We are all familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s famous words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


These words, famous as they are, were aspirational when Jefferson wrote them. At that time, slavery was legal and accepted in America and women were not allowed to vote or participate in the economy as freely as men. Words mean nothing without the weight of law behind them.


Doing a little research into the difference between rights and law reminded me how fragile our way of life really is. So many fellow Americans have had to struggle to change laws so they could participate in society the way most of us take for granted. As we wrap up Pride Month, I want to take a look at the long history of the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer+) rights movement in America and Wisconsin.


In 1924 activist Henry Gerber organized the Society for Human Rights in Chicago. Due to political pressures the society did not last long, but it is known as the oldest documented American gay rights organization on record in America. But early attempts to change perceptions and access the same rights as anyone else were thwarted by stigmas attached to sexual behaviors that seemed foreign to heterosexual adults.


The same “red scare” tactics used by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s were adapted to persecute the LGBT population. If anyone was outed as gay they could lose their job or their apartment. President Eisenhower even banned gay individuals from working for the federal government or its private contracting companies through executive order. It’s hard to believe that such discrimination could ever have been acceptable and legal in the United States.


Moving from the 1950s into the 1960s, the world remained an unwelcoming place for LGBTQ+ individuals. For years police harassed gay men and women because laws on the books criminalized their life choices. Engaging in “gay” behavior in public (kissing, dancing or even just holding hands with someone of the same sex) was still illegal.


To find refuge, LGBTQ+ individuals flocked to gay bars and clubs where they could express themselves openly and socialize without worry. However, authorities penalized and shut down establishments that served alcohol to known or even suspected LGBTQ+ individuals, arguing that the mere gathering of homosexuals was “disorderly.”


When police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village the night of June 28, 1969 and began hauling patrons out to paddy wagons, it sparked an uprising. Police were caught off-guard; they had not met so much resistance in the past. But these decent citizens who were only able to be open about who they were in places like the Stonewall Inn had enough. Protests and violent clashes lasted for 6 days. It was this tipping point that sparked a groundswell of activism in the gay rights movement across the nation and the world.


Wisconsin has its own proud history of LGBTQ+ activism. Eight years before Stonewall in 1961, a group of men was bent on harassing patrons of the Black Nite Bar in Milwaukee. They were met with resistance and successfully kicked out of the bar. This incident has since been dubbed the “Black Nite Brawl” and “Milwaukee’s Stonewall.” In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to pass a nondiscrimination law based on sexual orientation (although it’s important to note that Wisconsin still does not have a law preventing discrimination based on sexual identity.)


While Stonewall has been celebrated since 1969 as a turning point, there is still so much more to do. It is often said that it is our differences that make us a great nation. Accepting that we are all individuals, with our own individual backgrounds and desires, we can embrace that variety and build a vibrant and welcoming society.


Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.


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Senator Jeff Smith

Senator Jeff Smith has served in the State Senate since 2019. Senator Smith has worked tirelessly in his community on public education opportunities, health care access and affordability, redistricting reform, protections for water and helping people run for elected office.

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