Our History: “Homocrats” stir up Wisconsin

The so-called “sex plank” by the Young Democrats led the way toward future legislation protecting gay and lesbian Wisconsinites in 1966.

I‘ve written before that gay history in the middle of the country can often be overlooked. While it is true that the early homophile movement was deeply rooted on the coasts, the LGBT rights battle has been more transcontinental. After all it was Illinois, which, during a model penal law reform, first decriminalized homosexual acts and other activity between consenting adults in America in 1961.

The first serious LGBT rights demonstration is generally credited to have taken place July 4, 1965, in front of Independence Hall, Philadelphia—four years before Stonewall. Gay men and lesbians were claiming that they too were citizens and entitled to equality under the law promised by the great Declaration. That this novel idea was to find a follow-up public expression in Wisconsin within nine months might not have been predicted. After all, in 1962, there was a gay purge at the U.W. Madison by the Dean of Men, who compiled lists of hundreds of confirmed or suspected gay men. Those who were on the lists were subjected to various intimidations.

So it might surprise some that in 1966 the U.W. Madison Young Democrats adopted a resolution to be forwarded to their March convention on homosexuality. The proposed plank said, “We favor the abolishment of laws directed toward preventing those persons who are homosexually inclined from freedom of action.”

Another proposal called for repeal of laws against unnatural sex acts between males and females. At the convention, the two were combined and called for the abolition of all laws restricting sexual relations between consenting adults, which do not violate the rights of others. The measure was adopted on a vote of 76 to 55.

Statewide media quickly dubbed it the “sex plank” and set off a furor of comment and condemnation. Going into the convention it was thought the big news would be the stance on the Vietnam War, with the Young Democrats critical of the Johnson Administration. There were pro-administration and anti-war floor demonstrations with national speakers addressing the issue on the convention’s first night. But the Vietnam stance was quickly overshadowed in the state press by the sex plank that was adopted on the last day of the gathering.

The provision was just one of a whole number of issues on which the Young Democrats had opinions. These included setting a uniform state drinking age of 18, voting at age 18, four-year terms for governors, rent subsidies for the poor, repeal of the Taft-Hartley provisions that permitted right-to-work laws, study of a proposal aimed at a guaranteed annual minimum wage, against adding the militant black organization the W.E.B. DuBois Club to the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, and the elimination of the ban on artificially colored oleomargine. Times were different. Only in Wisconsin could a pre-Stonewall debate on gay rights be paired with the right to buy yellow margarine.

The Milwaukee Journal reported on Monday, March 28, 1966, that during debate “opponents of the original plank said specific mention of homosexuals was an enlightened point of view but would merely provide campaign fodder for Republicans.” On Tuesday evening, the same paper reported this had come true as John Hazelwood, chairman of the Greater Milwaukee Republican League denounced the Young Dems’ platform that “clearly indicates that that organization has been captured by radicals.” Hazelwood charged the platform “blatantly encourages the legal acceptance of homosexuality and adultery.”

But Hazelwood had lots of company as papers continued to report. The Third State Senatorial District Democrats in Milwaukee on Tuesday night adopted a motion made by Democratic State Senator Casimir Kendziorski disapproving of the sex plank stand. Chairman Ronald Hintzke told delegates that, if they remained silent, they would be approving the stand. Democratic State Senator Taylor Benson of Franksville in Racine County, calling the platform “an example of filth” went further and said, “Every Young Democrat who believes in the principles of decency, moral integrity and the sanctity of the family” should quit the organization and start a new one. Benson attributed the sex plank to beatniks and radicals from U.W. Madison. By April 5, thirty-six Young Democrats from southeastern Wisconsin has signed a statement that they “supported the solidarity of the family” and were opposed to “adultery, homosexuality and prostitution.” The signers believed that sex had no place in a political platform.

The state’s highest official, Republican Governor Warren Knowles, joined in the chorus of “No Place for Sex in Party Platform,” as reported in the Milwaukee Sentinel on April 5. The governor noted a tendency on the part of both Young Democrats and Young Republicans to become involved with philosophical issues which are not a part of government. Knowles said, “It is unfortunate that the question was raised in any respect.” The Governor deplored party splits and noted, “The homocrats against the Democrats is going a little too far.” Knowles’s comments were similar to earlier comments by Ody J. Fish, state GOP chairman, who said, “I doubt if the people of Wisconsin favor sex as a statewide political issue.”

Conrad Goodkind from Madison and state chairman of the Young Democrats responded to the criticism of the sex plank noting, “If Democrats are for it and Republicans are against it, that might account for the fact that there are more Democrats.” Goodkind noted the Democratic Party “should be able to embrace divergent views.” Jim Miller, Chairman of the Fifth Congressional District Young Dem Clubs, though opposed to the sex plank, complained the newspaper articles were tinged with sensationalism. Eugene Burns of the Marquette University Young Dems, who authored the substitute language, noted that all press accounts left out the first part of the plank that affirmed, “We recognize the government has no right to legislate personal sexual ethics, therefore we favor the abolition of all restrictions on sexual relations involving consenting adults which do not violate the rights of others.” Then he offered elaboration with a lengthy quote from Playboy magazine. Such an authoritative source and from a student at a Catholic university!

The New York Times joined the fray on April 10 and noted a related context of British action on the Wolfenden report, the English government’s white paper on decriminalizing homosexuality. The House of Lords had adopted the recommendations in 1965, and they were pending in the House of Commons at this time. The British Labour Government of Harold Wilson would see them pass in 1967. Regarding Wisconsin The New York Times noted, “An advocate said this was the first time the issue had become an American political party plank.”

In late April John Huettner, Young Dems platform committee chairman, debated on the sex plank with the president of the Methodist Wesley Foundation. Huettner, a political science senior, noted the Wisconsin Young Dems had pioneered the sex plank that had since been approved by Young Dems in Minnesota, the District of Columbia, and the College Young Democrats of America.

Senior Democrats were none too happy in 1966 with the sex plank, such as Democratic Lieutenant Governor Pat Lucey who dismissed the incident as “a flash in the pan.” Yet they were to change their tune. In 1976 the state Democratic Party platform, with a very spirited debate, included the following language: “We support the extension of full civil rights to people of variant sexual inclinations, and the abolition of criminal sanctions on the private sexual activity of consenting adults.” The Young Democrats of 1966 had led the way 10 years earlier.

In 1982 and 83 the legislature followed through with bipartisan votes to enact a first-in-the-nation lesbian-and-gay civil rights bill and consenting-adults legislation. Stepping-stones in the long march to equality—thanks, Young Dems of 1966.