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The past as inspiration | How Wisconsin passed the nation's first gay rights law

In February 1982, Wisconsin made history when it became the first state to enact a law protecting lesbians and gays from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The Badger State remained the only state with a gay rights law until the end of the 1980s. Even today, only 21 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of legal protection against discrimination for gays and lesbians; an even smaller number include transgender people.

The year 1982 was not a particularly good one for any progressive cause, let alone gay rights. The backlash against the social and political changes of the 1960s was in full swing. The religious right had gained a solid footing in the GOP and in public discourse.

In 1982, the Equal rights Amendment, designed to constitutionally guarantee the equal treatment of women and men, died – three states short of the number needed for passage. Also in 1982, scientists came up with a name for the new fatal disease that was disproportionally affecting gay men: AIDS.

Wisconsin helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and it was governed by a Republican. How did this largely rural and heavily Catholic state in the upper Midwest become the nation’s gay rights leader? There are many reasons.

It happened because lawmakers put fairness before partisanship. It happened because religious leaders agreed that queer people needed their advocacy as much as any other oppressed group. But most importantly, it happened because a few passionate, determined and talented people worked ceaselessly until they had made it happen.

This is their story.

Lloyd Barbee and David Clarenbach

Civil rights activist Lloyd Barbee from Milwaukee was the first lawmaker to bring gay rights into the political discourse of the Legislature. In 1967, he introduced a bill to decriminalize homosexuality and all consenting sexual practices. At the time, Wisconsin law prohibited oral and anal sex for everyone, including married couples. The laws were still being enforced, although on an irregular basis.

In 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots in New York, Barbee introduced a bill to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. In a radio interview that year, he explained why he supported gay rights.

“A significant number of people in this country enjoy members of their own sex, and they do not bother people who don’t want this enjoyment,” he told listeners. “And they should not be harassed and beaten down and brutalized and insulted and kept out of jobs and so forth.”

Barbee was in sync with his times, but the Legislature lagged behind. His bills never came close to passage. But he succeeded in putting the rights of lesbians and gays on the legislative agenda.

When Barbee left the Assembly in 1976, freshman lawmaker David Clarenbach of Madison took up the cause. Clarenbach joined the Assembly at age 21, having been politically active since high school. Like his mentor Barbee, he came to gay rights through civil rights.

During Clarenbach’s 1970 high school spring break, he went south to register black voters in rural Mississippi, an experience that “framed my life’s commitment to social change,” as he recalled 40 years later. “It was here, in the deep South, that I saw denial of basic civil rights and its impact on the real lives of real people.”

After returning to Madison, Clarenbach joined demonstrations for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. He also realized that he was attracted to men, and tentatively explored Madison’s nascent gay and lesbian scene. Though he never came out publicly during his political career, Clarenbach made no secret of his sexuality, and he was a reliable ally to the LGBT community. Session after session, he steadily built support for both a non-discrimination bill and a sex reform bill in the Assembly.

Community building

In June 1969, gay, lesbian and transgender patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted a police raid, and coverage of the event and the ensuing riots mobilized thousands of gays and lesbians across the nation. Queer people in Wisconsin started organizing publicly just a few months after Stonewall. Their activism bore its first political fruit in 1975, when the Madison City Council revised its Equal Opportunity Ordinance to protect lesbians and gays from discrimination.

Madison’s ordinance mirrored local legislation in many urban areas across the U.S. By the mid-’70s, 15 cities had passed some kind of gay rights legislation, and eight states had repealed their sodomy laws. Gay and lesbian infrastructures were growing in all major cities and college towns. Gay communities were thriving in places like San Francisco and, on a smaller scale, Milwaukee.

Anita Bryant

In the summer of 1977, a popular singer and second runner-up for miss America used her celebrity to lash back at the nation’s burgeoning gay rights movement. Anita Bryant, an evangelical Christian known primarily as the face of Florida orange juice, allied with conservative clergy to drive the repeal of Miami’s gay rights ordinance. Their success resulted in repeal drives around the country, showing how fragile the achievements of the gay rights movement were.

In madison, Bryant inspired a Baptist preacher to mount a repeal drive against the city’s gay rights ordinance. He failed, thanks to the quick reaction of lesbian and gay activists and supportive local politicians. Bryant’s campaign gave an enormous boost to gay organizing nationwide.

In Milwaukee, a political science major named Leon rouse watched Bryant celebrate her victory on the news. Pounding on her podium, she proclaimed, “The ‘normal’ majority have said, ‘Enough! Enough! Enough!’”

“Those were the words that got me into action,” Rouse recalls today. Bryant had recruited the man whose church-based activism would be crucial to passing gay rights in Wisconsin five years later.

Leon Rouse

Leon rouse was born into a conservative Catholic family in northern Wisconsin in 1957. At 17, he came out to his parents, who committed him to the Milwaukee psychiatric Hospital in Wauwatosa in hopes of having him “cured.” Ironically, it was there that Rouse learned about gay support groups in Milwaukee.

A master’s student working at the hospital told Rouse about the Gay People’s Union, the city’s major gay rights organization at the time. She suggested to Rouse’s parents that they let him go to a meeting. “Once he sees all those men dressed as women, and all those women dressed like men, he’ll realize he’s not one of them,” she argued, playing to his parents’ stereotypes. At the GPU meetings, Rouse realized that he was indeed one of them. He found friends and when he turned 18, he left home and moved to Milwaukee.

In 1978, as a student at UW-Milwaukee, Rouse won his first fight for gay rights when he succeeded in persuading the entire UW System to adopt a policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. After this achievement, he directed his activism toward legal change on the local and state levels. He studied the recent repeal drives and found that in Seattle, the mainline churches had spoken out against repeal and the ordinance survived. Rouse borrowed the strategy. He was going to beat the fundamentalists at their own game.

In 1978, Rouse organized ministers from the Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ and United Presbyterian denominations, as well as a rabbi, to join him on the board of a new organization called the Committee for Fundamental Judeo-Christian Human Rights. The cumbersome name wasn’t just descriptive; it could also be read as an ironic imitation of fundamentalist lingo. Members of the committee lobbied their superiors as well as their political representatives, traveling to the Capitol to testify in favor of the gay rights bill.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland

With almost 50 percent of the state’s believers, the Roman Catholic Church was the most influential denomination in Wisconsin, and its most influential leader was the archbishop of Milwaukee. Rouse knew that even the most reactionary lawmaker would listen to the archbishop’s word.

Since 1977, Rembert G. Weakland had led the archdiocese. He was an outspoken advocate for reform who believed that the church had to open itself to the world and the massive changes that society was going through. Rouse approached him in Milwaukee’s downtown Cathedral after Mass and asked him for his help. Weakland voiced his support in a letter distributed among legislators, and he publicly asked Catholics to respect gay people and to back their struggle for rights in a column for Milwaukee’s weekly Catholic newspaper in July 1980.

“We have to see gay people ... as persons worthy of respect and friendship,” he wrote. “We must be concerned, also, about their rights. It seems clear to me that gay people – like all of us – fare better when they are able to develop stable relationships, when they are not relegated to a same-sex society, when they are loved and respected as people trying to grow, humanly and spiritually.”

Weakland was sensitive to the issue because two Catholic teenagers in Milwaukee had recently committed suicide, not knowing how to deal with their homosexuality. His column could also be read, though, as a coming-to-terms with his own homosexuality. In the summer of 1979, Weakland acted out his attraction to men for the first and only time in a gay relationship that lasted only briefly. His column, written just three months after he ended the relationship, is thus also a very personal reflection.


Whereas Rouse and the committee assembled religious support, Clarenbach and other progressive legislators organized the necessary votes.

“The question before us today is not whether homosexuality is admirable, it’s whether discrimination is tolerable,” he appealed to the Assembly, framing the bill as a question of civil rights. Clarenbach put particular effort in finding Republican allies. He also brought to bear his strong ties with progressive interest groups and labor. And he didn’t shy away from trading his vote to win over conservative legislators, supporting a controversial Milwaukee police bill in exchange for their vote for the gay rights bill.

Testimony to an enduring progressive tradition in Wisconsin, the bill found the support of 10 Republican representatives and passed both houses with bipartisan votes. Gov. Lee Dreyfus, a Republican, chose to sign the bill into law despite a massive last-minute campaign by Christian fundamentalists. “I have decided to sign this bill for one basic reason, to protect one’s right to privacy,” he explained.

After 15 years of activism, the bill finally became law on Feb. 25, 1982, adding another first to the state’s history of pioneering progressive legislation. Despite enormous changes in attitudes toward queer people, and significant legal progress on the local, state and federal levels, many of the problems that Barbee, Clarenbach, and Rouse worked so hard to overcome persist today. In April, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn of Iowa took his life after classmates bullied him for being gay, the latest victim of a series of suicides among queer teenagers and young adults.

While discrimination against lesbians and gays continues to be outlawed here, so is same-sex marriage. And our historic law urgently needs to be updated to include transgender people, who still have no remedy against discrimination.

Let’s ask our state’s legislators to look back 30 years and take inspiration from Wisconsin’s pioneering step toward full equality.

Andrea Rottmann is a historian interested in the history of the LGBT movement in the U.S. and in Germany. Her thesis on Wisconsin’s gay rights law won the prize for the best thesis in gender and diversity history, awarded by the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. In the fall, she will continue her studies in a PhD program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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