All places around the globe have a gay history, which is still largely untold — particularly in Wisconsin. The national narrative of gay history often involves events that took place on the coasts, the most recognizable being Stonewall.
However, there was a pre-Stonewall liberation for gays and lesbians forming identities and support networks in Wisconsin, says scholar and activist Dick Wagner. His new book, We’ve Been Here All Along, examines Wisconsin’s early gay history from 1895 to 1969.
From press coverage of Oscar Wilde’s trial to postwar medical labeling homosexuality as an illness, Wagner dives deep into history to find the legacy and resilience of early gay Wisconsinites and their influence on the state.
"Wisconsin had the whole basis of homophobia, which makes the remarkable, brave stories of men and women who sorted out their lives positively even more remarkable," he says.
Wagner notes that researching this period was more nuanced since blatant evidence of homosexuality could be used against people — the most common punishment was a five-year imprisonment if you were convicted of violating "crimes against nature." However, he says the history is there if you know the keywords or events to look for.
"Clearly, these code words were being used to describe [gay men and lesbians] and you also get some other words that are less coded like 'fairy' or 'pixies' or other things like that that get applied to men in the pre-World War II period," Wagner explains.
Dick Wagner is the author of We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History. He's in town Wednesday evening to give a presentation about his book at UW-Milwaukee at 7 p.m. in the fourth floor Conference Center of the UWM Golda Meir Library.