By now you’ve at least caught wind of last week’s decision by a three-judge panel in the U.S. Circuit Court Of Appeals declaring Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban to be unconstitutional. There’s likely to be miles worth of appeals and legalese that must be trudged through in the coming months, but the ruling is still a sizable stride in the direction of marriage equality for a state whose every border is shared by a more accepting place.
Earlier this year, on June 6, Wisconsin enjoyed its first taste of absolute marital freedom when the gay marriage ban was originally ruled to be unconstitutional. Throughout that weekend (which, perhaps intentionally, occurred during Pridefest), couples flooded Milwaukee County Courthouse—some of whom likely assumed the ruling would quickly be cast into the state of limbo in which it currently resides—so that their love could be legally recognized by the state they call home.
That momentous Friday afternoon, ordained minister Erik Koepnick performed Wisconsin’s first same-sex marriage. All three men appeared on the cover of a June issue of Wisconsin Gazette. Not pictured was Koepnick’s husband, Ryan. That very same day, the two were also hitched.
So why is an image of an openly gay pastor on the cover of a periodical important to me, an atheist with a girlfriend who co-founded a different publication? From August 2003 through May of 2004, as 18-year-olds living away from home for the first time, Koepnick and I shared a 12’ x 16’4” x 9’ room on the ninth floor of UW-Oshkosh’s South Scott Hall as randomly assigned roommates. Though the likeness was unmistakable, the beaming, proud officiant on that alt-weekly’s cover looked markedly different than the fellow freshman with whom I shared crowded quarters more than a decade ago. Koepnick and I transitioned from roommates to across-hall acquaintances our sophomore year. That second year, he subtly came out to me—though, in all my now-shameful teenage presumption, I guessed as much when he assured me he would supply the flamingo lighting, his copy of Hedwig And The Angry Inch on DVD, and virtually everything else via email the summer before we moved in together—and I was both glad he could mouth the words, and that he decided to share them with me.
As has been known to happen, we lost touch after college. After we each lived elsewhere for a few years, we eventually both wound up in Milwaukee. Save for chance meetings at a farmer’s market, the grocery store, and pleasantries exchanged at a Bay View tavern a couple years back, we mostly kept to ourselves. However, in finding he’s grown more comfortable with his sexuality, and has not only renewed his relationship with religion, but has incorporated it into his very being, I wanted to learn more about his unique balance during this pivotal time in Wisconsin history. As the fate of so many was (and still remains) suspended in uncertainty, I solicited an impromptu college reunion with the minister. After our discussion, I’m now realizing that, despite sharing a cramped concrete bunker with him for a year, I didn’t really know my first roommate at all. I came to learn the small town Wisconsin kid whose lofted bed was not two feet from mine in that dorm room was dealing with some heavy, unfair, faith-testing shit, and I had no idea.
TESTING THE WATERS
Growing up in a religious family in the then-7000 resident town of Delavan (near Janesville), Koepnick says he first knew he was gay in seventh grade. Over his adolescence, he was aware of a few gay people in his small town, but in seeing how they were treated by others—everything from an overall negative stigma and nasty rumors to both openly gay kids in his high school being beaten up—he decided to keep his true self stowed away in the closet. Though Koepnick hid his sexuality through the entirety of high school, some of the cruel treatment managed to find its way to him.
“I covered it up all the time. I knew the faith message, and I’ve heard all the bible verses, so that made me feel like I needed to cover up who I was,” Koepnick says. “But there were things I couldn’t cover up, so I was called a fag all the time in high school, and dealt with the dangerous feeling of going into the locker room.”
Still, Koepnick found a tight-knit high school friend group that allowed him to feel like he could be himself…to a point. “I had obviously become comfortable around my friends, but I never said it out loud. I didn’t edit myself either, but I was testing the waters to see if it was safe,” he says.
Having dipped a toe into the waters around the end of his days in Delavan, Koepnick’s move to Oshkosh—to a school whose enrollment was more than 4,000 people larger than the entire population of his hometown—allowed him the opportunity to dive into those waters head first. Like many of us hoping for a different outcome than high school afforded, he saw college as an opportunity for reinvention. Within weeks of his move to Oshkosh, Koepnick joined an on-campus organization called Rainbow Alliance For H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Perceive Equality). As he became more involved with the Alliance, he drifted away from church—which had twice let him down in his congregation’s and clergy’s response to openly gay couples.
FOR OR AGAINST?
“I was angry at church when I got to Oshkosh, but my faith—more than just being rooted in church growing up—was very familial,” Koepnick says. “We really did practice a lot of our faith in our daily lives. I was still seeking that out in college, but I was ready to reject all the systems so I could just figure out who I was, because I had spent so much time practicing being somebody I wasn’t.”
Though he’d stepped away from the congregation for a spell, in Rainbow Alliance (and as part of his consistently supportive immediate family), Koepnick retained the byproduct of faith that were most important to him: the sense of belonging that had suddenly eluded him shortly before his indefinite hiatus from organized religion.
“I think there’s huge power in being part of a community,” Koepnick says. “I think it’s very important when you can come together with people who share certain beliefs with you, but can have a good, challenging dialogue, and then go out in the community and work for good together.”
He’d found a supportive community at long last, but the period wasn’t without its struggles. By the time he was an upperclassman, Koepnick served as Rainbow Alliance’s president. Around that time, the Wisconsin Marriage Amendment—which, if you’ll recall, has now been ruled to be unconstitutional twice since June—was up for vote. With a direct stake in striking down the 2006 redrawing of the state’s marital parameters to be between one man and one woman, Koepnick and other Alliance members worked against the amendment. Faced with a definitive line being abruptly drawn between the distinctions of “for” and “against,” Wisconsin (and UW-Oshkosh’s campus, specifically) found deep-seeded tensions rising to the surface as the November 7 vote neared.
“That was a terrible experience…knocking on doors, and people backing away like you’re a monster, then also having these meetings with other young people who were losing their shit because the campus was hostile,” Koepnick says. “I was just supposed to be in college getting my undergrad degree, not fighting some civil rights battle. It was terrifying.”
He said during this tumultuous time, a gay student was pelted with unopened beer cans. Koepnick reminded me of an article that appeared in our student newspaper during my tenure regarding a professor who was pushed down some stairs and threatened because he was wearing an “Ally” pin. The alliance’s email list that was originally used to highlight events on and around campus was suddenly being utilized to organize groups to walk to and from class together for the sake of safety in numbers. Koepnick says he was once chased around campus and harassed while the assailants captured it all on video. For a time, Koepnick says he would go to the student counseling center daily, weary and distraught from a battle that threatened to permanently rob him of any chance for a basic human right that he didn’t even posses at the time.
When the results came in, the battle was lost. But not all was lost. As a result of this taxing, ultimately fruitless struggle, and the loss of his grandfather, Koepnick accepted organized religion into his life again. This time around, the church accepted him back.
KEEPING THE FAITH
While delivering a speech honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on behalf of Rainbow Alliance, Koepnick met a United Church Of Christ minister who was being honored for her work in the LGBT community. Shortly after, while his grandfather was in hospice care back in Delavan, Koepnick and his family were taken aback by the care and consideration of another minister—also in the UCC clergy.
“It was kind of serendipity—where stars aligned and I had felt this really authentic welcome from two different UCC churches in two different parts of the state,” Koepnick says. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time I gave this another shot.’”
The UW-Oshkosh religious studies major saw his experience with organized Christianity, once again, expand beyond just the classroom and back into the church. After he’d obtained his bachelor’s degree, he continued his studies at Chicago Theological Seminary. After he’d earned his master’s degree in LGBTQ Studies there, he and his longtime partner, Ryan, relocated to Milwaukee. Koepnick currently serves as Volunteer Services Manager (and religious liaison, at the request of residents) at Guest House Of Milwaukee, a Milwaukee homeless shelter that feeds and houses 86 men in need every night. On May 31, his résumé grew to include the trailblazing distinction of being the first openly gay minister ordained in the UCC chapter of Delavan–the same place he’d felt it necessary to hide his true self during his youth; where his faith was cast aside by antiquated mindsets in two churches; and where he ultimately found that faith again, dusted it off, and found it suited him better this time around.
“Yes, I lost my faith, but I believe it’s important to have faith because there have been times in my life when there was nothing else,” Koepnick says. “That was the only thing left. When I thought there was no reason for living, that my life was being defined for me as the opposite of anything that was good or loving, God was the only thing that was left. Everyone is a recipient of God’s love, and everyone is created out of that love for a reason.”
ANOTHER LEVEL OF JOY
After May 31, the only remaining vestige of Koepnick’s life still being defined for him as the opposite of anything good and loving was his marital status. That is, until that fabled Friday in early June, when he, Ryan and approximately 500 other Wisconsin couples were legally wed at long last. To Koepnick, it was the culmination of decades worth of shame, secrecy, fear, and religious exclusion. “It was like entering another level of joy that you only dreamed could ever happen,” Koepnick says. “I remember the day after the vote that made it unconstitutional. We all got together and said, ‘What do we do? I guess we keep living.’”
Koepnick’s marriage is legally recognized in Wisconsin no matter how the convoluted appeal process shakes out. Still, until it’s fully resolved, thousands of gay Wisconsinites are left to wonder what they do and are resigned to just keep living while waiting for their love to have legal acknowledgement. Like many, Koepnick believes any subsequent appeals of the recent unconstitutional ruling will be denied. He relates the delays brought by those who still oppose gay marriage in Wisconsin to “trying to do CPR on a dead corpse.”
If it’s not a corpse, the Wisconsin Marriage Amendment is rapidly decaying relic from a bygone era of misguided morality, with fewer people mourning its impending death by the day. Soon, a sizable and significant portion of Wisconsin’s population with representation among our relatives, our co-workers, our friends, our ministers, and even our randomly-assigned freshman year college roommates with enjoy the very same rights the majority of the state has since 1848. Scratch that, they’ll enjoy the same right much more. After all, they had to earn it.
“I fought so hard to make Wisconsin a place for fairness,” Koepnick says. “It’s been a fight filled with grief, but it will only make the victory sweeter when it does happen.”