Marriage equality foes outnumbered in Madison

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National Organization for Marriage rally in Madison

Pro-equality demonstrators overwhelmed the National Organization for Marriage at the Madison stop of its 23-city Summer for Marriage tour. – Photo: Lucky Tomaszek

Gay male spouses attend National Organization for Marriage rally in Madison.

Michael Knaapen and John Becker of Milwaukee addressed the rally. – Photo: Emily Mills

Supporters for marriage equality outnumbered National Organization for Marriage protesters by a ratio of 8 - 1 during a July 27 duel of rallies on the streets of Madison.

NOM’s Madison stop was part of the group’s Summer for Marriage Tour, a 23-city trek to spread the group’s message of traditional, heterosexual-only unions. NOM also hopes to gather two million signatures from what executive director Brian Brown referred to as an “army for traditional marriage rights.”

But at most stops, local pro-equality supporters, alerted to the tour’s appearances via Facebook and Twitter, have overwhelmed NOM’s small cadre of marchers. In Madison about 500 counter-demonstrators faced off against the anti-equality visitors.

An hour before NOM began its presentation on the steps of the Capitol, the counter-protesters gathered at a rally orgnized by a large coalition of state and local groups, including Fair Wisconsin, the LGBT Campus Center of UW - Madison, PFLAG and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Addressing the crowd before the march began, husbands Michael Knaapen and John Becker of Milwaukee told the story of their courtship and marriage.

“Our relationship is the most special thing in the world to us, of course,” Becker said. “But it’s probably not so different than what millions of other people have. After we got engaged, though, that’s when things got complicated and became a little more unique.”

Knaapen went on to explain how the two had to travel to Canada to have a legal ceremony that is not recognized in their country. They went on to help fight for Wisconsin’s domestic partnership law.

Openly gay state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, also spoke, urging protesters not to “allow NOM to use us by getting angry so they can talk about how intolerant we are.” Instead, he suggested, it would be better to offer opponents a hug.

But some pro-equality demonstrators said they were angry and frustrated by the evangelical right’s ongoing efforts to impose its religious views on lesbians and gays in a way that limits their freedom.

“I believe what everyone here is saying (is) that everyone should be treated the same and that marriage isn’t just for certain kinds of people,” said Lori of Madison, who withheld her last name. “It needs to be for people who love each other, people who are committed.”

“This affects me personally as a lesbian and a resident of Wisconsin,” said Jackie Scott of Madison. “I feel like this is kind of important. It isn’t enough that the hate amendment passed, people from out of state have to come to our capital and rub salt in the wound.”

Several politicians currently vying for office attended the pro-equality rally. Henry Sanders, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, collected signatures for his petition to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.

“I’m here,” Sanders said, “because I want to stand by all advocates and allies of equality for all. I think marriage equality is a civil rights issue, but I also think it’s economic. One of the things we have to do is make sure we’re not a state that’s about discrimination. We want to recruit and retain the most talented workforce.”

By the time the marchers reached the Capitol, reciting such chants as “Get your hate out of our state” and “LGBT, we all want equality,” a small area had been cordoned off for NOM and its dozen or so supporters. There, after chanting “One man! One woman!” into the microphone to get things started, Brown declared, “We’re standing up for a great good. We’re standing up for the foundation of our society – that marriage, the union between one man and one woman, is something worth fighting for.”

Local traditional marriage advocates, including Bishop Robert Morlino and Julaine Appling, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Family Council, also took turns at the podium in support of NOM. All echoed the claim that same-sex marriage backers were being “intolerant” and “hateful” toward them and their message. Morlino urged listeners to “pray to open hearts and minds to see marriage only between one husband and one wife, with openness to children.”

Brown referred to an incident from the tour’s stop in Providence, R.I., where his group was met by protesters employing tactics that a NOM press release referred to as “harassment and threats.” He said the overwhelming opposition NOM has met on most stops has only inspired them more to “spread their message of respect for human dignity and the importance of marriage for children and society.”

Brown’s message reflected a new tactic of the religious right: borrowing language from the Civil Rights movement to paint evangelicals as victims of discrimination. But in Indianapolis, the tour’s last stop before Madison, it was Brown’s side that provoked charges of hate talk. A NOM supporter there carried a sign headlined “The Solution to Gay Marriage” that displayed two nooses and contained a biblical verse proscribing death as punishment for homosexuality.

Fair Wisconsin and Freedom to Marry launched an online petition drive calling on NOM to denounce the statement.

At the stop in Madison, NOM touted its electoral victories, including Wisconsin’s 2006 constitutional amendment banning both same-sex civil unions and marriage, as well as the narrowly passed Proposition 8 in California, which overturned that state’s supreme court decision to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Several recent polls in California, however, indicate that public opinion has since shifted toward acceptance of gay marriage. A lawsuit aimed at overturning Proposition 8, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, is working its way through the courts.

Coming tour dates for the Summer for Marriage tour include: July 29 in St. Cloud, Minn.; July 30 in Rochester, Minn.; Aug. 1 in Des Moines, Iowa; Aug. 3 in Sioux City, Iowa; Aug. 5 in St. Louis; Aug. 7 in Atlanta; Aug. 8 in Tampa, Fla.; Aug. 10 in Raleigh, N.C.; Aug. 11 in Charleston, W.Va.; Aug. 13 in Harrisburg, Pa.; and Aug. 15 in Washington, D.C.

– Lucky Tomaszek and Lisa Neff contributed to this story

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