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First in the Nation - Wisconsin's Gay Rights Law

By Jennifer P on Jun 18, 2015 9:46 AM
Left to right: Leon Rouse, Governor Dreyfus, David Clarenbach. Image from Wisconsin GLBT History Project

On February 25, 1982 Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus signed into law a bill that made it illegal for state or private businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to enforce such a law at the state level. It would be nine more years before another state would adopt such protections, making Wisconsin an early leader in protecting the rights of LGBTQ persons.

Wisconsin activists first started to attempt to pass a bill protecting the rights of gays and lesbians in 1967. Milwaukee legislator Lloyd Barabee introduced a bill to the state assembly a bill that would decriminalize homosexuality. In 1971 he introduced a bill to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. When he left the assembly, freshman lawmaker David Clarenbach took up where Barabee had left off. He began to steadily build support for the bills in the state assembly. He was aided by Leon Rouse, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Rouse built a coalition of religious leaders who urged their followers and their lawmakers to endorse the equal rights bill.

Assembly Bill 70 was introduced on February 3, 1981 by Representatives Clarenbach, Leopold, Coggs, Ulichny and Becker. It received bi-partisan support, and was passed as Chapter 112, 1981 Wisconsin law. Despite last minute pressure by some conservatives on governor Lee Dreyfus to veto the bill, he signed it into law on February 25, 1982. The following year a bill would be passed legalizing all sex between consenting adults, 16 years after Lloyd Barabee first introduced his bill to the assembly.

Further Reading:
The Wisconsin GLBT History Project has a detailed overview of the passage of Wisconsin's 1981 AB 70. It includes a timeline of events, as well as scholarly and popular articles written on the passing of the non-discrimination law. The Wisconsin Historical Society has digitized Representative David Clarenbach's papers from that time period.



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