Queer people in Madison adapt to renewed threats in a post-Roe world

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling has rippling effects across the LGBTQ+ community.
This composite illustration combines a photo from a trans rights rally, an inverted hospital building, and two men, one of whom is throwing a faded out child into the air, illustrating the precarity of LGBTQ+ families, rights and healthcare post-Roe.
Illustration by Kay Reynolds.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling has rippling effects across the LGBTQ+ community.

Olivia Steele met her partner Charli working at This Is It! The Milwaukee gay bar has roots dating back to the 1960s and is now owned in part by drag superstar Trixie Mattel.

Steele knew right away she had found her person. 

“We both realized we felt extremely safe with each other and cared for each other,” she says. The rest was “a gay love story.” 


The two officially started their relationship in November 2021. In the months following they got to know each other and eventually moved in together. When Charli got a job in Madison, they made the decision to relocate. 

While they were getting settled in Madison, news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision leaked on May 2, 2022. Steele knew then it was time to get married.

It had been a running joke between the two of them that they should try to get married “while we still can.” But that dark jest suddenly had a too-real feeling.

She proposed June 3, 2022.

While there’s nothing romantic about overturning abortion rights protections, Steele feared the decision was potentially the first step on a slippery slope that could result in the end of legal same-sex marriage.

“I had to go through so many steps so quickly because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hold their hand in public six months from now,” Steele says. “Getting married should be fun but it has become ‘oh fuck we gotta plan this, we gotta do this right now.’”

The rippling effects of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision have been felt deeply across the LGBTQ+ community. As some experts have noted, reproductive rights are explicitly linked to LGBTQ+ liberties.

This photograph shows Olivia Steele on one knee on a club dance floor putting an engagement ring on her partner Charli's finger as Charli covers her mouth with her other hand out of emotion.
Olivia Steele (left) proposed to her partner Charli (right) on June 3, 2022. Photo by Ariel Kassulke.

More than reproductive rights

A national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that lesbians and bisexual women who have been pregnant are more likely than heterosexual women to have had an abortion.

But abortion, and the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, are pieces of a larger puzzle.

“It’s all part of this larger attack on our ability and fundamental right to make decisions about our own bodies,” says AJ Hardie, program director at the OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center​

The center helps provide Madison’s LGBTQ+ community with health and human services and conducts economic, social, and racial justice advocacy.

Following the Dobbs ruling, Hardie says, the organization received an outpouring of calls from community members looking for support and space to express fears, anger, and frustration about the matter. Some worried about the future of gender-affirming care. Others just needed a space to vent. 


Providing support, Hardie says, is something the LGBTQ+ community is particularly good at.

“We tend to take care of each other really well because we are not taken care of by society much,” he says.

When the Dobbs decision was officially handed down June 24, 2022, dismantling the abortion protections the Supreme Court established in its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, it created a painful new reality for many, especially those in LGBTQ+ spaces.

For Dina Nina Martinez-Rutherford, the ruling came as no shock. In her mind, the writing had been on the walls for a long time. The September 2020 death of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg marked a moment of realization that her rights were in danger at a judicial level. 

Martinez-Rutherford is a comedian and entrepreneur, and recently became the first openly transgender woman to win a seat on Madison Common Council, representing District 15 on the east side. As a trans woman, she’s acutely attuned to the cascading implications of the Dobbs ruling.

“When the patriarchy attacks women, it also attacks trans and queer people,” she says, noting many health care providers that perform abortions also provide gender-affirming health care. 

“We are in the same boat that most cis women are in,” Martinez-Rutherford says. “We have less access to care now because of the Dobbs decision.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Wisconsin

This sentiment has become more apparent recently as a flurry of bills seeking to restrict access to gender-affirming care for trans youth have made their way through state Legislatures around the country. 

In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled state houses have made multiple attempts in recent years to curtail the rights of LGBTQ+ people—especially youth—through legislation.

Last year a bill in the Legislature sought to prohibit anyone under 18 from receiving gender-affirming care and prevent insurance policies in Wisconsin from covering such care. Ultimately, the legislation wasn’t taken up in the Assembly or Senate before the end of the session.

More recently in March, Republican lawmakers successfully blocked an attempt to ban licensed therapists from conducting the discredited practice of conversion therapy. In spite of this, however, more than a dozen cities—including Madison—have enacted local ordinances banning the practice on minors.

This legislation and the inflammatory rhetoric of its proponents has had a severe impact not only on those in the LGBTQ+ community, but on their families and allies as well. 

In Texas, families are facing child abuse investigations for providing gender-affirming care to their transgender children in the wake of a directive from the state’s governor. There are currently multiple legal cases against the directive and investigations. (Research shows the suicide rate for transgender people drops significantly when they have access to gender-affirming care.)

For Hardie at OutReach, navigating a post-Roe world has meant adapting and working to ensure the organization continues to operate within the always-moving lines of the new legal landscape. 

“We rely a lot on the interpretation of laws and that can change,” he says.

Are marriage rights next?

There’s also fear that with Roe gone, same-sex marriage could be next. Justice Clarence Thomas explicitly said the court “should reconsider” its past rulings on codifying rights to same-sex marriage and contraception access. To hammer the point home, the court’s liberal members wrote in a dissenting opinion that “no one should be confident that this [conservative] majority is done with its work.”

In July 2022, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin helped pass the Respect for Marriage Act, requiring the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize the validity of same-sex and interracial civil marriages in the United States. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law December 2022. This means that married couples have access to the same rights regardless of which state they travel or live in, but it does not enshrine the rights granted under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges.

These fears have forced some families to scramble to protect their parental rights through legal means.

Queer families have used second-parent adoption as a way to legally secure their family structures since the 1990s, as Huffpost explained in a 2022 article. The legal process is the same one stepparents use to adopt their spouses’ children. It’s not cheap or easy but the uncertain legal landscape has reprioritized the task for many queer families. 

Following the release of the Dobbs ruling, the National Center for Lesbian Rights published a statement strongly encouraging same-sex couples to get a court order recognizing parentage since an order must be recognized in every state, even if laws change in the future.  

Hate on the rise

The Dobbs ruling has also brought a renewed sense of urgency surrounding safety to the forefront of Hardie’s mind.

OutReach regularly helps connect people with health care providers for an array of services, including UW Health. But in September 2022, UW Health was targeted by Libs of TikTok, a right-wing anti-LGBTQ+ Twitter account with 1.4 million followers. The account called out health care providers across the nation with gender affirmation programs, leading to bomb and security threats.

Ultimately authorities deemed there was no direct threat to the hospital. But that instance served as a reminder that generally-gay-friendly Madison is not immune to hate.

Martinez-Rutherford also pointed to threats against Madison East High School’s student-run drag show as an example of the dangerous precedents the Dobbs ruling could set.

In January, East High was forced to postpone the family-friendly event after it became the target of right-wing media, including Libs of TikTok and former Gov. Scott Walker. 

“Let’s be clear: ‘drag shows’ are strip shows,’” Walker tweeted. “They are wrong. They are particularly wrong at school. They are definitely not ‘family-friendly.’”

Of course, this statement is blatantly false and serves only to perpetuate a dangerous and homophobic narrative. Madison School Board president Ali Muldrow called Walker’s characterization “intentionally inaccurate and misleading.” 

“Our young people have every right to have expansive, creative, self-determined and liberating relationships with gender expression,” Muldrow told the Cap Times.

Eventually, the show did go on. Students performed at the inaugural show in March and organizers hope to make it an annual event. 

Moving forward

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling painted a new reality for reproductive rights in the United States. But even amid the dark picture, there are bright spots of hope.

Despite the Respect for Marriage Act’s limitations, for Olivia and Charli, it means they will be able to plan a wedding for this fall without fear.

Martinez-Rutherford sees hope in LGBTQ+ people like herself becoming more active contributors to the political conversations happening at all levels of government.  

“There is nothing more powerful than when the people who are oppressed use their voice to help each other,” she says.

Hardie draws a distinct line between hope and optimism, praising the city for its commitment to providing legal protection to people from discrimination based on gender identity. But with that, there is still room for growth.

That growth, he says, comes in the form of recognizing that there is still more work to do and that the LGBTQ+ community has been and will be the ones leading the way.

“Everything will be OK, but maybe it won’t and we’ll deal with it because nothing has ever really been OK for the LGBTQ community. We’ve dealt with it,” Hardie says. “Queer people have existed, still exist, will always exist.”

This photograph shows Olivia Steele and her partner Charli kissing on the dance floor of a club.
Olivia Steele (left) and her partner Charli (right) kiss after Olivia proposed on June 3, 2022. Photo by Ariel Kassulke.

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