Photos: 7 couples from Wisconsin share why marriage matters

In November 2006, same-sex couples in Wisconsin had their love and their families put on trial - their relationships were being attacked and their lives were being considered by the people of Wisconsin, who were asked to vote on a constitutional amendment restricting the freedom to marry to different-sex couples. The thousands of same-sex couples in Wisconsin saw their freedom put to a vote - and on November 8, as the ballots were counted, the votes stood against them: Anti-gay forces had succeeded in amending the Wisconsin Constitution to ban same-sex couples from marrying and deny respect to these families.

Soon after the election, Madison-based nonfiction writer Will Fellows, WI, joined forces with photographer Jeff Pearcy in Milwaukee to help the people of Wisconsin understand who was hurt by this anti-gay amendment. "We wanted to create an exhibit that would offer a window into the lives of same-sex couples in committed relationships," Will said about the project, which took shape as Shall Not Be Recognized: Portraits of Same-Sex Couples, a traveling exhibit, book, and website.

 Shall Not Be Recognized, which included 30 couples who had been together for periods ranging from 7 years to five decades, debuted its first exhibit in Milwaukee in Fall 2007. In the six years that followed, it traveled to more than 15 additional showings. In that time, Wisconsin passed a law extending limited domestic partnership to same-sex couples, providing for them some of the protections of marriage, but not all of them - and they cannot access any of the federal protections of marriage. We have seen time and again that marriage is the only way to ensure that same-sex couples are treated equally to different-sex couples. 

Here, Freedom to Marry catches up with seven of the couples who participated in the Shall Not Be Recognized portrait exhibit. They share how life in Wisconsin has progressed in six years and discuss the impact of this year's Supreme Court ruling striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

John Payton & Roger Hansen

Together Since September 20, 1998 

John and Roger fell in love in Chicago in the late 1990s, shortly after they bonded during their first date. "On the first date, our conversation went quite deep," Roger explained. "We talked about something you usually avoid on a first date - the recent deaths of loved ones - and at one point, we both became tearful. John reached out to clasp my hand, and our relationship developed rather quickly and naturally after that. It did not take long for people who met us to assume that we had been together for a long time." 

In 2002, they shared in a spiritual (but not legal) Quaker marriage ceremony in Evanston, IL. "We are as married as any other couple," John said. "But we would like to have official recognition of this."

Eight years ago, shortly before the state of Wisconsin passed its anti-marriage constitutional amendment, Roger and John moved to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. They entered into a domestic partnership, and while they declared their commitment to each other in their Quaker ceremony, they look forward to the day they can truly marry in Wisconsin. "In our social and spiritual circles, our relationship is fully acknowledged," Roger said. "But when we meet people with whom we are less acquainted, it would help them to understand and respect the depth of our relationship - to understand that we are married."

Read Roger and John's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized 

Wendy Pologe & Mary Thoreson

Together Since January 25, 1981

When you ask Mary and Wendy when their anniversary is, the answer is harder than you may think. "We met in the early '80s and became friends," Mary said. "We went to UW Milwaukee together, and we would eat lunch together, and then we fell in love. We had a joining ceremony in 1985. We are domestic partners in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee County, in the city of Milwaukee, and as a state employee." And they await the day they can legally marry in their home state of Wisconsin - but they may get a marriage license in a different state sooner so that they can access the federal protections of marriage. 

"We need fewer anniversaries," Mary laughed.

She and Wendy live in Milwaukee with their son, Daniel Gerard Thoreson Pologe. And the need the freedom to marry in their home state. "We want to finally stop being second class citizens," Mary said. "We are married in spirit, life, and love. We aren't married legally - but make no mistake, we are joined in love and struggle forever." 

It's something of a mantra for Mary and Wendy - that phrase, "Joined in love and struggle forever," adorned the cake at their joining ceremony in 1985. "We smile and laugh so much together, and we care so deeply about each other," Wendy explained. "We want to keep growing together. We want to be old together. We have struggles - but there's this love. She still melts my heart."

Read Mary and Wendy's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized 

Gerry Coon & Stewart Dempsey

Together Since June 21, 1986

When Stewart Dempsey came out as a gay man in 1986, he explained that he was gay and that he was on the market for a "husband." And when he met Gerry Coon that summer in 1986, he quickly saw that Gerry was the man he wanted to settle down with.

"I kept telling Stu that he was too young to settle down," Gerry said, explaining that Stewart was 21 at the time - and that Gerry was a bit more established, at 28. "But I came to understand that Stu really was pretty special. He was a very grown-up 21-year-old, an incredibly kind, gentle man who's the nurturer in our relationship."

For about a year, Gerry and Stu dated long-distance, from Madison to Milwaukee, and when Stewart graduated from college in 1988, the men bought an old Victorian in a Milwaukee neighborhood. They've lived there ever since - Gerry now leads an agency serving children with special needs and Stewart is the co-owner of an antique and garden center.

 Gerry and Stu never thought that the freedom to marry would be so in reach in their home state. "We both expected that marriage would not be a big deal to us - but suddenly it has become a big deal because it seems so possible," Gerry said. "When the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA in June, it was suddenly clear that a legally valid marriage was not only possible - but probable, eventually, here in Wisconsin."

"I think we had protected ourselves over the years by simply making the unobtainable unimportant," Gerry added. "But now - things have changed."

Read Gerry and Stewart's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized. 

Sherrie Howe & Joanne Andreshak

Together Since April 1, 1979

Sherrie Howe knows how important the freedom to marry is. When she lost her partner - her "better half," she explained - over a year ago, she saw that their commitment of over 30 years commanded very little legal respect in the eyes of the state and federal government. "We took measures to protect ourselves and our assets - but I was forced to abide by rules that married couples do not have to follow," Sherrie said. "I sit here hurt and angry that in 2013, while Wisconsin was the first state to pass gay rights legislation for housing and employment, we are way behind, and we continue to be treated like we don't exist."

When Sherrie and Joanne sat down to share their story and photo with Shall Not Be Recognized, they had been together for nearly 30 years. And their interactions demonstrated that long commitment to each other. "We're very compatible," Sherrie said at the time. "If there's a problem, we talk about it and don't let outside influenced in our way. My brother-in-law once commented to somebody, 'Did you ever notice Sherrie and Joanne? They have words for a few minutes and then it's over and done with, like nothing happened!"

In that same photography session, Sherrie and Joanne talked about their perspective on the future, with Sherrie explaining that Joanne is her "eternal flame." "I think there's going to be a gay heaven," Joanne said during the photo sheet. "The guys are going to design and decorate it - and the women will fix everything that's broken!"

Read Sherrie and Joanne's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized. 

David Jones & Anthony Balistreri

Together since March 21, 1989

Next year, David and Anthony celebrate their 25th anniversary together - and their dream would be to have the chance to legally marry in their home state on the day. They promised their commitment to each other in a holy union ceremony at a Methodist church in May 1993, and they're registered as domestic partners in Wisconsin - but, of course, being able to marry in the state would bring with it the legal and societal understand that David and Anthony love each other and want to protect their commitment as much as possible.

"We would be willing to get married in another state - but that's if and only when we can come back to Wisconsin and have it recognized like any other marriage would be," Anthony said. "The DOMA decision in June was a wonderful step forward - it finally felt like my relationship meant something - but we want and need this to happen in Wisconsin."

Wisconsin is important to David and Anthony - they've lived together in the east side of Milwaukee since they bought a house together about a year after they began dating. Their house is truly a home - a testament to their relationship and their commitment to each other. It's a well-known property in the city of Milwaukee - in the front yard, several old cars are "planted" in the ground, emerging from the grass like flowers - and it's been a home for nine dogs, which the men have raised over their 25 years together. "I think we have a pretty good thing going," David said when he spoke with Shall Not Be Recognized six years ago. "Yeah," Tony added. "What we have grows every year."

Read David and Anthony's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized. 

Peggy Morsch & Kathy Kerson

Together Since May 24, 1994

For Peggy and Kathy, last summer's Supreme Court ruling gutting the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act was a watershed moment: A decision that opened up opportunities to same-sex couples and their families in all 50 states of the country. "We'll certainly be traveling to another state to marry in the near future," Peggy said, adding, "We've always been married in heart - but the legal recognition of our relationship and the ability to be under the same federal umbrella as heterosexual married couples is at the heart of the fairness issue - at the heart of what we've been fighting and waiting for!"

When they return to Wisconsin as newlyweds, however, the women understand that the state will deny them the respect of marriage. Despite this, after nearly 20 years together, Peggy and Kathy are very hopeful that soon, they will have the chance to share in the freedom to marry in their home state of Wisconsin.

"It'll be a long process," Peggy said. "But it will be worth waiting for. I'm optimistic that we'll get there soon. And it'll only move faster as LGBT people continue to come out to family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and be seen by others as a whole person who feels good about themselves."

"We believe that the marriage equality train has left the station," Kathy and Peggy said. "There are just a few more stops it needs to make before we have marriage in all 50 states."

Read Peggy and Kathy's fully entry in Shall Not Be Recognized. 

Gregory and Raymond Konz-Kryzminski

Together Since July 6, 1983

When Wisconsin passed its constitutional amendment excluding same-sex couples from marriage in 2006, Gregory and Raymond responded with a forthright and vehement demonstration of their commitment to each other: They legally hyphenated their names.

"When Wisconsin passed that hateful marriage amendment telling us we shall not be recognized, we thought, really?" Raymond said. "Well - recognize this: Konz-Krzyminski, all 15 characters of it!" 

Gregory and Raymond met in July 1983, and they quickly fell in love. They worked together to help raise Greg's two children from a previous relationship, and they've celebrated their love and commitment for each other several times over the years. They shared in what Raymond described as a "full blow-out, Polish wedding-style commitment ceremony," a tribute to their first-generation Polish parents. Later, they were joined together with a spiritual blessing in Wisconsin. And nine years later, when New York embraced the freedom to marry in 2011, they legally married at Christ and St. Stephens Church in New York City.

"Marriage matters because it is our culture," Raymond said. "Two people who love each other get married and live together and stay married, a symbol of their love. That is what we are about and who we are." 

Read Gregory and Raymond's full entry in Shall Not Be Recognized. 

Check out the entire Shall Not Be Recognized Exhibit