submitted by Dave Mollenhoff
Who knew about early Wisconsin’s gay history? Really, no one. But now, thanks to Richard Wagner, this story is out of the closet with his new, scholarly, and extensively illustrated book, We’ve Been Here All Along (Wisconsin Historical Society Press).
In a surprise-filled presentation Wagner summarized Wisconsin’s remarkable story from 1895 to 1969. During most of these years, being gay in Wisconsin was downright dangerous. Gays were almost universally regarded as criminals or suffering from organic illness or a psychiatric disorder, and this interpretation was upheld by the police, the courts, and even universities. Men convicted of sodomy were routinely sent to prison or an insane asylum.
Not until the 1930s and 1940s did a few academics begin to view homosexuals as a legitimate subject for research. For example, a UW professor interviewed prisoners at Waupun who had been convicted of sodomy and from this experience came a series of books and articles that softened society’s harsh caricatures.
Wagner noted that Madison gays and lesbians played significant activist roles by forming social clubs, creating gay bars, and forming organizations such as the Homophile League.
Curiously, Wisconsin society lavished a more benign interpretation upon lesbians describing them as “domestic friends.” In 1962 when the UW-Madison launched a purge of homosexuals, lesbians escaped, thanks to Dean of Women Margaret Peterson, who was a lesbian.
Wagner began collecting documents for his book 40 years ago but did not begin to write it until 2008. A second volume, Coming Out, Moving Forward, covering the period from 1969 to the present will be published by the Wisconsin Historical Press in 2020.
Our thanks also to Wisconsin Eye for videotaping our meeting this week and to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press for selling copies of Wagner’s book. If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.