Flashback 2013: Big gains in small places in 2013 in Wisconsin

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Timothy Phares. - PHOTO: Courtesy

The year 2013 was exceptionally frustrating for LGBT people in Wisconsin and our allies. We watched as two neighboring states — Minnesota and Illinois — joined Iowa and a rapidly growing number of other states in adopting marriage equality. Meanwhile, our LGBT leaders had to fight in court just to preserve a basic domestic partner registry law. The outcome of that effort to retain the most basic of relationship protections is far from certain, resting now in the hands of the state’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court, whose decision is expected by the middle of next year.

As we look back on the closing year, several stories leap out as particularly memorable and/or revelatory for Wisconsin’s progressive community.

Big gains in small places

Given the far-right’s iron-clad control of Wisconsin’s legislative agenda, the state’s equality advocates had no opportunity to match the historic achievements realized by their equivalents to the south and west. But grassroots leaders, with strategic assistance from Equality Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin (now one merged group), nonetheless made advancements that will make a difference for many of the state’s LGBT citizens.

Continuing a trend that began several years ago, local legislative bodies throughout the state extended domestic partnership benefits to the same-sex partners of their workers. Those included Outagamie County, Kenosha, Stevens Point, Middleton, Verona, Grand Chute, La Pointe, Beloit and Fitchburg. The Appleton Town Council passed an ordinance that bans housing discrimination against transgender citizens. Some of the victories were hard-fought, while others passed with minimal opposition.

Wisconsin elects gay officials

While out U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Congressman Mark Pocan made headlines and history in January when they were sworn in to their new offices, other out candidates won local elections in Wisconsin this year.

Dan Manning became the first out gay town councilman in Fond du Lac’s history. A former Equality Wisconsin board co-president, Manning is an Army veteran and founder of the group Salute the Troops. He took the third most votes in Fond du Lac’s open April 2 election, defeating an incumbent who placed fourth. The Fond du Lac Area Association of Commerce was among the influential local groups that endorsed Manning.

Born in Vidalia, Ga., Manning is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where a decade ago he was closeted and a close friend of famed gay military activist Dan Choi. At the time, the two men were active members of the academy’s evangelical Christian community.

Manning is currently a manufacturing engineer at Giddings and Lewis, Inc.

There’s been a strong gay political presence in Madison for years, both officially (on the Democratic side of the aisle) and clandestinely (across the aisle). But 2013 brought historic gains for the lesbian and gay officials in the state’s progressive stronghold. Out Judge Rhonda Lanford ousted Dane County Circuit Judge Rebecca St. John, who was appointed to the job by Gov. Scott Walker in August 2012.

On Madison’s Common Council, three out gay incumbents — Mike Verveer, Steve King and Larry Palm — retained their seats and were joined by a fourth gay alder. John Strasser defeated longtime incumbent Tim Bruer, known locally as the “dean of the Common Council.” Bruer was not, however, known as particularly supportive of the city’s LGBT community.

Political wags said it was Strasser’s vigorous campaigning and Bruer’s arrogant expectation to sail easily to victory in a seat he’d held since 1984 that accounted for the upset. As a result, gays hold 4 of the city’s 20 Common Council seats, which amounts to 20 percent.

LGBT organizations strengthen in 2013

The year saw two stunning LGBT organizational achievements that gave Wisconsin a stronger foundation than ever for building community and mounting political advocacy efforts.

The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center completed a remarkable turnaround during 2013, bouncing back from near-bankruptcy at the beginning of 2012 to eliminate its largest debt, which originally amounted to $500,000 for back rent and remodeling costs owed to the organization’s landlord. With an expanding new menu of programs and services, along with a vibrant and engaged new board of directors representing a broad spectrum of expertise, the center is well positioned to support the growth and influence of Milwaukee’s LGBT community.

In mid-November, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center also got a new leader. After conducting a nationwide search for an executive director, the center hired Colleen Carpenter to fill the post that had been temporarily held by Karen Gotzler. “Colleen’s extensive experience in program management, staff development, community outreach and grant-writing make her an outstanding choice,” said board co-president Paul Williams in a press statement. 

LGBT political organizing in Wisconsin also got a big boost in 2013 with the merger of Equality Wisconsin, a Milwaukee-based LGBT advocacy group, and Fair Wisconsin, which is based in Madison. After participating together in several joint events and holding months of talks about collaboration, the two organizations joined their boards and became one unified organization operating under the Fair Wisconsin name. In a press statement, the newly merged organization described the move as “the best path toward creating a more unified, stable and successful LGBT equality movement.”

By combining resources and supporters, the new Fair Wisconsin says it will have more political leverage and can provide the community with more effective advocacy efforts. Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger is the president and CEO of the group. Former Equality Wisconsin executive director Jason Burns took a position with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan’s office.

Critical gifts for LGBT and AIDS groups

At a time when individual philanthropy for HIV/AIDS appears to be lagging, Milwaukee botanist Will Radler raised the bar with a $1 million donation to the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin’s mental health services. Radler, who bred the world’s best-selling rose — the Knock Out — is an out gay man who has donated to ARCW since 1992. But his $1 million gift was the largest donation ever given to ARCW by an individual. 

Radler said he hoped that his gift would remind others that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over and would challenge others to give.

Equality Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin both received critical support in 2013 from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who presented two gifts totaling $175,000 to the organizations. The money came at a critical time for facilitating the merger, and it underscored Abele’s commitment to equality.

Gay Applebee’s employee bashed

While 2013 saw extraordinary progress for LGBT people all over the world, an ugly incident in little Rice Lake served as a grim reminder that the heart of homophobia is still alive and beating — literally.

Our most heavily read and commented on story of the year was about a gay server at an Applebee’s in Rice Lake who was brutally assaulted on March 17 by the husband of a co-worker and then told not to return to work due to the negative publicity generated by the story of his attack.

According to Timothy Phares and his sister, who was with him at the time, attacker Rien Hendricks said, “Fucking faggot, I’m going to kill you” before busting Phares’ head with a 2 x 4 piece of lumber. Phares was knocked unconscious and awoke in the hospital with severe fractures in his face and jaw.

The incident occurred in the parking lot of another restaurant and was observed by a patron through the window. But justice was not swift in coming, either from law enforcement or Applebee’s. Even after being pressured into letting Phares return to work, Applebee’s refused to fire co-worker Shannon Hendricks, who drove her husband to the crime. The local district attorney’s office declined to press charges against Shannon Hendricks for months or to consider adding a hate crime enhancer to the attack.

Nearly 150,000 people read the initial story about the attack on WiG’s website, and it was picked up by other news sources. An additional 20,000 people have read our follow-up stories and editorials about the incident. 

Catholic schools retract job offer to gay man

Another widely read story this year concerned anti-gay employment bias.

Timothy G. Nelson, a gay man who was living in New Mexico at the time, was overjoyed to sign an agreement naming him president of the Regis Catholic Schools system in his hometown of Eau Claire. Although the job entailed a $27,000 annual salary cut, Nelson was grateful for the opportunity to return to the school system that educated him and wanted to spend time with his mother, who was terminally ill.

But just three weeks after Nelson accepted the position, the Diocese of La Crosse suddenly withdrew it. Nelson said the job offer was revoked because the diocese conducted something of a witch-hunt and discovered he’s gay.

Interestingly, the diocese questioned Nelson’s sexual orientation because the name of another man had been listed parenthetically next to Nelson’s in his father’s obituary, suggesting that the two men were life partners. 

Julaine Appling, who heads the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action, also raised eyebrows when her name was listed in the obituary of the father of her longtime “roommate” Diane Westphal. Appling was the guiding force behind Wisconsin’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and is now trying to have the state’s domestic partner registry law declared unconstitutional. 

But Appling and Westphal both continue to work for WFA — and continue to live together in a home they own jointly in Watertown.

Appling sells tickets to drag show

Every annual news summary should end on a happy note, and Julaine Appling provides this year’s concluding smile. She inadvertently helped to sell out a UW-Fox Valley drag show in Menasha after an “action alert” she issued about the event in March went viral.

Appling’s alert demonized the event as a “display of immorality” intended to propagandize young people. She urged readers to contact the event’s organizers and ask them to halt the program.

“The ‘main attraction’ is the guest appearance of self-proclaimed male homosexual transvestite ‘Shangela’ from a lewd reality television show ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ in which homosexual male drag performers compete for prizes,” Appling wrote. “The tickets are cheap ($3), and so, it appears, is the propaganda, display of immorality, and overall message to the Fox Valley community.”

School officials said the event was paid for by student fees — not taxpayers — and described drag as part of a classic comedy tradition that pre-dates Shakespeare, whose female characters were played by men.

A story that WiG posted online about Appling’s rant went viral, and syndicated gay columnist Dan Savage, who’s based in Seattle, bought up the tickets and then gave them away, ensuring a sell-out crowd. 

So, Julaine, thanks for the memories.