first published on WIvoices.org
HEARINGS have begun in WI Supreme Court challenging the Domestic Partnership law.
Wanda Brown and Phyllis Goldin live in River Falls, WI. The couple discuss the struggles they’ve faced as a same-sex couple for the past 40 years.
Phyllis Goldin and Wanda Brown recently celebrated their 10 year wedding anniversary, yet they long for something that most married couples take for granted – legal recognition of their union. The recent US Supreme Court decision recognizing same-sex marriage only applies to couples who live in states that also recognize those unions. If Wanda and Phyllis resided in Minnesota – a scant 15 miles west from their home in River Falls, Wisconsin – their relationship would be a “first class relationship,” encompassing full marital protections and rights. However, in Wisconsin, a 2006 constitutional amendment prohibits same-sex marriage. In addition, the WI Supreme Court is considering arguments this week which challenge the legality of the domestic partnership arrangement, jeopardizing the few precious rights same-sex couples hold.
The women who have been together for nearly 40 years tell us that in Wisconsin they are “virtual strangers in the law,” as the state moves backwards on marriage equality.
Here is their story.
Q. How and when did you meet?
Wanda: We met at a meeting of women poets of the Twin Cities in St. Paul on June 25, 1974. We still meet with that group every month and read and critique each other’s work. Well, Phyllis showed up one night, and on her first night she kind of apologized for being a songwriter instead of a poet…and proceeded to sit down at the piano and played the most amazing music. So, that was the beginning.
Phyllis: Yeah, I think we fell in love then and there, at that first meeting, although I had not thought of myself as a lesbian at all. So, it was quite a revelation to me to have those feelings at that time.
So, it was a very stimulating, creative atmosphere. In the mid 1970’s the Women’s Movement was just on fire. And we were absolutely swept up in the momentum of that.
Wanda: I always said [to Phyllis] before I met you, I never knew any lesbians. Now I know two. [laughing together] We still think that is a funny line.
But the point is, for at least the first years, we felt alone in the world. And so when we look at the progress that’s made in civil rights for gays and lesbians, in some ways it is so frustrating that it is so slow.
[For example, Wisconsin has a current law that prohibits gay and lesbian residents from legally marrying outside the state when the couple intends to reside in Wisconsin, where same-sex marriage was deemed unconstitutional.]
But in other ways it is a thrill that we’ve come this far….we couldn’t imagine in our lifetime that we would’ve seen some of the things we’ve seen.
Phyllis: We’re into our 40th year together now.
Wanda: How are things going so far? [Looking at Phyllis, smirking] Pretty well.
Phyllis: Pretty well.
Q. Phyllis, you are a psychiatrist. What is the psychology involved for generations of gays and lesbians who feel the need to ‘fight for their rights’.
Phyllis: I think that it has been very damaging to people of all ages. Back then, [1970’s] people had to conceal their identity and make arrangements to meet in secretive places.
For me, as a physician, I was warned that I had better keep quiet about being a lesbian or I would lose my training and ability to get a job at any institution treating children. There was a considerable fear that children could easily be recruited by a loud approach from a lesbian or gay person.
So, there has been a lot of mix up between homosexuality and pedophilia.
There is way too much to talk about, but one of the most severe aspects is the danger of being closeted. It is a very dangerous position. This puts a lot of people in psychological jeopardy and on the wrong track. Being closeted really played havoc with people’s relationships.
So, Wanda and I kept quiet for a while about our relationship. We were living alone, just the two of us, without a lesbian or gay friendship group. And we were just having fun with our relationship for more than a year.
Wanda: We were pretty isolated early on. Also, we were just crazy for each other, so who cared? We bought a sweet little 10-acre farm, got a dog and cats, and moved to the country. And that was a really sweet and beautiful time.
We did make a commitment very early on that whenever it was possible – that is, whenever we felt safe enough – we would be ‘out’. We would not live in the closet. We realize that the greatest risk to us was to be closeted. That was a really amazing revelation to us.
The revelation was prompted by a movie called the “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” depicting a Jewish upper class family under Mussolini. This family attempted to stay removed from what was happening under fascism, believing if they didn’t get involved they’d be saved. And at the end, they boarded a train to a concentration camp. We just wept at the end of that movie. In that moment, we promised each other that we would not hide. That was a very big decision at that time.
One of Phyllis’s colleagues told us very firmly that we had better be secret about our relationship or Phyllis would never be able to have a successful career. He warned us to be “extra careful,” because our love was so visible that anyone who dared take a look at us would notice.
We said, ‘Screw that! We’re not living that way!” Those were very interesting times…
Q. What other kinds of challenges did you face beyond professional challenges?
Wanda: I made a decision to go back to school when we met. So, I wasn’t running the same kind of professional risks that Phyllis was. Now, I’ve been running my own business for the last 30 years, and I am certainly ‘out’. Many of my clients have met Phyllis and know that we are married.
We consider ourselves activists…political activists, liberal activists, civil rights activists, and I don’t want to deny our participation in that.
On the other hand, just living our lives makes a bigger statement and little-by-little people just get to know us, are neighbors with us, are friends with us and start to think, “What’s the big deal?” I mean, we pay our property taxes, mow our lawn, and don’t have parties late into the night. So, what’s the harm in that? That kind of activism, multiplied thousands and thousands of times across the country has had a huge impact….couples and individuals saying, “I will not hide”. And I think that refusal to hide has made a huge difference in all civil rights movements.
Q. Wanda, you mentioned that it has been ‘scary at times’ in terms of how some people have treated you as a lesbian. Would you speak more about that?
Wanda: We have been subjected to a lot of vitriol over the years…interestingly and unfortunately mostly from men, who appear to be threatened by us or our relationship, and lashed out in anger.
Let me give you a few examples.
In our early years, when we lived in the country, the sheriff and another man came down the driveway to look at a wildfire on an adjacent property. We were all concerned about these wildfires. So, of course, we went out to greet them. Well, they wouldn’t even look at us. When we spoke, they completely ignored us, as though we weren’t even speaking. They drove into our driveway, got out of their car and walked into our field to take a look at this fire. We walked with them, behind them even, and they carried on as though we were not present. We tried to engage them and speak to them, and neither of them so much as looked at us. They got the information they needed by looking at the situation, walked all the way back to the car, and drove away without a single acknowledgement that they were even on our property.
[Wanda smiling, shaking her head, and laughing incredulously]
Phyllis: That was really infuriating. We’ve had a lot of verbal discrimination, hate mail, and so on- but the worst was our home being vandalized.
They poured dirty motor oil all over and left a very scary, hate-filled message on our answering machine. It scared us.
We did get a very very good investigator for the case, who said she would follow this for as long as it took. And it did take her quite a long time.
We were very frightened by it. I know my anxiety ratcheted up permanently. We didn’t know what would come next. Fire to the house? What next?
Wanda: It does undermine your sense of security and sense of belonging.
Phyllis: Home has taken on a very important significance with us, because it has been so difficult to feel at home. Here, River Falls feels like ‘home’ for us, for the first time really. And that’s why these times are so important.
We never thought we’d see the day when our relationship was a ‘first class relationship’. We’ll, it isn’t here in Wisconsin, but it is in Minnesota. Home, for me, is perhaps the most important piece in the pursuit of happiness that we are guaranteed. And we’ve been really afflicted in that pursuit over the years. So, we’ve been delighted that things are starting to turn around…that in time, and maybe by our own actions, we won’t be second-class citizens anymore.
Q. Was the Minnesota legislation that legalized same-sex marriage bittersweet, knowing you didn’t have it in Wisconsin?
Phyllis: Ah, yes. The marriage equality that was passed in MN, we were very very delighted both by it and the Supreme Court’s rulings that negated Part 3 of the DOMA Act. However, the Supreme Court ruling divided our class and has introduced a need for urgency into the situation. It can’t continue this kind of inequality without producing loads of challenges.
But I want to spend a moment congratulating Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for making “dignity” a centerpiece of his ruling. That was really an elegant priority. He kept weaving his arguments around the concept of “dignity,” in that couples joined in love and commitment deserve dignity and equality.
So, yes, we were both delighted by the US Supreme Court and Minnesota, who defeated their constitutional amendment and then adopted the equal marriage policy. And we were very keenly aware that our own people are now divided from one another – some w/ rights and protections and some, like us in Wisconsin, without rights and protections, or very little. We do have a domestic partnership arrangement in WI, but it gives us only a few protections.
Q. Would you tell me about the differences between how policy affects you compared to neighbors in MN?
Wanda: I think what we are really doing is comparing 13 states and the District of Columbia to the rest of the country.
So, approximately 1100 federal laws apply to any married couple (regardless of gender) in those states with marriage equality laws.
In the state of Wisconsin, only heterosexual married couples have those federal protections, along with about 250 protections provided by the state of Wisconsin.
For (Wisconsin) couples like us, with domestic partnership agreements, we have about 40 protections.
I don’t want to minimize the protections that the domestic partnership does give us, but I will say that it infuriates the hell out of me that we have to have it! Phyllis and I married in Canada about 10 years ago. Phylllis is a Canadian citizen, and we married there for a very practical reason – to keep open the possibility to retire there someday. I immediately applied for and received permanent residency status. We feel good up there. Marriage equality is no big deal. Our friends and family are just amazed that it is such a big deal in the U.S. and that we’ve worked ourselves into such a big froth about it.
We also understand, however, that this kind of progress happens step-by-step. There are people who are very threatened and very angry and lash out in very hostile ways when civil rights progress is happening.
But for the most part, the world is moving in the right direction.
There are some states in which local municipalities have just started issuing marriage licenses due to the DOMA ruling…even if it is against the law in that particular state!
And we’re actually surprised that some very interesting changes are happening in the rules at the federal level already. For example [in August 2013], the IRS and Treasury Department made announcements that all married couples in the U.S., regardless of where you live, will file their federal tax returns as married couples. That includes couples, like us, who live in Wisconsin but were legally married in another jurisdiction.
So, when I spoke with our accountant yesterday, I told him that because of Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment in 2006, we are prohibited from filing as a married couple in the state. But we need to file as a married couple on the federal level!
Phyllis: So, we are going to have two different conditions for the taxes. I don’t know how they are going to solve this. It will probably have to come before the Supreme Court, because the fact is that our community is divided between those who have rights and those who don’t.
Wanda: Can we talk about our ages, or are you shy about that relative to social security?
Phyllis: We can talk about our ages relative to anything
Wanda: Ok, here’s the social security situation. Phyllis is 71 and I am 62. She’s taking social security now. I’m going to delay until I’m 70. However, when I turn 66, if social security recognized our marriage (we’d have more options).
If we stay in Wisconsin, we (have less options).
What, then, are we going to do?
[Laughing, throwing up hands]
Here’s the thing – you can not have a nation of 50 states and treat people differently state-by-state…it cannot work. Phyllis has said, ‘we are the underclass of the underclass’ by living in here in Wisconsin.
Phyllis: It is a strange time. On the one hand – we all want to live in interesting times. But, I’d rather have a little less interest at the moment.
Wanda: When I vote, I remember that Susan B Anthony died without the vote. She worked her whole life to vote when she couldn’t. We have to have the long view and celebrate the progress that is made, knowing that the work we do paves the way for younger people ahead of us.
So, we were at the beach in Hudson recently, and there were some high school kids tough talking with each other. One of the girls said in a disdainful tone of voice, “That’s so gay.”
So, I asked her, “When you said, ‘that’s so gay’, what did you mean by that?”
The kids all went quiet.
Then, she asked me, “What do you mean?”
I repeated, “When you said, ‘that’s so gay’, what did you mean by that?”
A boy jumped in to say, “Oh, She didn’t mean anything by that.”
Then, I said to them, “It’s not cool to say that. It’s not cool to say that.”
So, the kids growing up now that are gay are in a rough spot. They are not old enough and grandmotherly enough to confront those kids without great risk. So, we hope that the work we are doing will make things safer.
Q. What would you say to people who say that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice rather than a civil rights issue?
Wanda: There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker a number of years ago, where an old couple was sitting in the living room and the woman reads to her husband from a paper. ‘It says here that gays and lesbians want to get married.’ And he says, ‘haven’t they suffered enough?’
But I’d rephrase your question. I’d ask, ‘how does our love hurt anybody?’ If you could show me a single person who has been hurt because Phyllis and I have loved each other for 40 years, I’d like to talk to that person. I’d like to invite that person over for a cup of coffee.
Phyllis: That being said, there aren’t many verbal things that you can say to someone who is convinced of their bigotry. Look at us. We’ve been through thick and thin to be in our relationship. I don’t think we can argue ‘we were born this way’ or whatever people say to be iron-clad about it. We can only say that we are together, we feel that we deserve to be together, our commitment is proven, and we aren’t hurting a soul. What more is there to say?
[looking at Wanda]
Do you have anything more to say?
Wanda: [smiling broadly…pausing….]
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