UPDATE: On October 6, the United States Supreme Court denied review in five marriage cases including a case from Wisconsin. The decision allowed the lower court ruling to stand, bringing the freedom to marry to Wisconsin.
For many families, especially those with children, Christmas morning is a special time, filled with presents, expressions of love, and dreams coming true.
But last December 25, Tommy Hanna took that magic feeling of Christmas to the next level when he enlisted the help of his partner Paul's five children to pull off a beautiful and moving marriage proposal.
Tommy passed off a wrapped sign to each of the kids, urging them to unwrap them at the same time. Each of the kids held up their sign, revealing the message: "Paul, Will You Marry Me?"
Paul's daughter shrieked, spelling out the message and understanding what it would mean for her dad and for Tommy. "I'm gonna be a bridesmaid!," she exclaimed. Watch the full video:
Paul, Tommy, and the children have become a fast family, bonding more and more with each month as the couple's relationship developed.
The men met at Tommy's restaurant and lounge in Madison more than three years ago, and they eventually went on a date. Tommy was nervous about dating a man with five children, but he saw quickly that the kids were where Paul derived so much of his passion, and suddenly, everything clicked.
"The first date was enlightening, because I got to know him on a different level," Tommy said. "I got to hear how he takes care of his kids, takes care of himself, and still has this joyful look on his face. And that's what captured me."
"We dated for a long time, and I didn't introduce him to my kids for a while because I'm very protective of them," Paul added. "But now, they really do view him as a father. My daughter went to school and told us that the kids there said they were jealous she was going to have two dads."
But despite the fact that they're building a life for their family in Wisconsin, they know that their home state does not allow them the freedom to marry. And that insecurity leaves them feeling less secure than any other married couple in Wisconsin.
"There are benefits and protections that we should receive by being married that we won't be able to receive here," Paul explained, citing in particular that he is unable to add Tommy to his insurance plan.
Beyond that, there are logistical struggles to planning a celebration of love and commitment in front of friends and family members when the state will not issue them a marriage license.
"It would be easier for us if Wisconsin could recognize our marriage," Paul said. "Tommy's mom has a hard time traveling, and it's silly that we should have to travel somewhere else to get married. We're surrounded by three states that do respect marriages, and that's definitely an odd feeling. I'm hopeful that one day, the entire nation will respect our marriage."
It's important to Tommy and Paul that they're able to say "I do" in Wisconsin in front of their family members. After all, their relatives have each come so far in growing to support their love and understanding their commitment to each other.
Paul was raised in a large Mormon family, moving around the country often because of his father's tenure in the U.S. Air Force. When he moved to Wisconsin ten years ago and eventually came out, he said it was a challenge to explain to his family members.
Before meeting Tommy, who faced similar fears coming from a Lebanese family, Paul struggled with leading his life as an openly gay man. But with time came acceptance, and his loved ones grew to understand the power of Paul's honesty.
"I wanted to take a stance for my kids, to show them that you deserve to be happy," Paul said. "And a year after I came out, my oldest son came up to me and said, "you're happy now daddy, aren't you?'"
Tommy and Paul are glad that their children were a part of their wedding proposal - and they're looking forward to them being a part of their wedding. But they want that to be in Wisconsin, at home. They need the freedom to marry in Wisconsin, and they need to be respected as a married couple at home.
Photos by Rolando Cruz