Dick Wagner is technically retired, but he’s never shied away from civic involvement, and he’s not about to start now.
The first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, Wagner served on the board for 14 years, including four years as the chair. He helped create the Period Garden Park in downtown Madison, and pushed along the Monona Terrace and Olbrich Gardens projects. He’s currently the secretary of the Botanical Society and chair of Madison’s Urban Design Commission.
Much of his work has centered around activism in the LGBT community. He was instrumental in creating a 1980 county nondiscrimination ordinance protecting gay and lesbian individuals, which helped build support for a later statewide nondiscrimination bill. He was co-chair of the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues in 1983 and one of the co-founders of UW-Madison’s LGBT Alumni Association and the Harvest Foundation, the LGBT foundation for southern Wisconsin. He served on the board for Madison Aids Support Network, and he’s currently on the committee to form an LGBT archive at UW-Madison.
He’s not done. He’s currently writing a book on the gay history of Wisconsin, covering the 1890s to 1980s. With 18 chapters down and about two chapters to go, he’s planning to complete his manuscript this winter. He hopes to finish his 10-year project in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. The riots were a response to a police raid of a gay bar and kickstarted the fight for LGBT rights.
The book started with his propensity to save. He has over 40 boxes he calls his “gay archives,” which include documents, articles, early AIDS studies and notes from his 1983 fact-finding mission on gay life in Wisconsin with fellow activist Kathleen Nichols, commissioned by then-Gov. Tony Earl. Many of the documents will be included in the UW-Madison LGBT archives.
“I have boxes and boxes. I was a saver. And as a historian, I knew documents were important to history,” Wagner said. “Much like our lives have been hidden, our history has been hidden. That’s the other reason for writing: to have our history come out of the closet as well as ourselves.”
What made you to want to write a book about gay history in Wisconsin?
Well, part of it is to explain my own life, unfortunately or fortunately, I don’t know which way to put that. Because I have lived through remarkable change that has occurred in this state, and also because there’s certain gaps in gay history. I read a lot of gay history, always did before I started on this writing project. Too often there’s an emphasis in gay history that it’s sort of bicoastal, it’s either New York or San Francisco. So the whole middle part of the country’s gay history often gets overlooked and I want to try and fill in that blank. The other blank in gay history is that there’s a lot of gay histories of cities: gay New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, but there’s very few at the state level. And insofar as the state is our basic political structure in our federal system and because this state’s politics for lesbian and gay people has been extraordinary, it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s sort of filling in the coastal gap, it’s filling in the state-level stuff, and it’s bringing Wisconsin’s uniqueness out.
You know, we’re the only state that has elected three out Congress people, with (Sen. Tammy) Baldwin, (Rep. Mark) Pocan and (former Rep. Steve) Gunderson. We were the first state to have a gay rights law. We were the first state to have a governor’s council, there were a couple others on sort of sexual minorities or privacy and stuff like that, but they didn’t use the gay identifying words; gay and lesbian. Those are rather unique accomplishments and many people have no idea about them.
What else is unique about gay history in Wisconsin?
One of the things is that, in gay history you have a number of gay witch hunts. Certainly the McCarthy period, when more gays were fired from the government than communists were, at the federal level. And McCarthy had a very strong anti-gay streak, as well as an anti-communist streak, which is not well known. We had this both history of witch hunts and then a history of fighting against them. And there was an earlier episode in the 1930s before McCarthyism. It was called “chapelism” which was sort of proto-McCarthyism and it failed. And McCarthyism had some success and there was a witch hunt at the university called the ‘62 Gay Purge, and then after Stonewall there was this remarkable flowering of gay and lesbian organizations and activity in this state.
What is it about Wisconsin that fosters both witch hunts but also this passionate fighting back against it?
It’s the state’s political nature. In the 1930s you had a four-party system in this state, which was really unique. And it’s that four-party system that defeats the witch hunt, it was the progressive tradition. McCarthy comes in and basically destroys that progressive tradition, but a lot of it’s still there, and it resurfaces and so, you’ve had this tug-of-war politically in this state over many things, and gay issues is only one of those issues that gets into that tug-of-war. So in describing gay history in the state, you put it in that context that’s more familiar to people.
How large of a factor is the UW?
UW is a big factor in Madison, and college campuses are a big factor all around the state. It’s not just UW-Madison, it’s UW-Milwaukee, it’s Lawrence College in Appleton, it’s Beloit College in Beloit. All of those campuses have a significant role in helping provide spaces for the gay community to organize and express issues that follow Stonewall. And actually UW-Madison even before Stonewall, there were a number of professors who studied gay issues and in doing that, enlightened the nature of the gay community, even though that’s not what they were trying to do; it’s almost an aside of their research. But in the 30s, 40s, there were academics who were dealing with gay issues and writing about them in the academic press.
You mentioned that writing this book is helping you understand your own story. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Many people who were raised as I was in the 1950s, we had no information about homosexuality. It was, if talked about at all, it was sort of either in a criminal phase or a sickness phase, and you know, I didn’t feel criminal, I didn’t feel sick. But I didn’t know what I was, or didn’t have a positive understanding of it. So when I was in graduate school, my dissertation topic was on a group of progressive reformers who were trying to end red light districts, which took me into the social deviance section of the stacks of the library. So I could just sidle over and read stuff about homosexuality, also in the social deviance section. I would never think to check any of them out. So, total lack of good or correct information about sexuality, existed in the life that I was brought up in. And so one, I had to figure it out. And two, I had to find real information, so the discovery of that information sort of becomes a lifelong task when one doesn’t have resources.
When you went on the “fact-finding mission” throughout the state, what kind of things did you discover? What did you report back?
There was an active gay community in Milwaukee, and so this is ‘83 when Gov. Tony Earl asked Kathleen (Nichols) and I to do this. And Milwaukee had been organized right after Stonewall, as had Madison. There were groups up in Appleton, Stevens Point, in Racine; there were occasional activists in other isolated places around the states.
One of the big concerns was, like everyone else, they were paying taxes, and government services either in courts, police, or social services were not sensitive to their needs ... Basically, gays and lesbians did not feel like they were really citizens of the state, that their government was open to them and had access and services that provided for their needs.
If you went on a similar “fact-finding mission” today...
A world of difference, a world of difference. Many social service providers are sensitive to a diverse community. … Probably there’s 50 to 75 communities around the state that are supporting gay organizations at this point, rather than the less than half dozen that we found. Actually it’s probably more like over 100 communities, if you think of all the gay-straight alliances in the schools, and things like that, too. So it’s like night and day.
I’ve seen a lot on social media and in the press about LGBT expressing fear and concern after the Trump/Pence election that progress for LGBT rights will be halted or taken away. Are you concerned about that?
This is a long-haul fight. You know, I first campaigned for a city gay rights ordinance in ‘74. So, you know, I’ve been at this for many, many decades at this point. You have setbacks, but you’re not going to go away. Harvey Milk used to say, “They’re not going to chisel the words off the Statue of Liberty, and they’re not going to take 'liberty and justice for all' out of the pledge of allegiance. So it’s our struggle to continue to make that a reality. So we could get a very bad Supreme Court, a lot of the protections for partners of gays and lesbians who are immigrants may be revoked administratively, I think.
A lot of bad things could happen; I don’t know which ones will for sure. But you keep going on. When the governor's counsel was terminated by Gov. Thompson after Earl lost the election to him, my co-chair of that, Kathleen Nichols said — and she was quoting Joe Hill, the union organizer — "Don’t mourn, organize."