UWM employee honored for helping lead fight for gay marriage

Roy Badger is quiet, bordering on shy. And yet his passion for a cause he believes in — the right of same-sex couples to marry — has thrust him into the national spotlight.

Badger, a UWM graduate who has worked at the university for 39 years, and his partner, Garth Wangemann, were part of the landmark 2014 lawsuit that overturned Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union had approached the couple about joining the lawsuit.

“We went into it blindly,” Badger recalled, “but we didn’t want to be afraid, so we said, ‘Sure.’” When they were identified as one of the eight couples bringing the suit, their telephone and doorbell began ringing with interview requests from journalists. “Then we got concerned about our safety,” he said.

In the end, the couple received only one hate letter, from West Virginia, unsigned and with no return address. They got loads of support, from friends and neighbors and especially from Badger’s colleagues in University Information Technology Services, to whom he was not yet officially “out.”

“I was scared,” Badger said, explaining why he was not forthcoming about his sexual orientation for more than 30 years. “I didn’t know how people would react.”

His supervisor, Bobby Jo Morse, described the reaction as overwhelmingly positive, with support from all levels in their department.

“Our LGBT student workers think Roy is a celebrity,” Morse said. “For them, this is definitely a safe place to work.”

One of the students even wrote Badger a note, thanking him “for helping to bring about this wonderful change to Wisconsin. Our generation owes you and everyone else who spoke up more than we can ever repay.”

Badger, now 58, came to UWM as a freshman in 1975, when almost no college campus was a safe place for gays and lesbians. He became a student employee in 1976 and a full-time employee in 1981. Over the years, he worked as a switchboard operator, billing clerk for printing services and monitor of pay phone contracts. He is currently editor of UWM’s print directory.

Badger and Wangemann, now 59, met in the Sandburg Hall cafeteria in 1976, introduced by a mutual friend. Friendship and common interests soon turned into love.

But they struggled with discrimination. When a lack of money forced them to drop out of UWM, they had trouble even finding an apartment to share.

“A lot of landlords wouldn’t rent to us,” recalled Badger, who went back to school and finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1998.

Their parents realized they were gay after finding love letters exchanged by the couple. Badger’s parents and siblings were supportive, but it took decades for the rift between Wangemann and his late mother to heal. They finally reconciled after she developed cancer.

Wangemann’s father never accepted the men’s relationship. The two haven’t spoken since 2011, when Wangemann was placed in a medically induced coma during treatment for lung cancer. Wangemann’s father tried to have him removed from life support, but Badger, who had medical power of attorney, resisted. The couple later learned that Wangemann’s father had consulted a lawyer to see about having Badger’s power revoked.

“One of the points we wanted to make with the lawsuit was how important marriage is in health issues,” said Kristin Hansen, development director of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. “Because they weren’t married, Roy had to jump through legal hoops, and they were almost dragged into court by Garth’s dad. It’s a heart-rending story.”

The experience was one of the things that led the men to join the lawsuit filed in February 2014. Less than six months later, a federal judge declared Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. For the couple, it was a hoped for, but unexpected success.

“The unbelievable had happened,” Badger said.

A year later, on June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the right to marry to same-sex couples in all 50 states. Once again, Badger and Wangemann found themselves in the center of the biggest news of the day, with invitations to speak at news conferences, celebrations and on cable television.

Their activism has earned them many awards, including the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Civil Libertarians of the Year award, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center Community Spirit Award and a letter of congratulations from President Barack Obama. On Oct. 9, Badger will receive the University of Wisconsin System’s Dr. D.B. Poorman Award for Outstanding Achievement on Behalf of LGBTQ People at a ceremony in Madison.

Perhaps the most important date for Badger and Wangemann was Nov. 8, when their friend and pastor, the Reverend Dr. Timothy Perkins, married them in a small ceremony at Bethel-Bethany United Church of Christ.

“What an honor it was for me to perform that wedding,” Perkins said. “To have their relationship acknowledged and celebrated by friends and family in a sanctuary of God was a wonderful, grace-filled moment.”

Today, the couple is enjoying a new phase of their lives together in their Riverwest home, shared with three rescue dogs. “I’m not quite used to it,” Badger said. “I’m still shy about calling him my husband.”

To further cement their union, Wangemann is in the final stages of legally changing his last name to Badger.

“They were together for years without the benefit of legal protection, and they stuck it out,” Hansen said. “Such a wonderful love story.”

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