Tess Welsh and Nancy Barklage didn’t know when they woke up on that balmy Friday in June that it would be their wedding day. They’d been together 40 years by then, and they spent the day like any other — running errands together.
The ruling came down late in the afternoon — June 6, 2014. Declaring it a matter of “liberty and equality,” U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb struck down Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban, which voters had approved as a constitutional amendment in 2006, making Wisconsin the 21st state to allow same-sex marriage.
As they stopped at home to drop off a half-gallon of milk, Welsh and Barklage got a call from some friends who had been boating on Lake Mendota when they heard about the ruling from Dane County Circuit Judge Ellen Berz. By 9 p.m., those friends — one of whom showed up with her shorts still soaked from the lake — stood outside the City-County Building in downtown Madison as Welsh and Barklage, surrounded by a cheering crowd, honking cars and a steady stream of shutter-clicks, kissed and embraced after they said, “I do.”
Neither one of them thought they’d live to see the day that their union would be recognized in the eyes of the law.
“What a night — I just remember it so clearly, just the joy,” Barklage told me when I spoke with the couple a few days after their five-year wedding anniversary. “I still remember, these are people that didn’t even know us, who were … kind of pulled and drawn to the area in front of the City-County Building.”
The tenderness and awe in their voices haven’t waned since I first spoke with them the night they were married.
There are still days that their relationship of nearly a half-century feels as fresh as a fledgling romance. They still see it as their duty to make each other laugh every day — real, deep laughter. No matter the topic — a book, a movie, a news story — each one wants to know what the other thinks about it. They find as much joy in a trip to the grocery store as they do in a lobster dinner, as long as they’re together.
"Love binds," Barklage said, as Welch added, "but it's not restrictive."
They know that sounds “outrageous.” They worry it might come across as trite. And they wish it for everyone, “whether they’re gay or straight or whatever.”
In the first three days after Crabb’s ruling, 168 same-sex couples were married in Dane County.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and then-Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki kept their offices open until 9 p.m. that Friday, as other Wisconsin counties initially hesitated to issue licenses. They knew Crabb’s ruling would likely soon be put on hold pending an appeal, but no one knew how long the window would last. No one knew either that just a little more than a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court would declare that same-sex couples have the right to marry, no matter where they live.
The uncertainty made many move quickly that first day.
As soon as they heard the news about Crabb’s ruling, Shari Roll called her partner of 11 years, Renee Currie, and told her to wait in their driveway — she’d be right there to pick her up. From there, they rushed to the clerk’s office. Within an hour of the ruling, Roll and Currie stood before a rapidly growing crowd of well-wishers outside the City-County Building as they became the first same-sex couple married in Dane County, and likely the second ever in the state.
Their immediate focus was practical. After 11 years together, they’d done everything they could to ensure their partnership would be recognized in the eyes of the law should one of them face a medical emergency, and they wanted to make sure they continued to do that. But after they said their vows — surrounded by a crowd that they joke made them feel like they had a paparazzi following — the weight of the moment set in.
“It hit us. We both started to cry after,” Renee Roll-Currie told me on their five-year wedding anniversary. “We did get a bigger sense of validation.”
For both couples, marriage didn’t change the way they felt about each other. The Roll-Curries had already worn wedding gowns for a commitment ceremony in front of friends and family, and Welsh and Barklage already had grandchildren together.
But a marriage license conferred a feeling of greater acceptance for the Roll-Curries.
And Welsh and Barklage soon found a new sense of significance in seemingly routine tasks — like being able to file taxes jointly as a married couple for the first time.
Still, challenges remain. The Roll-Curries have considered foster care or adoption, but have found that despite several court rulings to the contrary, they still face additional hurdles as a same-sex couple. Shari Roll-Currie said it feels like there is “invisible fine print” on their marriage certificate that leads some to interpret their rights differently than those of an opposite-sex couple.
And there are still those — some in public office — who believe loving someone of the same sex is a lifestyle choice, and one that the government shouldn’t endorse at any level. Hatred and homophobia continue to exist.
There’s more reason to be hopeful, though. Barklage, who remembers being pelted with stones and bottle rockets while marching in pride parades decades ago, said she feels like society now is more supportive of LGBT rights than not — and while the homophobic voices that break through are loud, they are few.
The last time the Marquette University Law School Poll asked about it, in October 2014, 63 percent of Wisconsin voters supported allowing same-sex marriage. A 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute of Wisconsin voters put that measure at 66 percent.
And last week, Gov. Tony Evers ordered a rainbow pride flag to fly over the state Capitol for the first time in Wisconsin history.
When I spoke with Welsh and Barklage, five years after their wedding night, Barklage turned my questions around on me at the end of our conversation. What did I remember about that night? How did reporting on that moment affect me?
My honest answer: It was magical. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my journalism career. As someone who spent the next several years covering politics, I know now how rare it is to report on a moment so purely full of joy and compassion. From the moment I watched them embrace, I knew Welsh and Barklage had the kind of love most of us only dream of finding. Both times we’ve spoken, I’ve found myself hanging on their every piece of relationship advice and admiring the love and respect between them.
"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,” Barklage told me that night.
For having met them, for having met the Roll-Curries, for living in a city and a state that honor and celebrate the love they’ve found — I, too, am blessed.
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