burkett, now 68, still lives in Milwaukee but is no longer with Evans. Reached by phone Monday, she remembers the moment at the clerk's office well: "I didn't feel the government had any business telling me who I could marry or not marry."
The women made a brief splash in the news for defiantly going up against both the law and social conventions of the day.
Jet magazine covered the story, dividing the women, who are both African American, into stereotypical gender roles. The magazine anointed Burkett the "man" of the relationship, writing that "a double-take is necessary to ascertain that she is a woman."
"Although her facial features are sharp and rugged, the harshness of her manner gives way in conversation to the soft demureness of a woman."
The couple filed a lawsuit that was dismissed. They were married anyway, without a license, by a Russian Orthodox priest.
Burkett is friendly, if laconic. She downplays her role as a trailblazer for marriage equality.
"I don't think I paved the way. I did what I thought I should be doing when I did it," she says. "Everybody else is doing what they think they should be doing now."
Burkett says she doesn't have any plans to marry now that many county clerks in Wisconsin are issuing licenses to same-sex couples. But she was nevertheless surprised and happy with U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's ruling last Friday that the state's amendment barring same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
"I thought everybody had given up," she says.
Dick Wagner, who in 1980 became the first openly gay person elected to the Dane County Board and is a historian of the gay rights movement, remembers Evans and Burkett's attempt to get a license. However, most activists at the time were focused on more basic rights.
It was still a crime in the 1970s for people of the same gender to have sex in Wisconsin. And it was legal for an employer to fire someone simply for being gay.
The Stonewall riots -- the landmark pushback by gays and lesbians against police harassment in New York City in 1969 -- inspired people around the country to demand equal rights.
"I don't think anybody thought [marriage equality] was on the political agenda," Wagner says. "Following Stonewall, the gay community was working on a political agenda that focused on nondiscrimination and consenting-adult bills."
In 1972, the Southern Wisconsin Colony and Training School, a state school for developmentally disabled children, fired Paul R. Safransky for being openly gay. Safransky appealed his termination all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled against him.
A decade later, Wisconsin began to make significant strides. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to pass a law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Dane County had paved the way, passing local protections in 1980.
Wagner says of the state law: "It's the first law in the nation that recognized gay people as a class, not just a bunch of criminals."
The following year, Wisconsin passed the country's second consenting-adult law (Illinois was first), making it legal for people of the same gender to have sex, Wagner says.
Despite these advances, Wagner says, "Nobody expected marriage. Domestic-partner recognition was the best we could do back then."
'Defense' of marriage
When Joe Parisi was elected Dane County clerk in 1996, the idea of marriage equality was beginning to take hold, but opposition remained firm. Although the state officially defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, some wanted to take a stance against same-sex marriage.
As clerk, Parisi contemplated issuing a license for a same-sex couple in order to spur a legal challenge. But attorneys advised against it. "There was a fear we would lose and that would set a negative precedent," Parisi says, "and there were other states where it would be better to challenge."
Instead, Parisi coordinated with activists to draw attention to the cause on a protest day. Same-sex couples would come in and apply for a license. "We would say 'unfortunately, under state law we are forced to discriminate,'" Parisi remembers. "It was very difficult to go through, even though it was just an event to demonstrate how unfair it was."
In 2003, the same year that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowed same-sex couples the right to marry (becoming the first in the country), the Wisconsin Legislature approved a bill banning it here. Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the bill.
The following year, the Legislature took a different tack, pushing for a constitutional amendment. Wagner says the effort was part of a national campaign to force votes in several states, in order to rally the conservative base on behalf of President Bush's reelection campaign. Because Wisconsin required two consecutive Legislatures to approve an amendment, the measure wouldn't go to voters until 2006, when it was approved by almost 60%.
"To put it in the constitution was simply another slap in the face to gays and lesbians," Wagner says.
"It was heartbreaking," adds Parisi, who was then a state representative. "Now we didn't just have a statute to overturn; now we had to overturn a constitutional amendment, which is much more difficult."
He adds: "If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said it'd probably be another decade before we'd overturn that and bring equality to Wisconsin."
Hatred and acceptance
Despite the historic events of the past week, Burkett doesn't see much progress. "There's so much hatred on this issue," she says. "That's the sad thing.
"Nothing has really changed," she adds. "The only thing that's changed is more people are coming out."
Wagner sees things a little differently. The attitudes and laws have changed in large part because so many gays and lesbians have come out in recent decades.
"It's hard to maintain animosity when you find members of your family or your next-door neighbors are gay."