By Amy Rabideau Silvers
Forty years ago, with the addition of just a few words to its nondiscrimination statute, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to declare that gay and lesbian citizens were entitled to equal rights in housing, employment and public accommodations.
It was, the law stated, “the right of all persons to have equal opportunities … regardless of their … sexual orientation.”
The bill was signed by Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus on Feb. 25, 1982. Wisconsin became known as “The Gay Rights State.”
The successful legislation was largely credited to State Rep. David Clarenbach, a Democrat who still lives in Madison. The victory came with the radical strategy of not arguing about homosexuality but instead arguing for equal rights, he said, speaking in an interview with the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Bipartisan support was crucial. Crucial to that support was winning the blessings of Wisconsin religious communities, including from Protestant, Jewish and Catholic leaders.
“The Wisconsin Baptist convention voted to support AB 70,” Clarenbach said. “That was the beginning of the religious right movement, the so-called moral majority, and we were able to isolate the moral majority as the fringe movement that they are.”
The effort included identifying what legislative members – both Democrat and Republican – needed political cover to vote for the antidiscrimination bill.
“We would go to that person’s local Democrat and Republican clubs. We would go to that person’s minister or priest and talk about what was the moral thing to do,” Clarenbach said.
“We didn’t ask them whether being gay was good or bad, to be encouraged or discouraged, whether it was sinful or not sinful. We asked whether bigotry and discrimination could be tolerated against any group in our society. And when that is the question, the answer is a resounding no.”
Gay and lesbian activists supported the effort, though within the community there was debate about what should be the first goal – a bill to decriminalize sexual conduct or a bill banning discrimination in areas like housing and employment.
Playing the long game
New to the State Assembly, Clarenbach joined forces with Rep. Lloyd Barbee (D-Milwaukee), who had long proposed similar bills. Clarenbach, too, began playing the long game, formally introducing bills every year for eight years. Along the way, the language morphed from “sexual preference” to “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination bill.
The other bill, renamed the Consenting Adults Bill, became the canary in the coal mine, gradually winning greater support, while the antidiscrimination “gay rights” bill stayed in committee.
“We weren’t going to bring it out of committee until we had the votes,” he said. “By the ’81-’82 session, we knew we were really close. In 1981, the Consenting Adults Bill lost in the Assembly by one vote, defeated 50-49.”
It was time to bring the antidiscrimination bill out for a vote. Not all Democrats voted for it, but the long campaign had won over enough Republicans to win approval.
“The bill would not have passed in either house without the support of Republican legislators,” Clarenbach said. Gov. Dreyfus did not have to sign it but chose to do so.
“It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that the government ought not intrude into the private lives of individuals,” Dreyfus said. “And there is certainly nothing more private nor sensitive than who you love or how you love.”
Winning consensus for consent
Then it was back to the matter of the Consenting Adults Bill. The measure was next offered as a budget amendment and approved by the Democratic Assembly caucus. That should have cleared a path for approval. Instead, a few Democrats said they couldn’t vote for the budget bill because of it.
Clarenbach made the difficult decision to withdraw the amendment. It was later reintroduced as a standalone bill in the next session of the Legislature, and despite pressure from the conservative right it won bipartisan approval.
“In retrospect, I am certain that withdrawing the earlier amendment was one of the things that contributed to getting the Consenting Adults Bill passed,” Clarenbach said. “Suddenly I was seen in a different light and that next session I got elected speaker pro tem.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Earl signed the Consenting Adults Bill into law on May 5, 1983.
Once again, the right words helped make the case for the change. The issue was cast as one of “sexual privacy” – including for married heterosexual couples – rather than the repeal of what was known as the anti-sodomy law.
It all made for some interesting debate. Clarenbach remembers quipping that “95% of the adults in Wisconsin have violated the law and the other 5% have no imagination.”
Lest anyone think Wisconsin was going too wild, the final version of the bill included a disclaimer that “Wisconsin does not approve of sexual conduct outside of the institution of marriage.”
The Consenting Adults Law ended an unusual legal situation created by the passage of the nondiscrimination bill, as the late Dick Wagner, a longtime gay advocate, activist and historian, once explained in an Our Lives article.
Consider, Wagner declared, the “strange anomaly that for a year homosexual acts were technically illegal but you could not discriminate against people for them.”
Clarenbach later won other legislative victories, including on bills banning discrimination in health care and insurance for patients with HIV/AIDS, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Growing up political
Clarenbach was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to politically progressive and involved parents.
His mother, Kathryn Clarenbach, was a founder and the first chairwoman of the National Organization of Women (NOW). His father, Henry Clarenbach, who worked in real estate, served as a delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1968 and was active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War.
Clarenbach has proudly and matter-of-factly talked about being raised in a feminist household.
“My own involvement in civil rights and against the war in Vietnam was really part and parcel of what she was doing as a feminist leader on the front lines of that struggle,” he said in an interview for the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project.
“So, we really were taught and believe that it’s all part of the same movement. It’s the humanist approach to society – that all of us are equal and should be treated as individuals who have equal opportunities. And we were shown that and that’s how we lived.”
His parents moved their family back to Wisconsin in 1960. Clarenbach attended public schools and then the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It would be years before Clarenbach officially stepped out of the closet, publicly acknowledging his own sexuality. More than anything, the political dynamics were an early version of don’t ask-don’t tell.
“I knew I was gay from my high school days and also knew that I wanted to be involved in public service,” Clarenbach said.
“I was first elected at a time when openly gay and lesbian officials didn’t exist, less than three years after Stonewall took place,” he said, referring to the 1969 harassment and events that sparked the gay rights movement. “To predict that Wisconsin would pass the country’s first gay rights law would have been absurd.”
At 17, he decided to run for the Dane Country Board of Supervisors. In 1972, he became the first 18-year-old elected to public office in Wisconsin, just months after the 18-year-old vote began that January.
Other races followed.
In 1974, Clarenbach was elected to the Madison Common Council, and then to the Wisconsin State Assembly at the age of 21. He served as speaker pro tem from 1983 until 1993.
Indeed, his only unsuccessful campaign came in 1993 when he ran for Congress, hoping to represent Wisconsin’s 2nd District.
Clarenbach went on to head The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, based in Washington, D.C. The group, now the LGBTQ Victory Fund, works to elect openly gay and lesbian candidates to public office.
Politics and perspectives today
These days, he’s a self-described “recovering politician,” still passionately interested in the politics of social and economic change.
With the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, he said, there’s a “clear and present danger to a whole range of privacy-related precedents, including gay marriage and contraception.”
“It’s a slippery slope,” Clarenbach said. “This is the McCarthy era all over again, and there are clear parallels to 1933 Germany …. There is a lot of work to do. Fundamental issues of civil rights and equality are at risk.
“The challenge we have today is that the struggles are not over. Still today, the statutes don’t mention the transgender community. Still today, more than half the states don’t have LGBTQ protections. It’s hard for me to think that some Idaho legislator thinks it’s OK to fire someone, not for job performance, but for who they love. Or for someone to say, you can’t rent a house because you’re a lesbian, and that’s what the majority of states are still saying.”
Wisconsin’s gay rights law continues to make a difference. The state Department of Workforce Development, for example, receives some 100 complaints a year regarding possible discrimination cases.
“It’s a law that affects the real lives of real people. It’s not theoretical,” he said. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I moved to Wisconsin because of the law’ and ‘I came to the University of Wisconsin because I felt I could be safe here.’ Laws don’t change attitudes but they are a means to an end.”
Is that what he is most proud of?
Clarenbach laughed, saying he expects “the civil rights bill will be the lead to my obit.”
“But I’m most proud of living a life that my parents would be proud of,” he said. He remembers his last day in the Legislature, presiding one final time as speaker pro tem.
“I said my goodbyes and I received a standing ovation from both sides,” Clarenbach said, speaking with emotion. “I’ve tried to be an honest and decent person who treats others with civility, including those with whom I disagree.”
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