In a statewide referendum in 2006 Wisconsin overwhelmingly voted “I do” to the following:
“Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.”
71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties approved this wording, effectively enshrining discrimination in the state constitution. (The lone holdout was Dane County, where Madison is.)
Six years later Wisconsin once again waxed cognitive dissonance by voting Tammy Baldwin to be the next U.S. Senator — Tammy, the liberal lesbian from Madison — over four-time governor and basic poster child for all things Badger State, Brandy Old Fashioned and all, Tommy Thompson. (Yes, Tammy versus Tommy. Tommy Thompson. In Wisconsin. Where our other senator is Ron Johnson. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin. Who ousted Russ Feingold. More specifically, Ron Johnson’s from Oshkosh B’gosh pert near da Bay you betcha go you Packers go, oh sure then don’t you know. Ya wanna come with? Aw Jeez, for Cripes sakes, W’scansin! Senator elect Baldwin (though we simply call her “Tammy” down here in Dane County, where she has been our House Representative since 1999, the first openly gay non-incumbent candidate in the House and the first woman from Wisconsin to go to Congress; the first woman in Wisconsin to be voted to the Senate, not to mention the first openly gay person anywhere to be elected to the Senate) will be taking the place of retiring Herb Kohl, a fellow Democrat from Department Store Land born in 1824. Now, I’m sure Ms Baldwin will not inherit the very same committees on which Senator Kohl has sat, but for argument’s sake let’s just say she will. Why? Because the electorate of Wisconsin voted to keep status quo at least with respect to vouchsafing a Democrat in the 100-member chamber; had Sen. Kohl run for re-election, it would have been almost certain that he would have easily won against whomever, and presumably have kept his committee seats.
I don’t bring this point up flippantly. Senator Kohl sits on three particularly powerful committees:
1) the Committee on Appropriation — the largest committee in the U.S. Senate and one of the most powerful — which has jurisdiction over all discretionary spending legislation and is mandated by the Constitution;
2) the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which has jurisdiction over matters related to banks and banking, price controls, deposit insurance, public and private housing, urban development, mass transit, and government contracts to name but a few; and
3) the Senate Judiciary Committee — one of the oldest, created in 1816 — which is that much ballyhooed committee one sees and hears about whenever a president nominates someone to be the next Supreme Court justice, as it decides whether the nominee should be voted on by the entire Senate. (Two other cute factoids: the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over human rights and immigration law, and Senate procedure is such that all proposed Constitutional Amendments must first pass through the Judiciary Committee. Remember this later for the sake of irony.)
It is unlikely that Senator elect Baldwin will inherit exactly these committees, but that is more of an inside technicality upon the hill as far as the voting electorate is concerned. Regardless, Tammy is no stranger to vaunted committee appointments: as a Representative, she has sat on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has been in continuous operation since 1795 and oversees matters relating to the promotion of commerce, public health, and the marketplace.
To be a bit reductionist about this, Wisconsin has done the following with respect to Tammy Baldwin: told her in 2012 that she is qualified to be one of two only individuals representing Wisconsin in the United States Senate, though six years earlier was told in no uncertain terms that her then relationship of 11 years with her domestic partner, Lauren Azar, was invalid and statutorily unrecognizable (which bears the unspoken implication that neither Baldwin nor Azar was fit to visit one another in hospital, inherit anything in the case of death, receive nothing by way of Social Security benefits or bereavement leave from work, include each other on a health insurance plan, or file a joint tax return.*) Ms Baldwin has the confidence of Wisconsin to consent to treaties prior to their ratification, but not to enter a marriage with a consensual adult. She may appoint Cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court justices who could very readily determine the fate and trajectory of our nation, but not take her beloved to have and to hold from any day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish til death did them part. She is entrusted with trying federal officials impeached by the House of Representatives, but she herself would receive no protection against having to testify against her partner in a court of law (which “spousal privilege” you have to be straight to get).
* For an abridged list of the over 1,000 “bennies” that married couples automatically receive just on the federal level, never mind on the state and local echelons, see here. (Incidentally, Evan Wolfson’s book, Why Marriage Matters, is thoroughly researched, passionately argued, and much recommended.)
Maybe many Wisconsinites didn’t know that Tammy Baldwin is gay (though if there is a timeshare for that rock, I would love to crawl under it and chill out in such blissful ignorance for a week or so), and it shouldn’t matter — except that it does, not because sexual orientation is politically pertinent, but since the state — the people of the state via the ballot box — went out of its way to not only ban someone like Tammy from doing something she couldn’t have in the first place, i.e., enter into marriage with her partner, but to deny any legal recognition to any kind of relationship, civil union or domestic partnership, “identical or substantially similar to” marriage. But she can be our next senator, you betcha! It is this kind of bizarre double standard that honors a fallen soldier who happens to be gay, but deprives his partner of any federal veterans’ spousal benefits. This is like a perversion of JFK’s aphorism: you may serve the country, but it may not serve you.
It is probable that once the 113th Congress convenes that sometime within its tenure it will take up immigration reform, and then Senator Baldwin will be a strong voice in that national conversation — even though her home state denies her any unification or immigration-related rights associated with marriage. What does immigration or enlisting in the armed forces, or housing or banking or health care or foster care or realty or retirement or taxation have to do with being gay? Nothing, not a damn thing. As it should. But all of those rights and entitlements, privileges and responsibilities, should not be the extra perks that only straight couples get. We’ve determined that separate is not equal, now or ever, so why don’t we quit the heterosexual apartheid and keep religious bias apart from the civic core of what marriage is: a license to enter a contract between consenting adults? At least in a land predicated on the separation of church and state. Nobody should be seen as a second class citizen, much less one elected to the United States Senate, who one day — if that old saw about newly elected senators seeing in the mirror the reflection of a future president is true — could solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, but be the loving and faithful wife of none.