A Wisconsin Fairy Tale

Dick Wagner shines a light on the story of bipartisanship that won early victories for LGBT rights in Wisconsin.

Once upon a time there were gay-friendly Republicans in Wisconsin. Yes, Virginia, you should believe that the Wisconsin gay victories of the early 1980s were possible only with Republican support.

All too often, our only nod to the bipartisan nature of those victories goes to Republican Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus. He deserves huge kudos for signing the first-in-the-nation gay rights bill in 1982. Yet the document would never have gotten to his desk if it had not been for gay-friendly votes by Republican legislators. This forgotten tale should be remembered.

The legislative agenda for the Wisconsin gay community was developed in the 1970s following Stonewall. First on the list was the consenting-adults bill that would decriminalize homosexual acts (and, it’s worth noting, the same criminalized acts when performed by heterosexuals, whether married or not). As long as our official status was that of criminals when it came to who we loved, Wisconsin gays could never get much sympathy from mainstream folks. Rep. David Clarenbach, the chief legislative strategist for gay rights, felt that by pushing a bill that also gave sexual privacy to heterosexuals, it would “run interference” for a bill that would primarily effect homosexuals.

While most states still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts in this period, the Wisconsin public-relations strategy generally followed the national efforts for penal law reform. It sought to describe such acts as victimless crimes. That strategy had resulted in repeals elsewhere. That this “consenting adults” or “sexual privacy” bill was a felicitous naming choice in Wisconsin was shown by comparison with our neighboring state of Minnesota. They called their effort “sodomy repeal.” Their victory was delayed until well after ours.

The second item on the legislative agenda here was nondiscrimination in employment and other areas such as housing and public accommodations. Both this gay-rights item and decriminalizing gay sex acts were legislative goals across the country where gay activists felt they could make a difference.

The well publicized firing of Paul Safransky from Southern Colony, a state institution near Racine, for being a homosexual in 1972 showed the need for this legislation. By 1980, the Wisconsin cities of Madison and Milwaukee, as well as Dane County, had already adopted nondiscrimination ordinances at the municipal level. And while these ordinances protected nearly a million Wisconsin citizens out of 4.7 million, most of the LGB individuals outside these jurisdictions in the state had no safeguards. And none then existed for trans persons anywhere in the state.

Bills on both topics had been introduced in successive sessions of the legislature since Lloyd Barbee’s efforts in the early 1970s. It was the support of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference for the principle of nondiscrimination that persuaded Rep. David Clarenbach to push AB 70 for nondiscrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations in the 1981-82 session.

The bill’s cosponsors were fellow Democrats Reps. Steve Leopold, Marcia Coggs (who had replaced Barbee), Barbara Ulichny, and Dismas Becker (a former Catholic priest). All besides David were from Milwaukee, with Leopold and Ulichny representing parts of the east side with its gay community and Becker representing the area around Marquette University.

Clarenbach had good support from the Assembly’s Democratic leadership, from Speaker Ed Jackamonis of Waukesha to Majority Leader Tom Loftus from Sun Prairie and Assistant Majority Leader Chet Gerlach from South Milwaukee, all of whom supported the bill. The problem for passage was that not all Democrats felt the same way. While there were 56 Democrats in the majority of the 99-member body, nine of them were what might be termed the irreconcilables. They totally opposed to the bill.

The first roll call on the nondiscrimination bill was on a motion for indefinite postponement, which meant the Assembly would not even take up the matter. This motion lost when eight Republicans helped make up the majority of 55 voting not to postpone. At passage of the bill on the third reading the vote was closer, with only 49 in favor and 45 against. Of the 49 majority votes, six were Republicans. Without their support the bill would have failed to pass.

Before the bill would make it to Dreyfus’s desk and into history as the first-in-the-nation gay-rights legislation, though, it had to pass the state Senate. There was only one Senate roll call on AB 70 on a motion by a Republican senator to non-concur, that is not agree with, the Assembly’s passage. The motion was defeated. Voting against the motion were 15 Democrats and 4 Republicans to make the majority of 19 against the 13 in the minority. The majority vote required was 17.

Once again, without Republican votes the measure would have been defeated in the Upper Chamber. The bill went on to Governor Dreyfus’s desk for signature. This resulted in the strange Wisconsin anomaly that for a year homosexual acts were technically illegal but you could not discriminate against people for them.

The next session of the legislature in 1983-84 saw the final passage of the consenting-adults bill, introduced as AB 250. Again Democratic leadership in the majority, this time with Speaker Lotus, Majority Leader Gary Johnson of Beloit, and Assistant Majority Leader Richard Shoemaker, was supportive. But again there were at least ten Democrats who were Irreconcilables on decriminalizing homosexual acts, and their numbers grew slightly as the bill progressed in the chamber. Republican Minority Leader Tommy Thompson was against the bill on all votes, as he had been against AB 70.

The bill was first attacked by amendments offered by Republicans. One would have made passage effective only with a statewide ratifying referendum. Another amendment would have made the referendum just advisory. Both amendments were defeated with Republican votes being 13 of 60 against the first and 12 of 61 against the second. Next were amendments to make consenting acts legal only for married people. These were defeated by smaller margins of 55 to 43 and 55 to 44. Again the eight and seven Republican votes provided the margins to defeat the amendments and ensure the consenting-adults legislation included homosexuals.

As more Democrats went on record against the bill at the second reading, 15 of the 55 votes in the majority for passage were Republicans. At the third reading 13 of the 53 votes in favor were Republicans.

For AB 250 on consenting adults, the Senate had a number of roll calls with even more Republican support. Once again they were needed, because there were six Democratic irreconcilables of the 19 majority-party members.

The first tactic by Republican Senator David Opitz, who had also been against the nondiscrimination bill, was to lay the bill on the table—meaning it would not be considered. This was defeated by 13 Democrats and six Republicans voting not to table. An amendment for a referendum was also defeated.

The next vote was to not concur with the Assembly passage, which failed with 13 Democrats and six Republicans against. On the second reading, the bill passed 20 to 13. The majority was 13 Democrats and seven Republicans. The same vote passed the bill at its third reading.

Particular heroes among the Senate Republicans who were good on both bills were Sen. Susan Engleiter of Menominee Falls and Sen. Barbara Lorman of Ft. Atkinson. Both would go on to be re-elected to their offices. One Republican senator who did support AB 70, Rod Johnston, later lost his seat to a Democratic supporter of AB 70, Barb Ulichny, in a Milwaukee east-side district home to many gays.

In the Assembly, the good supporters of both bills were Republican Reps. Pat Goodrich of Berlin, Betty Jo Nelsen from Shorewood, and Lolita Schnieders of Menomonee Falls. Indeed, Republican women were more likely to support the bills than Republican men. On the consenting-adults bill the Republican supporters were eight women, one gay man (though not out at the time), and three straight men. Though it should be observed not all Republicans suspected of being closeted supported the measures.

David Clarenbach believes that the clergy and laity of the religious communities helped move the favorable Republican votes. Some of them also belonged to the New Republican Conference trying to support progressive views in the party. The NRC had been bolstered in the state by Governor Dreyfus’s 1978 election win. There was some safety in numbers if you knew other Republicans would vote for the measures.

Nor were gay-friendly Republicans only to be found in the legislature. The first openly gay Republican office-holder in Wisconsin was Madison City Council member James McFarland, who served from 1986 to 1991. His partner at the time, Ric Villasenor, was active in the Madison campus effort to ban ROTC because of the military’s discriminatory policies. McFarland would continue his activism after leaving Madison for Milwaukee through work with the Log Cabin Republicans. McFarland would be one of the two Wisconsinites of 12 gay Republicans to meet with then Governor George W. Bush in Austin in 2000. The other was Scott Evertz, a former president of the Wisconsin Log Cabin Republicans, whom President Bush appointed as director of the Office of National AIDS Policy in 2001.

The most prominent gay Republican in the state would be U. S. Congressman Steve Gunderson of Osseo. While in the state legislature Gunderson, though not formally out, co-sponsored gay bills with Clarenbach of Madison and Dick Flintrop of Oshkosh, other gay members not yet formally out, though the last two were Democrats. While in Congress, Gunderson had become supportive of gay political efforts, speaking at a fundraising dinner of the Human Rights Campaign. Conservative members threatened to formally out Gunderson as gay, but he pre-empted them by coming out in the New York Times. He would go on to win re-election by Third District voters in Western Wisconsin in 1994 as an out gay congressman. He is one of three out gay members of Congress elected by Wisconsin (Baldwin and Pocan being the others), more out gay congress people than any other state.

Considering how some view the hard tinge of Republican platforms these days, it may be difficult to believe the strong Republican support for the gay agenda in Wisconsin. Going again back to the newspaper editor writing to Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897, he went beyond urging her to believe in uncommon wonders like Santa Claus. “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” He wrote that just because you cannot see fairies dancing on the lawn does not prove they are not there. So it is with gay-friendly Republicans: just because you cannot always see them, does not prove they do not exist. At the end of the 20th century, not too long ago, Republicans, at least some, indeed were gay-friendly. They cooperated in efforts that gave Wisconsin an early reputation as then being in the forefront of the national movement for gay rights. As the 19th century editor put it, “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Dick Wagner (rrdickwagner@gmail.com), openly gay former Dane County Board Chair and co-chair of Governor Earl’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues, is now working on gay Wisconsin history and welcomes topics and sources.