On November 11 The New York Times carried the story, “Trump Win Seen as ‘Devastating Loss’ for Gay and Transgender People.” A wonderful column from Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender professor at Barnard College, followed. It was called “Don’t Blame Me.” The stories expressed what many of us had hoped the election might witness. To use Churchill’s phrase, we hoped this election marked “the end of beginning” in the cultural wars and would validate the fact that America has many faces.
It was not to be. To help us sort this out, I want to turn to a local example when a gay rights champion was defeated in Wisconsin in 1986.
In the 1982 Wisconsin gubernatorial election, Democrat Tony Earl was the first candidate ever to actively campaign for the gay vote. He did a lengthy interview with Brooks Edgerton for the newspaper Gay Madison. He promised to appoint a gay liaison. Edgerton and Earl also discussed lesbian and gay health issues. Earl observed that in the field of education it was important to not bring “children up with the idea that a different sexual orientation is a perversion.” This was at a time when homosexual acts were still a felony in Wisconsin under the old sexual perversion law. Crystal Hyslop, of Lesbian Mothers, writing before the election in OUT! noted, “Anthony Earl has taken a liberal stand and formally addressed the lesbian/gay community issues and concerns.”
After his victory, Governor Earl was true in trying to build an inclusionary administration, though the liaison promise would be delayed until his second budget when Earl Bricker was selected. Appointing known gay activists like Ron McCrea as his press secretary and Dick Flintrop to head the Council on Criminal Justice resulted in front page stories, as if their orientation were a stigma. McCrea was famously labeled an “avowed homosexual” in the headlines. He joked, “I used to ask my friends if I really had to put my job on the line as often as I did to make the world safe for disco.” Powerful lesbians, though less visibly out, were also among Earl’s appointments.
In the first months of his administration in 1983, Tony Earl asked Kathleen Nichols and me to serve as co-chairs of a new Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay issues. While a couple other states had Governor’s groups on sexual minorities and privacy, none used the identity-affirming terms “lesbian” and “gay” in their title. State Rep. David Clarenbach (D-Madison) told the group’s first meeting, “Take the struggle for acceptance and gay rights to the village square.” The Council travelled the state in its four years meeting in 22 Wisconsin communities. These were catalyzing occasions for local officials to be asked what they were doing for their gay and lesbian citizens, who of course paid taxes but got little recognition in services.
The Council’s early work on the AIDS crisis was important in shaping the state’s response. The Council co-sponsored the Great Lakes Lesbian/Gay Health Conference in 1984 that focused on AIDS, alcoholism, and domestic violence. Keynoter Karla Dobinski said, “We bring some of our toughest problems out of the closet.” The Council worked closely with the Division of Health under Kathryn Morrison and the State Medical Society to structure a non-homophobic response to AIDS.
When the liaison position was requested in 1985, the Democratically controlled Joint Finance Committee voted it down, fearing it went too far. Earl bluntly told them, “Don’t try to protect me from myself.”
When Earl first ran in 1982, his interview in Gay Madison had been circulated in some northern rural counties to mobilize votes against him. However, he beat the Republican candidate Terry Kohler, winning 57% of the vote. After the election, Kohler would criticize Earl for his “queer” appointments and characterize homosexuals as “aberrant.” In the 2016 election, no surprise, Kohler, who recently passed away, contributed to a PAC that attacked Clinton for her pro-LGBT stance.
For the 1986 election the battle lines were clear. Republican Tommy Thompson planned to kill the Governor’s Council. “I don’t think government should be promoting an alternative lifestyle,” he said. Critics of the Earl administration had called it a granola administration composed of “Fruits, flakes, and a few nuts.” Of course, we were the fruits. The Dodgeville Chronicle hit Earl as he “has lent his endorsement to a group that carry AIDS.”
Tony Earl was not unaware of the attacks on his pro-gay policies. Speaking in Milwaukee to the gay Cream City Business Association, he said, “It was intolerable that homosexuals were still subject to harassment and beatings.” With an eye toward re-election, “The day will come when gay support will be a political plus. It will be a much healthier society when that day arrives. I hope it arrives soon.” For Earl, and his profile in fabulous courage, it was not to be soon enough.
Election post-mortems included that Earl “had worried too much about minorities, women, gays and big business and not enough about regular people who work and vote.” It was held that the gay appointments had contributed to 1986 voters perceiving an “otherness” about him, whereas his 1982 profile had been that he was guy you wanted to have a beer with in the corner tavern. Reviewing matters afterwards, Earl said, “One of the things I discovered was that homophobia runs deep and strong here.”
The Milwaukee Journal summed Earl up as having “a rare degree of competence, courage, and imagination in leading Wisconsin.” The governor had tried to engage the citizens of Wisconsin in an inclusive dialogue, but clearly there was more work to do. Upon the demise of the Governor’s Council, Co-chair Kathleen Nichols drew on the legacy of union organizer Joe Hill. She said, “It’s important that we not slide backwards in time. Don’t mourn, organize.” After the 1986 defeat we did not go back into closets, we did not change our lives to mold them back to pre-Stonewall models. And we are not going to do so now. In 1986 we did not surrender the battle. We did not give up. Our lives depended on it.