Wisconsin’s top LGBT stories of 2012

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WiG’s picks for Wisconsin’s top LGBT stories of 2012 include:

Tammy! Tammy! Tammy!

In her victory speech, Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin was adamant: “I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference.”

But Baldwin did make history, shattering two glass ceilings at once. On Nov. 6, she became the first woman ever elected to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate and the first out gay person ever elected to serve in Congress’ upper chamber. Notably, both she and President Barack Obama, the first president ever to endorse marriage equality, won handily with Wisconsin voters just months after tea party Republican Scott Walker became the first governor in the nation to survive a recall challenge.

Baldwin prevailed in a tough race against popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson by running a disciplined campaign that never strayed off its message of shoring up the middle class by leveling the American playing field. She worked hard, meeting voters all over the state face to face. Her soft-spoken command of the facts and her sincere, friendly demeanor contrasted sharply with Thompson’s fireworks display of self-aggrandizing bombast.

Baldwin paved the way for yet another LGBT history-making event. Out Assemblyman Mark Pocan won his bid for the Madison-area congressional seat that she retired from in order to run for the Senate. It was the first time in history that one out candidate has succeeded another in Congress.

GOP stranglehold

Although they’ve proven hopelessly inept at managing the state’s economy, Wisconsin’s Republican leaders proved to be absolute savants at gerrymandering.

Every decade following the U.S. Census, state governments are tasked with redrawing political district boundaries to reflect population shifts. The GOP was in total charge of state government following the 2010 Census, having flooded into Madison on a national tea party wave. And they took total advantage of the situation, contorting Assembly and Senate districts to give themselves likely control of Wisconsin until 2020.

As a result, even though voters in the state delivered President Obama a convincing win and elected progressive Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, Republicans regained control of the state Senate, which they had lost briefly during the summer recall races. Republicans also won 60 out of 99 Assembly seats, even though Democrats overall received 174,000 more votes than Republicans in Assembly races.

Wisconsin wasn’t the only state where tea party gerrymandering created strange partisan discrepancies. Disconnects between the number of popular votes cast for one party and the number of congressional seats won by the other was the largest since 1950.

Growing grassroots

Recognizing the impossibility of making gains for equality in Madison during 2012, advocates turned to the local level – and with great success. As if energized by the challenging political environment, the year saw Wisconsin LGBT rights groups and individual activists operating at full tilt.

During 2011, the city of Appleton extended domestic partner benefits to the same-sex partners of city workers after three tries. But during 2012, five cities – Manitowoc, Eau Claire, Janesville, Racine and Kenosha – joined the equality bandwagon with little resistance. In fact, in Kenosha, which adopted the policy on Dec. 17, the vote was 15-0, with one abstention.

“I think this shows that tides are turning, that people’s hearts and minds are changing on the issue of equality,” said Megin McDonell of Fair Wisconsin, which provided support to those local efforts. “They’re starting to see how these laws protect everyone equally – their friends and neighbors and everyone they work with.”

In Milwaukee, Jason Burns was named executive director of the growing group Equality Wisconsin after a nationwide search. He dug in quickly and positioned his group in a leading role in a number of local actions, ranging from helping a local resident physician to obtain in-state tuition for his husband to pushing the Milwaukee Public Schools to streamline its labyrinthine process of awarding partnership benefits.

EW also worked throughout the year to strengthen the community’s mutually supportive relationships with progressive allies in Milwaukee, including groups representing labor, immigrants’ rights and women’s health.

The two LGBT advocacy groups played significant roles in registering voters and electing pro-equality progressives in Democratic primaries for local and state offices during 2012. Fair Wisconsin’s strong network of supporters on campuses and among PFLAG chapters throughout the state helped increase the turnout for Baldwin.

As the year drew to a close, an appeals court panel ruled that the state’s domestic partner registry, signed into law by former Gov. Jim Doyle, is constitutional. That decision was only possible because Fair Wisconsin had taken the role of defending the law when Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to do so.

No recall

Labor unions, which have played a major role in advancing LGBT rights, lost huge when Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall challenge. Labor will now face continued attacks that could have a negative effect on wages and benefits for all workers in the state, where one in five already earns poverty-level wages.

For progressives in general, Walker’s survival – coupled with the GOP’s enhanced control of state government – means more attacks. For example, there will be renewed attacks on women’s health programs, such as Planned Parenthood. Women will have to fight continually in Madison to maintain their right and access to contraception and abortion. Forget about equal pay protection.

The state’s environment will also remain under attack. Last year, the Legislature approved science-based rules to reduce the runoff pollution that threatens 90 percent of the state’s inland lakes. Walker hopes to weaken those rules in order to help out the polluting industries that have given him massive amounts of cash.

While all of Walker’s austerity measures and anti-progressive policies were designed to boost job growth and make the state more business friendly, his strategy has had the opposite effect. Forbes now ranks Wisconsin as one of the top 10 worst states in the nation to do business. The state experienced a net loss of jobs through October of 2012 and Forbes projects Wisconsin’s job-growth rate to be the second worst in the country through 2016.

Just in case those statistics should hamper Walker’s reelection prospects, the tea party plans to begin 2013 with a proposal to end same-day voter registration, which would make it harder for students and poor people to vote.

But the ongoing John Doe investigation into crimes committed by his staffers during Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive could derail his reelection before 2014. Four former staffers have already been convicted in the ongoing probe.

From the ashes

The year 2011 ended with the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center hovering on the brink of collapse – the consequence of poor financial management and the alienation of community members.

But the center’s original founders rallied to its aid, assisted by the support of energetic, skilled and committed volunteers who recognized the critical need for the center. Among those who rushed forward to save it were Neil Albrecht, the center’s first executive director, and Karen Gotzler, who returned as interim executive director.

Paul Williams, who along with Jennifer Morales is now a co-chair of the center’s board of directors, said the revitalized center “demonstrates what a community can accomplish when it commits to a united goal.”

Among the new leaders’ accomplishments: reducing operating expenses by 50 percent and lowering management costs by 65 percent through “right-sizing,” Williams said.

The board of directors also revised its by-laws to reverse a controversial change under prior director Maggi Cage that had prevented the group’s membership from electing board members.

After a year of re-negotiating contracts and re-establishing relationships, the center’s board decided late in 2012 that the group is secure enough to go to the public for funding. A fundraising campaign titled “Believe in the Center” seeks to raise $300,000 from a variety of sources – individuals, foundations and corporations – by June 2013.

The campaign had an impressive kick-off in its first two weeks, raising more than $50,000 from core supporters, including $22,000 in matching dollars from the Cream City Foundation. Now the center is turning to individuals in the community to contribute.

Cream City Foundation also had a banner 2012. Positive developments included the naming of Paul Fairchild, a longtime organizational leader in Chicago’s LGBT community, as executive director.  The Milwaukee-based LGBT health advocacy group Diverse & Resilient had a successful year as well, winning large grants from the federal government and the Medical College of Wisconsin..

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