53 minutes | Jun 28, 2021

R. Richard (Dick) Wagner, "We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History"

Stu Levitan welcomes R. Richard (Dick) Wagner for a special Pride Month encore presentation of our conversation about his award-wining We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History, from our very good friends at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The book covers the period from territorial days to the 1960s; Dick’s companion volume, Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History brings the story up to the present day. In 1982, under Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to adopt a gay rights law, making discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. In 1983, under Democratic Governor Tony Earl, Wisconsin became the first state to have a Governor’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues. Wisconsin is the only state to have elected three openly gay members of Congress – 2 Democrats, 1 Republican. But the dairy state has not always been so friendly to non-normative sexuality. In fact, laws against gay sex predate the state. When the Wisconsin Territory was created in 1836, territorial legislators took the law against sodomy from the Michigan Territory and increased the penalty from three years to five. In 1905, the Wisconsin Attorney General called oral sex “this unspeakable offense,” ‘the infamous crime,’ degrading and disgusting.” In 1928, the Supreme Court called sodomy “repulsive and detestable,” but “too prevalent to be ignored.” In the 1940s, Wisconsin criminalized even thinking gay, passing the Sexual Psychopath Law to prosecute people whose impulsiveness of behavior rendered them sexually irresponsible – whether or not they ever acted on those supposed impulses. Even that citadel of sifting and winnowing, the University of Wisconsin, got into the gay-bashing business, investigating hundreds of gay students in the fifties and early sixties, and sending many of them for therapeutic discipline. UW business manager A.W. Peterson even took the doors off the toilet stalls in the Bascom Hall men’s rooms, to stop gay assignations. It’s part of our state’s history that most people, straight or gay, don’t know, but should. Because a community cannot fully know itself, or be fully known by others, without knowing its history. As they say, you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. There is no one more qualified or appropriate to write this groundbreaking history of early gay life in Wisconsin than Dick Wagner, who is himself historic, as the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. He even lives in a landmarked building on Jenifer Street which long before he came to town was a center of Madison gay life. Dick came to Madison as a graduate student in history in 1965, getting his doctorate in 1971. In 1972, Gov. Pat Lucey named him executive director of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. After Lucey resigned in the summer of 1977 to become Ambassador to Mexico, Dick ran the executive residence for Gov. Martin Schreiber until January 1979, when he joined the Department of Administration as a budget analyst. Dick retired from state service in 2005. In addition to serving on the Dane County Board from 1980-1994 – including four years as the first openly gay county board chair in Wisconsin – Dick’s record of state and local public service is extensive. In 1983, Gov. Tony Early appointed him co-chair of the aforementioned Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues. That same year, he co-founded the New Harvest Foundation, a funding source for south central Wisconsin’s LGBT communities. Dick stepped down last year as chair of the Madison Urban Design Commission, following service on the Plan Commission, Landmarks Commission, Wisconsin Arts Board, Wisconsin Humanities Council, and numerous other organizations. In recognition not just of his service but the way he served, Dick was named the first recipient of the city of Madison’s Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility in Public Discourse Award, in 2007. And on a personal note – I had the pleasure of serving with Dick on the Dane County Board and the Plan Commission, and there is no one whose intelligence, integrity and decency I respect more. It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison BookBeat my friend, Dick Wagner.
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