Highlights of Wisconsin’s proud LGBT history
Pride Month is a good time to note some of the highs and lows of LGBT history in Wisconsin.
40 YEARS AGO: The vice squad of the Milwaukee Police Department, led by Chief Harold Breier, conducted violent raids on gay clubs in May and July 1978. Dozens of patrons were roughed up, arrested and charged with sex offenses.
Gay men responded with an angry street protest and donations to a defense fund overseen by the Gay People’s Union. The cops slapped back with that old standby of police harassment, a flurry of parking and jaywalking tickets. About half the charges in the raids were dismissed; others were reduced to disorderly conduct.
The MPD’s war on Milwaukee’s gay community extended well past the retirement of the infamous Chief Breier. In 1991, while Jeffrey Dahmer was murdering gay men, the cops were preoccupied with shutting down strip shows at gay bars.
Wisconsin lesbians were super-active on the political front in 1978. They established the state chapter of the National Lesbian Feminist Organization and marched for the Equal Rights Amendment. They lobbied against the cutoff of public funds for poor women’s abortions and were physically ejected from the State Assembly chamber after a rowdy protest.
Lesbians rehabbed a building on Milwaukee’s west side which became the first home of the Sojourner Truth domestic violence shelter. And they argued with each other about almost everything — even the Feminist Arbitration Council, which was supposed to mediate their conflicts!
30 YEARS AGO: In 1988, gay Dane County Supervisor Dick Wagner was elected to serve as chair of the board of supervisors. Openly gay Madison Alderman Jim McFarland garnered the votes to pass Madison’s “Alternative Family Rights” ordinance. The ordinance allowed two legally unrelated individuals with children to live together in Madison. It also provided family sick and bereavement leave to same-sex couples employed by the city.
Milwaukee held its first major Lesbian and Gay Pride celebration in September 1988. Under the slogan “Rightfully Proud,” the two weeks of activities included sports, entertainment, education and political forums. Its success led to a parade and rally in Cathedral Square the following year.
Also in 1988, Susan Cook and Bill Meunier recruited hundreds of LGBT volunteers to work on the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson. Jackson did well in the state, but LGBT campaign workers felt betrayed when Jackson did not choose an openly gay Badger to serve as one of his delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
20 YEARS AGO: After serving for years on the Dane County Board and in the Wisconsin Assembly, Tammy Baldwin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 3, 1998. Baldwin, representing the 2nd Congressional District, was the first woman in Wisconsin history to join the state’s Congressional delegation. She was also the first open lesbian elected to Congress. Baldwin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 and faces re-election this year.
To her ecstatic supporters gathered on election night in 1998, Baldwin declared: “We have proven that in a democracy we decide what is possible. No one can tell us what we can and cannot achieve, what we can and cannot strive for, what we can and cannot dream. This is America. This is a democracy, and in a democracy we decide what is possible.”