Celebrating the Legacy of the Gay Rights State

by | May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

  • On February 25, 1982, Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus signs AB70 into law with Leon Rouse and David Clarenbach at his side. The law added “sexual orientation” to the list of non-discrimination categories in Wisconsin.
  • Pocan
  • Wright
  • Nash
  • Doylen
  • Schaffer

On February 25 of this year, Wisconsin celebrated 42 years as the first Gay Rights State in the nation.

On February 25, 1982, Governor Lee Dreyfus passed Assembly Bill 70 into law, banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, credit, or public accommodation. This groundbreaking bill was a long, uphill battle two decades in the making. The “Gay Rights Law” offered a new layer of protections beyond civic ordinances some cities (including Madison and Milwaukee) had offered earlier.

Today, there are still states that do not offer these protections—and worse yet, there are many states, including Wisconsin, where these rights remain endangered four decades later. It’s also important to understand the 1982 law did not offer any protections for transgender people, nor does the State of Wisconsin offer any protections to trans citizens today.

Fortunately, there are efforts under way to document, preserve, celebrate, and elevate Wisconsin’s national legacy as an equality leader—to inspire and advance true equality for all.

Announcing the Wisconsin First Project 

Since 1982, multiple states passed copycat bills to provide similar protections. Nine of these states specifically reached out to Wisconsin legislators for political guidance.

“Our documented history of this effort and its national impact is currently a patchwork of sources,” said Greg Wright, project manager for Wisconsin First. “Some records are held at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Society, but the complete history lacks a cohesive, centralized point of access. Furthermore, many primary sources from that era are not available in digital formats, and many of the people with access and awareness of those materials are approaching the end of their public lives.”

The Wisconsin First Project, which launched February 25, will address gaps in information, access, and centralization to improve opportunities for related research and understanding. Our Lives Media, the Madison-based non-profit working to establish Our Lives as a robust statewide LGBTQ media, has assembled a project team to research, collect, and digitize relevant source materials from the Wisconsin bill and copycat legislation in other states. The project will culminate in an interactive online archive freely available to researchers, students, educators, legislators, and historians.

“This work will strengthen collective and institutional memory,” said Wright. “The archive will capture the complete history of the 1982 law—and the later equal rights advancements the law paved the way for—while fostering pride for our state and nation’s endeavor to achieve true equality for all people.”

“With any legislation of this importance and magnitude, one will often find information about it scattered in different places such as archival repositories, state and government archives, online sources, and more,” said Katie Nash, archivist and head of UW Archives at UW-Madison. “We live in a very digitally connected world and the expectation for resources and information to be online increases daily.  There is great potential for this online resource to provide researchers with a central place to learn more about Assembly Bill 70, follow any research interests to expand knowledge, and increase understanding of this legislation.”

By sponsoring a $250,000 Community Funding Request in 2022, Representative Mark Pocan made the Wisconsin First Project possible. These funds, now known as the Dick Wagner Memorial Grant, were awarded to Our Lives Media to steward the project. “I serve on the Appropriations Committee, so I can have first-hand conversations with the right people,” said Rep. Pocan. “I needed people to understand why I was supporting this critical project. Since Republicans took control of the House, they’ve been targeting LGBTQ funding. We are living through a time when rights are being retracted, so it was more important than ever to protect this history.”

The Dick Wagner Memorial Grant, approved by the House Appropriations Committee in 2023, promises “to research, compile, and archive all relevant documents that pertain to, and tell the story of, the nation’s first gay rights law which was passed in Wisconsin in 1982 (AB 70). A publicly accessible website hosting all relevant materials, and a book containing all such materials, will be published. This project will increase the public’s access to, and understanding of, American history, assist future researchers, and support efforts that reinforce the universal truth that “all men are created equal.”

“Dick was a mentor to many of us, especially those of us coming up in politics, while coming out in politics,” said Rep. Pocan. “While he served on the Dane County Board, he was a mentor to both Tammy Baldwin and me. And he was quite a historian, writing articles and books about the LGBT movement. The Gay Rights Law was so tightly aligned with his lifetime of work. It made sense to honor him with this memorial grant and archive. He did so much to preserve the history of the movement, and he would want us to learn from our mistakes—and not make them ever again.”

Future forward 

After receiving grant approval, the Our Lives Media board of directors defined measurable goals, actionable timelines, and key roles for the Wisconsin First Project, including project manager, communications manager, and project archivist. After a national talent search, Our Lives Media hired H.W. MacDonald as the archivist in late February.

“While it took a while for Wisconsin First to figure out all of the grant logistics, the project has found its momentum and is moving forward with energy and efficiency,” said Wright. “Our project archivist brings expertise from working on other projects of national significance. Their arrival and onboarding has been a real forward shift in overall progress.”

The project is currently working full speed ahead towards its deadlines and deliverables.

“We are scouring online databases, public records, and various archives for any and all existing materials,” said Wright. “The pleasant surprise is that we are finding a lot related to AB70. The challenge is that those materials are scattered across multiple states and counties. Many documents, which have the potential to be helpful to us, are lying in unsorted boxes.”

“We will finish locating most of the materials related to AB 70 in the next few weeks,” said Wright. Simultaneously, we are working with a web developer to frame out the future site. When the Wisconsin materials are secured and digitized, we will shift to copycat legislation in other states—although some of that is already revealing itself. We will close out with some oral histories to inform what we find and hope to have most of this loaded into a website by the end of June.”

In the Information Age, can an archive ever truly be done? Wright admits it’s a tough call.

“We have been talking about this archive more and more as a living memory library,” said Wright. “In that sense, it may never be ‘done,’ but it will be built so that Our Lives Media can keep loading in new discoveries as they’re found. Our targeted finish line for the grant, then, is to have the spine and website built and as much of the essential information loaded in so that the memory library is of immediate value to visitors and ready for growth.”

“I’m a late-to-the-party gay myself,” said Greg Wright. “As such, it has been important for me personally to invest in learning the Wisconsin history that has made my experience possible. I am also proud of the many ways Wisconsin has initiated national movements, from kindergarten to conservation to the 40-hour work week. I am excited to see this equally important first memorialized.”

Yesterday’s progress matters 

Some have asked: What can today’s activists, advocates, and politicians learn from the Wisconsin First Archive?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

“The world can learn a lot,” said Rep. Pocan. “There’s tremendous pride in being first in nation. Here in the heartland, in what some call the heart of America, we made this happen. It didn’t happen in California or New York. It happened here in Wisconsin. I remember the debates, the lobbying, the work David Clarenbach was doing. I was watching history happen live. For the future’s sake, we need to understand where we came from, what we had to fight for, and what some people are still fighting for in other states. This was significant. This was historic. And people made it happen.

“When we know our history, we can better organize our community,” said Pocan. “To protect our rights, we must understand how to build and grow consensus. When attacks come, like today’s attacks on the trans community, we can recreate the successes from that 1982 process to replicate the victories we earned.”

Michael Doylen, associate vice provost and director of libraries at UW-Milwaukee, agreed.

“We can be proud of Wisconsin’s leadership in protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, but we also can’t take it for granted that the trailblazing protections afforded by AB70 can’t be rolled back or assume that LGBTQ people are entirely free to live their lives as they wish. History provides the context for understanding how the future might play out, and libraries and archives provide access to the sources that make such understanding possible. It’s critical that all LGBTQ stories be collected, preserved, and shared.”

“As supporters of the Pro-Choice movement will attest, no law can be taken for granted,” said Steve Schaffer, archivist for the Milwaukee County Historical Society. “Laws enacted to protect personal freedom, equal rights, and eliminate all forms of discrimination can be struck down or diminished by determined reactionary movements.

“In the current political environment, AB70 has never been more relevant and in need of protection and support. The Wisconsin First Archive will be an essential resource for the goals of protecting the achievements and legacy of AB70 and creating a new wealth of LGBTQ history to ensure that Wisconsin remains ‘Forward’ in the struggle. Scholars, activists, students, indeed, anyone will have the ability to explore the many facets of LGBTQ life in Wisconsin, but most importantly, individuals and organizations will have an organized repository (for now virtual) in which to entrust business records, memoirs, and oral histories.”

“Assembly Bill 70 demonstrated that progress towards equality was possible at the state level, even during a period when LGBTQ rights were still widely contested and stigmatized,” said Katie Nash. “There is a lot of hope to be found in Assembly Bill 70 in knowing that with legislation we can continue to work towards equality and justice. This online resource provides a place where people can continue to learn about the impact and importance of this legislation, and hopefully inspire people to continue advocating for equality.”

The only way is forward 

With the Wisconsin First Archive launching in months, the natural question is: What’s next?

“I think now that Wisconsin has protected this history, there are other aspects of history that warrant protection of their own,” said Rep. Pocan. “There’s still a lot of history happening in our state. All of that is important to collect, archive, grow, and teach for posterity.”

“For the short term, I look forward to learning about resources that exist outside of established organizations and witness how personal stories contribute to the knowledge and resources about Assembly Bill 70,” said Katie Nash. “For the long term, it would be great to see the archive continue to be maintained and preserved for all to access, but that will take a lot of resources, infrastructure, and money.”

“I think one of the things we’re most excited about is a book on that period of time,” said Rep. Pocan. “I still find easily 99% of the people involved in today’s national LGBTQ movement don’t know this history. If you ask them where the first state is, they know Iowa for marriage equality, but they don’t know Wisconsin’s legacy. And it’s such a remarkable story: People were able to get this done in the Upper Midwest, when they couldn’t get it done in places with larger populations and greater support. It says a lot about the broad support of equality for all people. Hopefully, there are lessons that can help other marginalized communities.”

“As a professional archivist, it is exciting for me to be involved in the historical reclamation of a traditionally underserved, excluded, and ignored population,” said Schaffer. “Our goal at the Milwaukee County Historical Society has been, and is, to reject the role of “archives as gate keeper” that is all too often been the institutional climate of traditional historical societies. I look forward to the opportunity to support and contribute archival material to the Wisconsin First Archive.”

“Our archivist will be visiting Madison soon,” said Wright. “We will conclude their assignment with a strong sense of the themes that revealed themselves, as well as the existing materials that fit within those themes.

“We will commemorate that final milestone—by sharing what we’ve uncovered with the people who lived it.”

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