I was there in 1982 for the passage of the Wisconsin gay rights bill—the first of its kind in the nation—and I know it is indeed time to celebrate. Yet the note I want to strike on this anniversary is one of caution: We should not take our gay rights for granted.
Notes of Caution
As a historian, I might point out that the greatest flowering of gay culture prior to our present time was in Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. That flourishing counterculture was utterly wiped out by the late 1930s, and homosexuals were being sent to the concentration camps.
Or I might note how the jubilee promise of American emancipation from slavery in the mid-19th century—with hopes of education and economic security in “40 acres and a mule”—turned instead into the Jim Crow of segregation through the corrupt bargain over Reconstruction.
Or again, the bright promise of women’s suffrage in response to Susan B. Anthony’s centennial question of 1876, “Are not women citizens too?” shines less brightly with women still earning less than their male counterparts and the U.S. Senate still male-dominated by 83 percent.
The American Promise
I came to Wisconsin in 1965 because, like so many gay men in that era, I knew I had to get out of my hometown to figure out who I was. For more on the mobility of gay men and the nostalgia and disassociation with native cities, see Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong, editor John Preston, 1991. I came to Madison to study history and to find that American promise of life and liberty.
But I carried something of that hometown—in my case, Dayton, Ohio—with me. In 1913, Dayton was beset with a great flood, and my grandmother, with my mother in her arms, was passed out of a second story window to rescue boats. It was a shaping event and tales were retold of how people were stranded in their upper floors.
But the lesson the Dayton community learned was that they had to change things. Based on a campaign that used the slogan, “Remember the promises made in the attics,” the area established a conservancy district. They built five dams to control the Miami Valley rivers, and the 1913 flood has not been repeated.
You, Too, Must Remember
I want you not to take our rights for granted because you, too, must remember. You must remember how it was before the American people began to accept that gays, and all LGBTQ people, had any rights. When we were “the other.” When our community had not organized.
• The Wisconsin territorial legislature that inherited a law upon its separation with Michigan that had a sodomy penalty of up to three years… Wisconsin raised it to five.
• Anna Morris, alias Frank Blunt, who dressed in men’s clothing and was claimed to have married Gertrude Field, and who was sent to the state penitentiary in 1894 for one year.
• The activist sentiments of the Wisconsin Supreme Court of 1905 in dealing with gay sex, stating, “There is sufficient authority to sustain a conviction in such a case, and, if there were none, we should feel no hesitancy in placing an authority on the books.”
• The Madison police’s annual reports for the first part of the 20th century that recorded gay sex among the major crimes—along with murder.
• In the 1930s, the hundreds of gay men incarcerated in Waupun for sodomy with terms up to five years.
• The 20 gay males in the military at Truax Field in 1945 at the end of World War II who were examined for mental illness in a study conducted jointly by the military and our very own University of Wisconsin.
• The Wisconsin legislature of 1947 that enacted a law permitting the institutionalization of any sexual “psychopath,” whether or not the person had committed a crime.
• The 1948 arrest by campus police of two men being intimate on campus, which led to a raid on a private home in the city of Madison described as a den for lewd activities, with court charges and penalties for possession of gay material, and student expulsions.
• Patrons of gay bars in Madison being fearful that their license plate numbers were being recorded by police if they parked in the lot associated with the gay bar.
• Noted history professor George Mosse, a refugee from Germany, who came to teach at UW in the 1950s and in his memoir noted, “The closet door had to be tightly closed…”
• The Wisconsin legislature of 1959 that prohibited the granting of a driver’s license to anyone convicted of “sexual perversion.”
• The 1962 gay purge at the UW when lists of hundreds of known gays were gathered and people were told not to pursue their studies or count on financial aid.
• The handful of pioneers who, after Stonewall, founded the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality (MAHE) in the basement of St. Francis House on campus, the first gay rights organization in the state, in 1969.
• Donna Brukett and Manonia Evans, who, in 1971, applied for a marriage license at the Milwaukee County Clerk’s Office, and had their request denied.
• The 1972 case of Paul Safransky, who was fired in Racine County from Southern Colony because the superintendent said he would fire any known gay person…and the State Personnel Board upheld the firing.
• The Madison Gay Center, a forerunner of Outreach, which opened the first of our own friendly spots in the state in 1973.
• 1975, when Mayor Paul Soglin and Reverend James Wright led the Madison City Council to adopt the first municipal ordinance for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in the state.
• 1976, when Miriam Ben Shalom was discharged from the Army Reserves for declaring she was a lesbian, beginning a decades-long court fight for her right to serve.
• 1976, when James Yeadon was appointed to serve on the Madison City Council, the first out gay official in Wisconsin. He was re-elected in the spring of 1977, before Harvey Milk was elected in San Francisco.
• The Anita Bryant movement that hit Madison in 1978 in an effort to repeal the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. It failed because the Madison Community United, another forerunner of Outreach, fought back.
• 1980, when the Dane County Board, myself among them, adopted a non-discrimination ordinance based on sexual orientation.
• The gay men, including Madison activist Grid Hall, a chair of the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission, and others, who needlessly died from AIDS because LGBTQ health was not on the radar of service providers.
Why do I want you to remember? Not to pass a history quiz. I want you to remember that the struggle for gay rights was a hard path.
Many suffered and struggled along the way. That is why we here in Wisconsin—as proud as we are, and as thankful we are to David Clarenbach’s leadership to pass the landmark legislation—should not take our rights for granted. If we do not take them for granted, we will realize how valuable they are, we will cherish them for ourselves, and we will ensure that they remain for those who follow.
Dick Wagner, openly gay former Dane County Board Chair, is now working on gay Wisconsin history and welcomes topics and sources.