Tess Welch never thought the day would come that she could marry her partner of 40 years, Nancy Barklage, in the state of Wisconsin.
The couple moved to Wisconsin in 1979, after meeting in Missouri. They both remember being pelted with stones and bottle rockets while marching in pride parades decades ago.
On Friday night, hours after a federal judge struck down the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Welch and Barklage embraced in front of the City-County Building. Surrounded by a cheering crowd, honking cars and a steady stream of shutter-clicks, they were married.
"It's just breathtaking," Welch said. "It's beyond words."
Welch and Barklage were one of 61 couples married in Dane County after U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb issued her ruling Friday afternoon. By 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, the county had issued 100 marriage licenses.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki were the only two in the state to issue licenses to gay couples. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed an emergency motion aimed at stopping the marriages late Friday.
McDonell said his office will continue issuing licenses until a court tells him to stop.
"From my point of view, this discrimination has been going on too long," McDonell said. "Justice delayed is justice denied, and equality delayed is equality denied. I don’t know what the courts will do, but right now, same-sex marriage is legal in Wisconsin, and that’s what we’re going to do until I’m told otherwise."
Several judges and a handful of other ordained officiants performed marriages on the steps of the building after couples obtained their licenses inside. Photographers darted from ceremony to ceremony, offering couples free wedding photos. There were nearly as many volunteers on hand offering their services as witnesses on Saturday as there were couples getting married.
Stevi Hallisy of Minnesota was visiting her sister Kris Hallisy when they learned the ban had been overturned. The pair showed up at the City-County Building when it opened at 9 a.m. Saturday to act as witnesses for couples in need.
Stevi and her partner, Vickie, were married in Canada in 2007. Vickie died about a year ago, just a month before Minnesota's law allowing gay marriage took effect. Stevi was able to have the death certificate retroactively amended to reflect their marriage. It makes "all the difference in the world" to have their bond legally recognized, she said.
"There’s so much validation in who you are," Stevi said. "The whole person, in every aspect. So many people think that, they hear the word 'homosexual' and that’s all they hear, is the 'sexual' part. And there’s so much more to a relationship, in every aspect. I supported my partner in 20 years of a cancer journey before she died. It was wonderful that in the end, the state recognized what we had always known: that we lived a marriage, that we lived a life. And a life together."
To see the same recognition occur in her home state "just means a lot."
Stevi and Kris were witnesses for Kem Highfill and Richard Rehm, the first couple in line for a license Saturday morning. Sporting boutonnieres given to them at the building, the couple of three years exchanged vows in a ceremony led by wedding officiant Carol Nimmer.
Highfill and Rehm had considered traveling to another state to get married, but when they heard a ruling would be issued soon in their own state, they decided to wait and see what happened.
In addition to the legal significance of their marriage, their wedding was about presenting themselves to the world as partners, they said.
David Crowcroft and Emanuel Fonseca had also thought about getting married in a state where it was legal — but they were glad they waited for Wisconsin's ruling as they celebrated their marriage Friday night.
They've been together since they met during Memorial Day weekend of 2000, but "now we have a new anniversary to celebrate," Crowcroft said. They both hoped one day their union might be recognized in Wisconsin, but neither expected it to happen so soon.
Wisconsin is now the 21st state to allow same-sex marriage. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison., said he's used to Wisconsin being at the forefront — and while 21 isn't quite at the top, it's an achievement he's been waiting a long time to witness.
"It’s very exciting, the fact that everyone’s now treated with dignity and respect and has the liberty to live their lives," Pocan said after arriving at the City-County Building Saturday morning.
He and his husband, Phil, were married in Canada in 2006. A co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, Pocan commended Dane and Milwaukee counties for extending their hours over the weekend to allow the marriages to take place.
Pocan urged people to use the energy from the ruling to continue to fight for equality, noting that employment discrimination and bullying are still hurdles for the LGBT community.
"We still have a lot of issues to take care of, but today’s a day for celebration," Pocan said. "We’ll keep that energy to make sure that everyone has equality in all aspects of life."
The City-County building will stay open until 5 p.m. Saturday, and will re-open with its regular hours on Monday.
At least one couple from Brown County came to Madison hoping to be married on Saturday, but licenses can only be given to couples in which at least one person is a resident of Dane County.
"I hope in counties across the state that couples go in and demand their right to marry," said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. "It’s clear the amendment and the statute were struck down as unconstitutional, and I think it really is incumbent upon all county clerks to recognize that ruling, the rule of the law, which is that all couples are legally entitled to marriage."
Because Crabb did not stay her ruling but also did not issue an immediate injunction to block enforcement of the ban, a heated debate ensued on Friday over whether gay couples could indeed wed in Wisconsin.
"I think for couples in Dane County and Milwaukee County, the importance is they want their relationships legally recognized," said Scott Foval, regional political coordinator for People For the American Way. "And no matter what a judge rules later, they want their marriages now. We saw a giant line last night, a line here this morning, of people who want their relationships legally recognized. And that’s what it’s all about."
Foval was part of an army of volunteers who helped check documents to make sure couples in line for a license had everything they needed to obtain one.
Dane County Board Supervisor Jenni Dye was deputized Friday evening to issue marriage licenses. She came back Saturday morning to issue more.
"It’s been amazing," Dye said. "All of the small moments that added up yesterday, from couples coming in with their young children who were just so excited … to another couple whose license I did who had been together for 30 years. That sort of spectrum of people who waited 30 years, and babies who are going to grow up never knowing this is something we had to fight for — this was really meaningful."
For Welch and Barklage, there are days that 40 years still feels like four years, Barklage said. Being together for four decades with nothing to legally bind them has made their relationship and connection stronger in many ways, she said.
What's kept them together is "love, trust and respect," Barklage said. The relationship still feels fresh every day.
"The other thing I say is, we sure laugh a lot," Welch offered. "We have a very good time together."
"Just being able to literally laugh each day together and enjoy the time with family and friends — all the different families we have," Barklage said. "I feel very, very blessed. I feel blessed to be in this city, obviously, blessed to be in this state. I feel very fortunate, and I wish it for everybody — just that they can have wonderful, blessed lives."