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LGBT+ Civil Rights Advocate Says Wisconsin Needs To Ban Discrimination Based On Gender Identity

LGBT pride or Gay pride with rainbow flag
Out of 30 states that have explicitly banned sexual orientation based discrimination, Wisconsin is the only state that does not explicitly include protections for gender identity or interpret current law to include gender identity protections.

Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1982. The legislation signed by former Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus meant that workers couldn’t be fired for their sexual orientation nor could people be denied housing, access to education or other public accommodations.

Courtesy of Dick Wagner's collection
Leon Rouse (left), a community activist, and Representative David Clarenbach (R) looked on as Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus signed the first-in-the-nation gay rights law in 1982. It would be seven years before another state passed a similar law.

Executive Director of Fair Wisconsin, an organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of LGBT+ people in the state, Megin McDonnell says since the pioneering anti-discrimination legislation, Wisconsin has fallen behind on protecting people — specifically on the basis of gender identity.

“We don’t have any statewide legal protections for trans and non-binary people based on gender identity and expression, and that is, of course, one of the big issues that sort of a cornerstone of our work at Fair Wisconsin,” she says.

Of the 30 states that have legal protections based on sexual orientations, Wisconsin is the only state that does not explicitly include protections for gender identity or interpret current law to include gender identity protections. In 2019, Gov. Tony Evers did issue an executive order that included banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity for state employees.

McDonnell says one issue around gender identity discrimination that is getting traction in the Wisconsin Legislature is a proposed exclusion of transgender girls and women from all levels of sports in the state. Proponents of the ban say that trans women participating in sports would take away opportunities from cisgender women, a claim that McDonnell says “there’s no evidence” to support.

READ: Wisconsin GOP Bill Seeks To Ban Transgender Athletes From Women's Sports

Instead, McDonnell believes some legislators are pushing this issue to divide people on trans rights in hopes of a political benefit.

“Over the last few months, we’ve had massive public hearings, hundreds and hundreds of calls into legislator offices and they’ve still been unable to come up with a single example of this issue actually happening in Wisconsin,” she says.

In addition to adding protections for gender identity, McDonnell says Fair Wisconsin is working to end conversion therapy for minors, as well as, changing language in state laws to reflect the existence of LGBT+ people in the state. She says it takes organizing at all levels of government to help create progress on these issues.

“Gains and victories on the local level can help build momentum for the state level, and you know, victories on the state level around the country help to build that momentum and support for things like the Equality Act [on the federal level],” she says.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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