Great Trip North Part I – Wisconsin Rapids

Lindsey & Ingrid at the Wisconsin Rapids signOn our way from Madison to Superior on Saturday, Lindsey, Ingrid and I took detour to Wisconsin Rapids for the monthly potluck of the Central Wisconsin Rainbow Association. The Rainbow Association has been around since 1997, as the only social and support organization in central Wisconsin (outside of the universities).

Joan and Jackie were there. I had worked with them before for an article about the amendment in Central Wisconsin Sunday. They both laugh frequently and heartily. Together, they founded the Footstep Fellowship after moving to the area and finding that area Christian churches were not welcoming to LGBT people. The Fellowship is a Christian ministry for gay people and people who support them. They now meet in the First Presbyterian Church of Wausau, which is considering becoming a “More Light” church—meaning opening and affirming or welcoming to LGBT people. Jackie and Joan say this church and a few others in the area have made important strides recently in recognizing the dignity of LGBT people and their families.

Another member of the group told me he had moved to Wisconsin Rapids several years ago to operate a local business. He had been openly gay for almost 20 years, but after moving to central Wisconsin he felt forced to closet himself. The constant pressure of not being out in his daily life was difficult, but truthfulness about his sexuality might have cost him his safety and the success of his business. The Rainbow Alliance had been instrumental to finding a community where he could be himself. Fortunately, he told me the climate in the area had improved in the past few years. He is now out to more people and has avoided any bad experiences.

This man’s story is a familiar one, especially in Wisconsin’s smaller towns and rural areas. I'm familiar with what it's like to be gay in a small town. When I was a high school student in southeastern Ohio in the early 1990's, I had a boyfriend for two years. Even though we weren't out to anyone except for a few friends, we were constantly harassed at school by people who assumed we were gay. I constantly worried that it would only get worse if people knew for certain.

After we sat down to eat, the Rainbow Alliance members shared conversations they’ve had with coworkers and neighbors about the ban on civil unions and marriage. Even though they all worry about the consequences of being out and trying to persuade people to oppose the amendment, they've had many positive experiences. One of the women put petitions against the amendment in her workplace. She didn’t discuss it directly with anyone, and figured that most coworkers would not sign it. But after a few days, a majority of her coworkers had signed, including a few people she had assumed to be rigidly opposed to equality for lesbian and gay couples.

The stories from the Rainbow Alliance members were a reminder that the proposed constitutional amendment in Wisconsin is about more than the amendment or even the issue of equality for same-sex couples. It’s a conversation about LGBT people on a much more fundamental level. So many Wisconsinites don't know openly LGBT people. So many people are still uncomfortable even saying the word “gay.” This campaign will undoubtedly help more people statewide get to know LGBT people and those who love them—and challenge the misinformation and fear about who we are.

Brave people in places like Wisconsin Rapids will step up and make this issue more real and personal for their neighbors and coworkers. It's not going to be easy, but pushing ourselves to be more open about who we are and what our lives are like is the best tool we have to combat the amendment.

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A Fair Wisconsin Votes No
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