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Wisconsin latest state to face marriage lawsuit

‘Evasion’ statute prohibits couples from going elsewhere to wed

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Charvonne Kemp, Marie Carlson, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, gay news, Washington Blade, Wisconsin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality
Charvonne Kemp, Marie Carlson, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, gay news, Washington Blade, Wisconsin, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality

Charvonne Kemp (left) and Marie Carlson filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin seeking marriage rights. (Photo courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union)

Same-sex couples in Wisconsin joined others throughout the country on Monday in filing a lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage, but efforts there are unique because of the penalties for marrying in another jurisdiction.

The litigation seeks not only to overturn the state’s 2006 constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, but also to enjoin state official from enforcing a “marriage evasion law” prohibiting couples — gay and straight — from going elsewhere to marry if the marriage would be prohibited in the state.

The penalties of violating the marriage evasion law in Wisconsin, which is the only state to have such a statute, include up to $10,000 in fines and nine months in prison.

For Marie Carlson, one-half of one of the couples participating in the lawsuit, the marriage evasion law is of concern as she seeks recognition of her relationship with Charvonne Kemp.

“It’s illegal in the state Wisconsin to go another state and get married if you live here,” Carlson said. “I know that it’s not really all that enforced; it’s still something that hangs over your head.”

The marriage evasion law is particularly problematic for same-sex couples in Wisconsin because the Obama administration in most cases has elected to recognize same-sex marriages even if the state doesn’t recognize them — provided these couples are able to marry in a jurisdiction that allows it.

John Knight, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT project, called the marriage evasion law a “Catch-22” for same-sex couples living in Wisconsin who want to marry.

“Wisconsin is unique in that sense, and so we think that argument particularly exemplifies the harm or the animus toward same-sex couples in some parts of the country,” Knight said.

But for Kemp, it’s not the fear of prosecution for marrying elsewhere that compels her to seek the right marry in Wisconsin, but the ability to wed in the state where she’s lived with her partner for seven years and raised two sons.

“We’re completely in love, and we’d like to be married in the state that we live in,” Kemp said. “We do have options where we could obviously leave the state and go to other states and get married, but we want to be legally recognized where we live.”

The lawsuit, Wolf and Schumacher v. Walker, was filed by the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Mayer Brown LLP and is pending before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

Like other lawsuits filed throughout the country, the 29-page complaint filed by the groups in Wisconsin alleges the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Although Wisconsin and this country have taken some steps to reduce discrimination against lesbians and gays, Wisconsin’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is a striking and continuing vestige of the long history of discrimination toward lesbians and gay men,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four same-sex couples seeking to marry in Wisconsin. Along with Kemp and Carlson, who reside in Milwaukee, they are: Virginia Wolf and Carol Schumacher, who reside in Eau Claire, Wis.; Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann, who live in Milwaukee; and Judith “Judi” Trampf and Katharina “Katy” Heyning, who live in Madison.

Although Wisconsin offers same-sex couples the ability to join in a domestic partnership, enacted in the state in 2009, they don’t offer same the legal rights as marriages.

Carlson said the union isn’t enough because that union provides little assistance beyond certain health insurance benefits — and that’s only if the insurance company recognizes the partnership.

“It also goes along with the fact that last like year, Charvonne’s mother passed away, and we all had to go to New Jersey for a week,” Carlson said. “I had to use vacation time because…the company I work for didn’t recognize she was legally my partner, so I didn’t get bereavement to be able to go. So, I had to use a week of my vacation.”

The office of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the lawsuit.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, however, pledged in a statement to the Blade that he would the defend the marriage amendment.

“This constitutional amendment was approved by a large majority of Wisconsin residents,” Van Hollen said. “I believe the amendment is constitutional, and I will vigorously defend it.”

The Wisconsin litigation is among 40 pending lawsuits in 22 states throughout the country seeking marriage rights for gay couples.

Amid expectations that one will soon reach the U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling on marriage equality, Knight said it’s possible, but he wouldn’t bet on it.

“It’s one of the possibilities it might go to the Supreme Court, but the chance of that in light of all the other cases out there is probably fairly small,” Knight said. “But it could be.”

Nonetheless, if Walker continues to fight the lawsuit and a high court ruling doesn’t happen before the case is resolved, Kemp said she’s willing to take her case to the Supreme Court to fight for marriage rights across the country if necessary.

“I’m willing to go to the Supreme Court to fight for the right for everyone to be able to get married if that’s what they choose to do,” Kemp said. “It’s about marriage equality for all, not marriage equality for some, or for just us.”

For Kemp, the ability to marry in Wisconsin is not just about the legal rights that marriage would afford, but the dignity of having the access to the same union as other couples.

“However, I want to be married just like everyone else. I want it to be legal, not just for if one of us should get sick and having rights where we’re in the hospital with the other one, but also taxes, all the things that come with marriage, good and bad,” Kemp said.

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State Department

State Department releases annual human rights report

Antony Blinken reiterates criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday once again reiterated his criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act upon release of the State Department’s annual human rights report.

“This year’s report also captures human rights abuses against members of vulnerable communities,” he told reporters. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban have limited work opportunities for women, shuttered institutions found educating girls, and increasing floggings for women and men accused of, quote, ‘immoral behavior,’ end quote. Uganda passed a draconian and discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act, threatening LGBTQI+ individuals with life imprisonment, even death, simply for being with the person they loved.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the law, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The U.S. subsequently imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials and removed the country from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The World Bank Group also announced the suspension of new loans to Uganda.

Uganda’s Constitutional Court earlier this month refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.” More than a dozen Ugandan LGBTQ activists have appealed the ruling.

Clare Byarugaba of Chapter Four Uganda, a Ugandan LGBTQ rights group, on Monday met with National Security Council Chief-of-Staff Curtis Ried. Jay Gilliam, the senior LGBTQI+ coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in February traveled to Uganda and met with LGBTQ activists who discussed the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s impact. 

“LGBTQI+ activists reported police arrested numerous individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and subjected many to forced anal exams, a medically discredited practice with no evidentiary value that was considered a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and could amount to torture,” reads the human rights report.

The report, among other things, also notes Ugandan human rights activists “reported numerous instances of state and non-state actor violence and harassment against LGBTQI+ persons and noted authorities did not adequately investigate the cases.”

Report highlights anti-LGBTQ crackdowns in Ghana, Hungary, Russia

Ghanaian lawmakers on Feb. 28 approved the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill. The country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, has said he will not sign the measure until the Ghanaian Supreme Court rules on whether it is constitutional or not.

The human rights report notes “laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults” and “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex persons” are among the “significant human rights issues” in Ghana. 

The report documents Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his right-wing Fidesz party’s continued rhetoric against “gender ideology.” It also notes Russia’s ongoing crackdown against LGBTQ people that includes reports of “state actors committed violence against LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in Chechnya.”

The report specifically notes Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 24 signed a law that bans “legal gender recognition, medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person, and gender-affirming care.” It also points out Papua New Guinea is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Hungarian Parliament on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party in 2023 continued their anti-LGBTQ crackdown. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cook Islands and Mauritius in decriminalized homosexuality in 2023.

The report notes the Namibia Supreme Court last May ruled the country must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed outside the country. The report also highlights the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling against marriage equality that it issued last October. (It later announced it would consider an appeal of the decision.)

Congress requires the State Department to release a human rights report each year. 

The Biden-Harris administration in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad.

The full report can be read here.

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Caribbean

Dominica High Court of Justice strikes down sodomy law

Gay man challenged statute in 2019

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Dominica flag (Public domain photo)

Dominica’s High Court of Justice on Monday struck down provisions of a law that criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

A gay man who remains anonymous in 2019 challenged sections of the country’s Sexual Offenses Act that criminalized anal sex and “gross indecency” with up to 10 years and 12 years in prison respectively. The plaintiff argued the provisions violated his constitutional rights. 

The Dominica Equality and Sexual Expression Association and the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, a group that advocates for LGBTQ and intersex rights in the region, in a press release noted the court in its ruling affirmed “the criminalization of consensual same-sex activity between adults is unconstitutional.” The groups added Justice Kimberly Cenac-Phulgence “declared that the laws commonly known as buggery and gross indecency laws, contravenes the constitution of the Commonwealth of Dominica, namely the right to liberty, freedom of expression, and protection of personal privacy.”

“It is long past time that the dignity and dreams of all Dominicans were recognized,” said DESEA Executive Director Sylvester Jno Baptiste in the press release. “We are all God’s children, and he loves us all equally. Laws that treat some Dominicans as less than others, have no place in a just society.” 

Dominica is a former British colony that is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Lesser Antilles.  

Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2021 issued a decision that said Jamaica must repeal its colonial-era sodomy law. The country’s Supreme Court last year ruled against a gay man who challenged it. 

A judge on St. Vincent and the Grenadines’s top court in February dismissed two cases that challenged the country’s sodomy laws.

“Decriminalization helps create an environment where LGBTQ individuals can live openly without fear of persecution, enabling them to access health care, education, and employment without facing discrimination,” said Outright Executive Director Maria Sjödin on Monday in response to the Dominica ruling. “The repeal of these discriminatory laws is a testament to the tireless efforts of activists, advocates, and allies who have long fought for justice and equality. It is a victory for human rights and a significant milestone in the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights in the Caribbean.”

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Politics

Smithsonian staff concerned about future of LGBTQ programming amid GOP scrutiny

Secretary Lonnie Bunch says ‘LGBTQ+ content is welcome’

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Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, appears before a Dec. 2023 hearing of the U.S. Committee on House Administration (Screen capture: Forbes/YouTube)

Staff at the Smithsonian Institution are concerned about the future of LGBTQ programming as several events featuring a drag performer were cancelled or postponed following scrutiny by House Republicans, according to emails reviewed by the Washington Post.

In December, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III appeared before a hearing led by GOP members of the Committee on House Administration, who flagged concerns about the Smithsonian’s involvement in “the Left’s indoctrination of our children.”

Under questioning from U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), Bunch said he was “surprised” to learn the Smithsonian had hosted six drag events over the past three years, telling the lawmakers “It’s not appropriate to expose children” to these performances.

Collaborations with drag artist Pattie Gonia in December, January, and March were subsequently postponed or cancelled, the Post reported on Saturday, adding that a Smithsonian spokesperson blamed “budgetary constraints and other resource issues” and the museums are still developing programming for Pride month in June.

“I, along with all senior leaders, take seriously the concerns expressed by staff and will continue to do so,” Bunch said in a statement to the paper. “As we have reiterated, LGBTQ+ content is welcome at the Smithsonian.”

The secretary sent an email on Friday expressing plans to meet with leaders of the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, one of the two groups that detailed their concerns to him following December’s hearing.

Bunch told the Pride Alliance in January that with his response to Bice’s question, his intention was to “immediately stress that the Smithsonian does not expose children to inappropriate content.”

“A hearing setting does not give you ample time to expand,” he said, adding that with more time he would have spoken “more broadly about the merits and goals of our programming and content development and how we equip parents to make choices about what content their children experience.”

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