Our History: How Far We’ve Come…

Could gays present themselves as parents? No, said the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the early 1970s

Could gays present themselves as parents? No, said the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the early 1970s

Superintendent John Garstecki gave the following notice to Paul Safransky in 1972:

“You are hereby notified that you are discharged from employment at Southern Wisconsin Colony and Training School due to problems associated with your homosexual life style.”

Safransky was a state civil service employee with permanent status at this institution for the domiciliary care of mental health patients, but it was clear as the case developed that not all the people with issues were the patients. He was employed as a houseparent in Tranberg Hall doing a regular shift supervising mildly and moderately retarded teenage boys. At the time of his dismissal, Paul Safransky was an active member of the Gay People’s Union in Milwaukee and at various times was on the board of directors of the organization. He was that rarity of an out gay man in the immediate post-Stonewall era.

The disciplinary hearing conducted on June 29, 1972 established the following: 1. that he admitted he was “an avowed homosexual;” 2. that he openly discussed his activities with co-workers and in the presence of the residents while on duty; 3. that this created problems in the working relationships with co-workers; And 4. that it created a problem “with respect to your relationship to residents and the image they perceive in your position as a houseparent.”

As a young activist, Paul Safransky appealed his dismissal with support from the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union. The State Personnel Board heard the case.

The Department of Health and Social Services, the employing agency, called several witnesses including a Miss Tucker. She related Safransky he discussed that “his roommate was an impersonator and he turned tricks with, you know, with other men… and how he sets the wigs… and just how they dressed and dancing and different things.” Mrs. Irene Saltys indicated he wore eye shadow, mascara and face powder.

There was never at any time a charge that Safransky had made sexual overtures to patients under the institution’s care or was noted, “that he openly instructed his patients in his way of life.”

The State Personnel Board made several findings including, “That homosexual activity is contrary to the generally recognized and accepted standards of morality and the appellant’s activity of this nature had a substantial adverse effect in the performance of his job duties.” And the Board found, “Because the appellant, in his position duties, served as a houseparent which required… displaying proper parental care, custody, and control and moral training, his admitted homosexual tendencies and attitudes constituted an adverse influence to the proper performance of his position duties and his discharge on this basis should be sustained.”

Safransky, having lost, then appealed to the Circuit Court in Dane County, which had jurisdiction over state government’s actions. David Adamnay, a lawyer and professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, filed an Amicus Curiae brief. Gay newsletters said the brief was on behalf of the Gay Liberation Front of Madison. Circuit Court Judge William Jackman upheld the decision of the State Personnel Board stating, “While homosexual activity is probably not rare, it is not conduct that is generally accepted as normal among the great majority of persons. It may be a manifestation of mental illness or disturbance of varying degrees.” Jackman used terms like “abnormal” and “unorthodox” in regard to homosexuality. The mention of mental illness would recall that gays were more frequently in the mental health institutions, not employed by them in pre-Stonewall days.

Safransky made his next appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. (There were no appeals courts in the state at that time.)

The Supremes’ decision addressed several aspects of the case.

First, they apparently narrowed the legal status of the State Personnel Board findings. The Supreme Court decision noted, “The Board made a finding ‘that homosexual activity is contrary to the generally recognized and accepted standards of morality.’ No evidence was submitted as to this finding. Therefore, the finding is not supported by evidence.”

Thus, it appeared as if the court did not want to make a blanket ruling about homosexuals and public employment. The decision focused on this specific employment.

The Court noted, “It was the duty of the appellant to emulate parentship and present a code of conduct that residents of Southern Colony could copy. He was to represent and project to patients an appropriate male image consistent with that expressed by the remainder of society.

Further, per the Court, “One specific aspect of the responsibilities of the houseparent was to direct the patients to a proper understanding of human sexuality. Such an understanding required the projection of the orthodoxy of male heterosexuality.” One might wonder how proper was the Justices’ understanding of sexuality since this was many years after the 1948 Kinsey study of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

But for the Court, there was only one orthodoxy. “Consistent with the projection of the normalcy of heterodoxy by the houseparent was the requirement that he project the unorthodoxy of male homosexuality to the patients under his care.” Thus, there was no chance for an openly gay person to be a houseparent in the Court’s thinking. Open gayness was a direct challenge to homosexuality’s supposedly unorthodox status.

Thus, Safransky lost his job. But the story continued in a way that wiped out this ancien regieme of pre-Stonewall days.

In 1970, Pat Lucey, a liberal Democrat in the Kennedy tradition, had been elected Governor, and one of his big issues was cabinet government. One of Pat Lucey’s close advisors was David Adamany, a gay man. In fact while the Safransky case was proceeding through the courts, Lucey appointed Adamany as his Secretary of Revenue.

Prior to Lucey, the structure of Wisconsin state government was that independent boards ran many parts of state agencies. The Health and Social Services Board was one such independent board with members serving fixed terms. Thus, Lucey would wait four years with one appointment each year before he would control the Board. But when he did it would be the end of the administration of Wilbur Schmidt and his regime that had fired Safransky in 1972.

In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to have a non-discrimination law on the basis of sexual orientation regarding employment, housing and public accommodation. Liberal Republican Lee Sherman Drefus signed the bill. Findings such as Safransky’s might still happen but legal redress was now possible in Wisconsin.

In the mid-1980s, a revamped Department of Health and Social Services with a Secretary appointed by another liberal Democrat, then-Governor Tony Earl, would uphold a decision by the Outagamie County Department of Social Services to place a foster child in the home of a gay man (Allan Beatty, who lived with his partner Dick Flintrop in Oshkosh). So both the doers of the bad deed and the policy of viewing gays as unable to parent changed drastically from that early 1970s experience.