by Justin Tanis | Thirty years ago this month, Wisconsin became the first state in the union to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. AB70, The Gay Rights Bill, was championed in the State Assembly by David Clarenbach and amended the state’s existing non-discrimination ordinances to include sexual orientation, although it explicitly excluded the category from the state’s affirmative action programs. Wisconsin’s history of prohibiting discrimination is notable—it was also the first state to ban racial discrimination, enacting legislation in 1945.
Wisconsin’s passage of the first state-wide gay rights bill is important for several reasons. First, the bill was comprehensive, addressing multiple areas of life where discrimination impacted lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Second, Wisconsin’s legislators were pioneers. It would be nine more years before another state would enact legislation to ban workplace discrimination.
Perhaps most importantly, advocates for the bill succeeded in shifting the conversation about gay rights. Instead of focusing on a discussion about the moral implications of homosexuality, the Wisconsin debate looked at the acceptability of intolerance itself. Clarenbach stated:
The right of private sexual preference among adults should be considered inherent. And as long as someone does not impose this sexual preference on others, he or she should be guaranteed the basic human right to live without harassment or discrimination. The point is not whether homosexuality is admirable, but whether discrimination is tolerable.
Our efforts today for workplace fairness, marriage equality and the right to serve in the military all reflect this value in their messaging. More and more, our conversations include this understanding of human rights as well.
From the late 1970s, advocates in Wisconsin worked with local religious groups for passage of the law. The magazine Escape noted that 50 ministers, including 22 Roman Catholic priests, signed a petition supporting the bill.
Wisconsin has continued to update the law, prohibiting discrimination in education in 1985 and 1989. In 1997, courts ruled that it is also illegal to discriminate against jurors based on sexual orientation. However, the state has yet to add gender identity to the existing laws, leaving transgender people in Wisconsin without adequate protections. You can read more about the state’s laws and efforts to add gender identity on Fair Wisconsin’s website.
You can also read a detailed and interesting account of the law’s passage in the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society at the link included in the footnote below.
 Cited in The Gay Rights State: Wisconsin’s Pioneering Legislation to Prohibit Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation by William B. Turner, http://hosted.law.wisc.edu/wjlgs/issues/2007-spring/turnernobanner.pdf