On February 25, 1982, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. One year later, the legislature legalized all sexual relations between consenting adults, including those between same-sex lovers. These landmark achievements were the result of a fifteen-year struggle carried out by progressive lawmakers and LGBT activists.
In 1967, Milwaukee legislator and civil rights activist Lloyd Barbee introduced the first bill to decriminalize homosexuality and all consenting sexual practices in the state assembly. In 1971, two years after the Stonewall Riots in New York, Barbee followed up with a bill to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. When he left the assembly in 1976, freshman lawmaker David Clarenbach of Madison, just twenty-one when elected to his first assembly term, took over. In the years to come, Clarenbach steadily built support for both bills.
When Florida singer Anita Bryant allied with Christian fundamentalists to repeal gay rights ordinances across the U.S. in 1977, her anti-gay rhetoric spurred Milwaukee college student Leon Rouse to start his own campaign for gay rights. Rouse's brilliant plan was to beat the fundamentalists at their own game. He organized clergy from Christian and Jewish denominations to join him on the board of the Committee for Fundamental Judeo-Christian Human Rights. Members of the Committee lobbied their superiors as well as their political representatives, and traveled to Madison to testify in favor of the gay rights bill. Rouse also recruited Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland for his cause. 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.
Whereas Rouse and the Committee assembled religious support, David Clarenbach and other progressive legislators organized the necessary votes. Clarenbach asked assembly members, “Is discrimination tolerable?,” framing the bill as a question of civil rights rather than gay rights. He brought to bear his ties with labor and liberal interest groups, made a point to find Republican allies, and even once traded his vote to get a majority for the bill. In the end, it passed both houses with bipartisan votes. Despite massive last-minute pressure from Christian fundamentalists that he veto the bill, Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus signed it, adding another “Wisconsin First” to the state's history of pioneering progressive legislation.
There are three excellent source documents for further research on Wisconsin's landmark Gay Rights law. The first was published in the Wisconsin Women's Law Journal, in an article titled "THE GAY RIGHTS STATE: WISCONSIN’S PIONEERING LEGISLATION TO PROHIBIT DISCRIMINATION BASED ON SEXUAL ORIENTATION".
The second is the theseis written by Andrea Rottmann, a German research student. Over the course of several years, Andrea interviewed most of the major players in getting the law passes, and has written not only the thesis but also articles for newspapers, and given some presentations on the law as well.
Finally, the original documents from the archival files of David Clarenbach are online at the Wisconsin Historical Society's website. They include the text of the bill, the governor's statement upon signing it, statements from the churches that supported the bill, some press coverage, and more.
(The history of that effort is also nicely summarized in a March 1982 article "AB70 A Look Behind the Scene", published in "Wisconsin's Escape" magazine (see pages 20-24).
Credits: Major content by researcher Andrea Rottmann.
Website design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: April-2012.