What a difference a decade has made for LGBT equality in Wisconsin. During a terribly homophobic week in Congress last month, I had to stop and remind myself of that.
In 2006, Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly approved a same-sex marriage ban in the form of a constitutional amendment. A quarter of self-described liberals voted for the ban, according to exit polling. The amendment passed in 71 of 72 Wisconsin counties.
In 2016, one decade later, same-sex marriage is the law of the land.
This brings us to that bad week in May. The GOP majority proceeded to take not one or two, but three anti-equality actions. First, a bipartisan amendment I authored to restore honor and reinstate benefits for members of the military who were discharged based solely due to their sexual orientation was rejected for consideration. Veterans who have risked their lives for our country should not be discriminated against and denied benefits based on their sexual orientation.
That same week, a bipartisan amendment to strip the National Defense Authorization Act of anti-equality language allowing federal contractors to discriminate in hiring practices against LGBT individuals was not allowed to come to a vote. This was despite promises by Speaker Paul Ryan that the House would abide by regular order.
The next day, a bill to nullify that discriminatory action secured enough votes to pass, but House GOP leaders refused to accept that outcome. They held the vote open while they cajoled several lawmakers into changing their votes from yea to nay, which led to an understandable uproar on the House floor and ultimate defeat of the amendment.
The GOP majority’s willingness to openly discriminate against the LGBT community across the country simply because of who we are is out of touch with the sentiment of the majority of Americans. Public opinion has moved at a rapid pace toward equality and acceptance.
In 2011, halfway through the past 10 years, we saw the majority of the public nationwide switch to support of gay marriage. In 2012, Wisconsin elected two openly gay members of Congress. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay U.S. senator, and I was elected to Congress.
More progress was made when President Obama promised those of us in the congressional Equality Caucus that he would swiftly implement the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, which he did while Congress stalled. We’ve also had progress on transgender rights, as we move toward requiring insurers and federal healthcare programs to cover gender transitioning.
I can also see the change in public opinion as I travel around my district, which is a diverse mix of rural, suburban and urban communities. In 2014, I went to a smaller rural high school to speak to students. As a member of the House Education Committee, I make it a priority to visit schools all around my congressional district. During a Q & A period at this school, a teacher said her class regularly debates current issues by putting up symbols of a donkey and an elephant, representing the two different political parties, on opposite sides of the classroom. Students go to stand on the side they agree with and want to argue on the topic.
One class period, she said, the issue was gay marriage. As students moved toward their sides, something unprecedented happened — every single student went to the side aligned with “pro” marriage equality. An assistant teacher had to stand on the opposite side of the classroom and play devil’s advocate for the “anti” side.
And this was a school nowhere near liberal Madison.
This Wisconsin class, standing united in support of marriage equality, took place fewer than 10 years after the anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment had easily passed. I believe that those students would have also uniformly rejected the idea of permitting discrimination against LGBT individuals in hiring and in honoring their military service.
In 2006, just weeks after Wisconsin passed its constitutional ban, I traveled to Toronto, Canada, to marry my husband. I told people then I would stay in Wisconsin and keep pushing for equality in the state where I grew up. Thank you for joining me in this cause. Every step forward is taken because people like you stand up, speak up and organize.
The bad, homophobic week in Congress is further proof — if any more was needed — that we still have work in our fight against LGBT discrimination. We must continue to fight to ensure that no one faces the threat of discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identify, in hiring or military service or anywhere in their lives. The past decade is proof that working together, we can make gigantic leaps forward.
Democrat Mark Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Madison and Dane County, along with Green County, Monroe County, Iowa County, Lafayette County, half of Rock County and a sliver of Richland County.