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We've Been Here All Along: Early Gay History in Wisconsin

An excerpt from the Richard W. Wagner book, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society press

We've Been Here All Along: Early Gay History in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeWe've Been Here All Along

by Richard W. Wagner

In Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s stirring and searing drama about the AIDS crisis that opened on Broadway in 1993, the playwright calls for no more hidden deaths. More importantly, he has the character Prior Walter, the prophet, proclaim that gay folks will henceforth emerge from the shadows to be citizens of America.

The idea of claiming citizenship was familiar to me from my first fulltime job as director of the Wisconsin American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. At the revolution’s one hundredth anniversary celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, Susan B. Anthony had posed the question of whether women were indeed citizens. One hundred years later, in the Wisconsin Commission newsletter and in my speeches, I featured her statement as one that captured the unfolding dream of equality, enunciated though not realized in 1776.

As a semi-closeted gay man in the early 1970s, I faced the same question that Anthony addressed: What kind of citizen was I? Today most LGBT historians date the beginning of American gay liberation to the Stonewall riots of June 1969. In New York City, patrons of an LGBT bar, the Stonewall Inn, located in Greenwich Village, reacted to a police raid by fighting back against the oppression they had passively accepted for years.

As David Carter wrote in Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, “These riots are widely credited with being the motivating force in the transformation of the gay political movement.”1 Drag queens, street youths, and lesbians were all part of the persecuted group that pushed back on the streets of the Village for the several nights of the riots. This event led directly to the founding of the city’s Gay Liberation Front and, not long afterward, like-minded activist organizations around the country, including here in Wisconsin. For all those who have been part of the post-Stonewall gay generation that has claimed the American dream of full and equal citizenship, it is important to know how that happened, and in particular how it happened here in Wisconsin.

It is too often presumed that most gay history in the United States took place on the East and West Coasts. But strong traditions and evidence prove that societal reform also happened elsewhere, on what in my days of campus activism was called the Third Coast—that is, the states bordering the Great Lakes. The very first gay organization in the United States was founded in the 1920s in Chicago. The state of Illinois, by adopting a model law reform code, was the first to decriminalize homosexual acts in 1961. Before the 1969 Stonewall riots, Wisconsin had the first public call—in 1966, by a political body, the state’s Young Democrats—for abolition of strictures against homosexuals so they could have “freedom of action.” Before Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Madison, Ann Arbor, and Minneapolis all had out gay elected officials.

So there are stories to tell of the development of gay communities in places like the Upper Midwest, including Wisconsin. Some of them are quite intriguing, like the rural-urban “fairy network” of southern Wisconsin in the 1930s. Milwaukee has a long-running LGBT community. The North Woods had a vibrant same-sex tradition in the mid-twentieth century. Madison’s LGBT community has been activist based, with links to the great university. Both Madison and Milwaukee began organizing for gay liberation within months of Stonewall. And Wisconsin was on the national circuit for early out speakers like Ginny Apuzzo and others who traveled to all three coasts. Stevens Point was a central place to which some of these speakers brought their messages of a new future for LGBT people. There is another reason to write a Wisconsin gay history. Most of the gay histories to date that are geographically based are city focused. Yet a building block of polity in these constitutionally federal United States is the state entity. It is one of the bases for our constitutional and fundamental laws, as all the fights involving state marriage amendments demonstrated. States also enact criminal laws that all too often have touched homosexual lives in deleterious ways. In more modern modes, states have at times led in civil rights law and health policy. So showing how a state, through its legal structures, interacts with its gay community is another important story that needs to be told.

A state’s political structures define its legal culture and to a degree reflect its social ideas. As LGBT people have sought to right past oppressions and avoid new ones, challenges have arisen. In the early twentieth century, safe enclaves of gay culture in Wisconsin may have provided a sufficient means of survival, but in modern times the gay community has had to vigorously enter the public square. What grounds do LGBT folks and their supporters choose for the battle? How are issues positioned? Where can allies can be found?

Wisconsin in 1982 became the first state to enact a gay rights law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Wisconsin was also the first state to elect three openly gay/lesbian persons to Congress: Steve Gunderson, Tammy Baldwin, and Mark Pocan. How do such victories occur—not just in the isolated sense of a particular legislative maneuver or electoral campaign, but in the context of a political culture and community efforts?

The story of gay history in Wisconsin is the interaction of gay people with the power structures of the state. How that straight-dominated polity and social structure reacted to the impetus—that yearning for full citizenship on the part of Wisconsin gay people—is not too dissimilar from what happened elsewhere around the country in some instances, but in others it was influenced by our own unique Wisconsin circumstances.

I wish that this work could encompass all Wisconsin gay history. As a gay man, I feel most comfortable and competent in dealing with issues of male homosexuality, yet I have tried to be inclusive of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues where the record exists. I am sure a different feminist perspective would reveal many other things. Prior to the twenty-first century, the LGBT community was known variously as the gay community, or the gay and lesbian community. At times I use the term gay to be inclusive of non-normative individuals without regard to gender. The significant inclusion of bisexuals and transgender individuals occurred only in the last decade of the twentieth century. Thus, I have chosen to use the acronym LGBT to refer to the community described in this book, and I have avoided the more contemporary addition of letters such as Q, I, and A, in the acronym. After Stonewall, many gay men and lesbians worked together in the liberation struggles. There are, of course, many additional stories to tell about aspects of Wisconsin’s LGBT past, and my wish is that other historians will take on the research and writing of those aspects, as a few already have.

Particularly worth reading are Will Fellows’s works Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest and A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture, and Michail Takach’s LGBT Milwaukee. Visiting the website on Wisconsin LGBT history created by Don Schwamb, www.mkelgbthist.org, is instructive, especially for its depth of reporting on the Milwaukee community. The writer and historian Jamakaya also has written many interesting look-back items over the decades, especially with regard to the women’s community in several LGBT publications. Schwamb and Jamakaya have had important roles in both creating and recording our history.2

We’ve Been Here All Along, covering the pre-Stonewall period before 1969, shows the dominant negative narrative about homosexuality in Wisconsin maintained by legislators, courts, and the culture in general. Yet during those days, Wisconsin’s gay people began to develop and present their own sense of identity. For their own self-affirmation, they successfully sought others who were like-minded. They developed a sense of community that permitted many to reject the label of “sickness” applied to them. By participating in Wisconsin academic studies about homosexuality and other means, they began to enact positive counternarratives about their own lives. In discovering their hidden stories, I hope to balance out a regional history that has largely left them, or at least their identities, out of the narrative. As the title suggests, we have been here all along, even if not positively acknowledged. Another trend in LGBT history is to recognize that liberation did not spring full blown from the Stonewall event. The post-Stonewall activists, though they may have not believed it, stood on the shoulders of elders. Though the claiming of rights seems a post-liberation strategy, before 1969 many LGBT people were citizens even with their identities in the shadows. Post-Stonewall, these attitudes fueled a whole new generation of Wisconsin activists, as I will establish in volume two, Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History.

"We've Been Here All Along," is available at your favorite book dealer including independent booksellers at IndieBound. E-books are also available through most e-book vendors, including KOBO, the online e-book portal for many independent booksellers. You can also purchase this book online through our store by clicking here.