Will wedding bells ring for these couples?
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- For most people, marriages can slow with family trifles, venue hunting or finding the perfect dress. For the minority population, what bars them from saying “I do” is the state of Wisconsin.
For two couples who have been together for more than a decade, not being able to marry is more than a white dress and a perfectly iced cake.
“It’s a civil rights issue,” said Phyllis Goldin.
Goldin and Wanda Brown have been together for almost 40 years after meeting at a poetry writers group in 1974.
“Our friends were fine with us, but it was a pretty scary time,” Brown said.
The couple have endured hate mail, hateful phone calls and a hate crime, among other things.
“We’ve been through alot, and that’s how civil rights movements go. You stand for something and some people don’t like it,” she said.
“Now we find ourselves on the cusp of history here,” Goldin said. “We never expected that within our lifetimes things would change to the point where we might actually be able to legally marry.”
Even though the “trajectory of this civil rights movement progress is a bigger distance than we could have ever anticipated in our lifetime,” Brown said they still have not achieved equality.
“I would be excited to be treated equally as everyone else,” said Euge Isherwood.
Isherwood and his partner, John Weihing, have been together since they met in 1998 in Hurley. Even though they were both from River Falls, Isherwood was there on a skiing trip with friends and Weihing was there for business.
“He came to pick me up and he realized he used to live across the street from me. We had seen each other before, but we hadn’t really connected,” Isherwood said. “We often say we were meant to be together.”
Commitment made, both couples are unable to tie the knot because the state of Wisconsin declared same sex marriage unconstitutional with a 2006 statewide amendment vote.
For same sex marriage to become constitutional, the amendment would have to be repealed and a new law put into place.
Democratic Sen. Kathleen Vinehout said this would most likely take 10 years to do, six years “if we get to work on it right now,” which she said was impossible.
Both couples said it was hard to live in River Falls and not be married, when just across the river in Minnesota they could be.
“The week the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) ruling came down, those Wednesday and Thursday nights, I couldn’t stop thinking about selling our house and moving five miles away as the crow flies across the border… and living in Minnesota,” Isherwood said.
In Wisconsin, the two are recognized as domestic partners and have done everything they can to have “legally the same as a marriage,” said Isherwood, who added: “By doing that, we still didn’t have the taxation benefits, Social Security benefits, inheritance … the same way.”
Goldin and Brown were legally married in Canada, where Goldin was born, so Brown achieved Canadian citizenship through marriage.
“Of course, Wisconsin will not honor our Canadian marriage,” Goldin said. “The irony is that (Wisconsin) honors Canadian marriages, except for our Canadian marriage, like our Canadian marriage is substantially different from other Canadian marriages.”
If they moved to Minnesota, according to a Washington County marriage official, they would be legally married, “As long as they have a document that shows they’re married.”
In River Falls, they are recognized as a domestic partnership, but Brown said, “We are a married couple. That the state of Wisconsin happens to not recognize that we’re a married couple doesn’t mean we’re not married. We’re absolutely married.”
The state of Wisconsin sees them the same as they see Isherwood and Weihing, along with anyone else in a domestic partnership.
Domestic partnerships provide “substantive” protections, said Goldin, like visitation rights, being able to dispose of loved ones and the right to sue for wrongful death. That said, she added that there were 180 state rights and more federal rights marriage provides that domestic partnerships didn’t offer.
Domestic partnerships have started to be challenged by people, “claiming the domestic partnership law, which was passed before all the republicans came into power, is unconstitutional because it is too similar to marriage, which is unconstitutional in the state of Wisconsin,” Goldin said.
“It makes us feel even more unequal. The domestic partnership benefits give us one-fifth of the marriage rights in the state of Wisconsin, so were not even equals when it comes to that,” Isherwood said. “But removing those is a sense of the direction the state would be going in.”
Weihing agreed, saying: “We’re waiting to see what happens with our state and if it does do anything by going backwards or going forwards. That’s probably the tipping point about making up our minds about (moving). We just want the same that married heterosexual couples have. The same rights, the same responsibilities, the same legal part of it.”
“We do not want our relationship to be denigrated and held as less than somebody else’s relationship,” said Goldin. “To be treated as second class citizens is unbearable.”
“There are lots of other examples of other people denied equality under the law and very seriously, we need to be granted equality under the law because it’s who we are. People, by not granting us equality, are not allowing us to be who we are,” said Goldin. “We are entitled, like everybody else, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and, until we are granted marriage equality, we are out in the woods somewhere; we aren’t being allowed our rights.”
Said Brown: “We’re not talking about religion here, and we’re not talking about the Bible; we’re talking about civil rights and whether or not the state of Wisconsin is willing and able to live up to the promise of the United States constitution which ought to afford us equal protection under the law.”
“People may not have changed their minds about the biblical part of it,” Isherwood said, “but I think fair-minded people think everyone should be able to live in the United States as equal.”
Goldin is a part-time physician in Hudson and a musician/composer who has donated the school song “Chance to Fly” to UW-River Falls.
Brown has owned Brown and Kirkwood, a sales management consulting firm, for 30 years.
Weihing and Isherwood own Chisel Point, which is a carpentry business that focuses on finishing work.