LGBTQ+ History | BIG History | Wisconsin Historical Society

LGBTQ+ History | BIG History

LGBTQ+ History in Wisconsin, featuring a rainbow background with 3 men, 2 standing, one,  Governor Lee Dreyfus, sitting signing of AB70 into law on February 1982

LGBTQ+ history in Wisconsin

The history of the LBGTQ+ community in Wisconsin is extraordinary, despite being largely untold. While the focus on the gay liberation movement is focused predominantly on America’s coasts, real progress was made right here in the Badger State. In 1966, Wisconsin had the first public call by a political body for abolition of restrictions against queer people so they could have “freedom of action.” Before Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Midwest cities including Madison had openly gay elected officials. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a gay rights law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Wisconsin was also the first state to elect three openly gay/lesbian persons to Congress: Steve Gunderson, Tammy Baldwin, and Mark Pocan. Learn more about the history of the queer community through articles, artifacts, and other important items below that help tell their story.

We Will Always Be Here: Wisconsin's LGBTQ+ Historymakers

A Traveling Display

NOW AVAILABLE! Explore the stories of Wisconsin's LGBTQ+ historymakers through profiles of eight individuals across a wide spectrum of identities who have helped to empower others to make a positive change in the world. Meet some of our LGBTQ+ visionaries, changemakers, and storytellers as envisioned by artist nipinet landsem.

Artwork for the exhibit is the creation of nipinet landsem, an Indigequeer Anishinaabe and Michif artist currently based in Teejop (Madison, WI.) They are a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

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View a traveling display near you!

Visit the Pop-Up Display and
Experience This History

Jun 1
- Jun 30
Neville Public Museum
Green Bay

Jun 1
- Jun 30
Ephraim Historical Foundation

Jul 20
- Aug 4
Mineral Point

For details and future dates, visit our events page

Pssst! You might recognize some of the people illustrated above in the photographs below. See if you can find them!

Celebrate Wisconsin's LGBTQ+ Community

David Carter informal portrait, smiling, medium short hair, a burdundy knit sweater with a plaid collar from a button up poking out.

David Carter

Manonia Evans (left) and Donna Burkett, 1971. Manonia Evans wears a wide labeled dress with short almost capped sleeves, her hair is curly and short, a small smile plays across her lips. Donna Burkett wearing a pork pie hat with a light ribbon, set at a jaunty angle and casual light suit. They stand close together with Evans' arm wrapped around one of Burkett's.

Donna Burkett & Manonia Evans

Judy Greenspan smiles happily at the camera in this outdoor photograph, wearing a leather jacket and a cowl neck like sweater. She used this photo in her campaign for School board.

Judy Greenspan

Lou Sullivan sits dramatically, and somewhat seriously, in a tuxedo with his hair slicked back behind his ears, stylishly. Lou Sullivan pictured in 1974 before attending the GPU’s drag ball.

Lou Sullivan

A formal portrait of Lucia Nunez, her curly hair tousled and slightly two toned, she wears a black turtle neck and a gray sweater jacket.

Lucía Nuñez

Miriam Frank and Charlotte Partridge stand in front of a car, smiling slightly in this informal portrait. They are both wearing long black skirts, and lighter colored blouses. Bespeckled with round frames and both wear hats.

Miriam Frink & Charlotte Partridge

Ralph Kerwineo in a formal portrait, looking slightly away from camera, no hat, and a sharp collar.

Ralph Kerwineo

Ralph Warner, looks almost temptingly at the camera, chin tilted down, hat on.

Ralph Warner

Steve Gunderson gestures animatedly in front of chalkboard with equations behind him. Wearing a suit and fun tie he seems excited and engaged.

Steve Gunderson

Wisconsin's Gay History | Book Series

We've Been Here All Along Book Cover

R. Richard Wagner draws on historical research and materials from his own extensive archive to uncover previously hidden stories of gay Wisconsinites. This book, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, honors the legacy and confirms that gay Wisconsinites have been fundamental to the development and evolution of the state since its earliest days. Read Free Excerpt

Buy the Book
Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History

The second volume in R. Richard Wagner’s groundbreaking work on gay history in Wisconsin outlines the challenges that LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites faced in their efforts to right past oppressions and secure equality in the post-Stonewall period period between 1969 and 2000. This is published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Wagner's books inspired the 2023 PBS Wisconsin Documentary "Wisconsin Pride."

Buy the Book
We Will Always Be Here: A Guide to Exploring and Understanding the History of LGBTQ+ Activism in Wisconsin

This inspiring and educational book presents examples of LGBTQ+ activism throughout Wisconsin’s history for young people to explore and discuss. Drawing from a rich collection of primary sources—including diary entries, love letters, zines, advertisements, oral histories, and more—the book provides a jumping-off point for readers who are interested in learning more about LGBTQ+ history and activism.

Buy the Book

Fascinating Items from Our Historical Collections

The Society has many items related to LGBTQ+ history available to explore in our online collections. Here are a couple highlights.

An elaborately beaded jacket worn by pianist, performer, and Wisconsin native Liberace during his performances in the late 1970s.

Liberace’s Jacket

Rainbow flag carried by a protestor at a lecture by Ralph Reed.

Rainbow Flag

This button was made for Tammy Baldwin’s first campaign for Wisconsin State Assembly in 1992

Girlfriends for Tammy Baldwin

This t-shirt was worn by Bonita S. 'Bonnie' Augusta of Madison, who participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, held on April 25, 1993

Defend LGBT Civil Rights Shirt

More Historical Items

Tammy Baldwin Campaign Flyers | Better Gay than Grumpy button | National March for Lesbian & Gay Rights T-shirt 1979
Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum stand in fron of the Pendarvis historic building by an iconic street lamp. They stand close but not touching, both in somewhat casual shirts and pants, slightly smiling on this sunny day in this sepia photograph.

Love & Partnership

In the 1903s, gay couple Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum met in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and began to rescue historic buildings one at a time from demolition. Assigning Cornish-language names to each, they opened a restaurant to sustain their preservation efforts and lived on the grounds. Their remarkable success – at the height of the Great Depression – launched the 20th-century transformation of Mineral Point into the vibrant hub for arts, preservation, and tourism it is today.

Their hard work and dedication has preserved a part of Wisconsin history that you can experience yet today!

Visit Pendarvis

Two Spirit People

American Indian communities have recognized Two Spirit individuals for many generations. Though different terms may be used by different communities, the Two Spirit concept predates current LGBTQ+ terminology. Two Spirit describes individuals who have both masculine and feminine spirits and are uniquely blessed to see life through the eyes of two genders. Two Spirit people possess a unique identity and should be recognized as such, as the term is not necessarily interchangeable or synonymous with other commonly used LGBTQ+ terms. Someone who is Two Spirit embodies two genders residing in one person. A Two Spirit person may be gay, but a gay person is not necessarily Two Spirit. You can learn more about what it means to be Two Spirit in the article from Indian Country Today below.

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Queer Art Gallery

An Indigenous figures stands strongly facing the camera, wearing a white shirt, with the words 'My gender is Indigenous' super imposed using light to create shadows to show the words repeated across their body.

My Gender is Indigenous

By Ryan Young (Ojibwe)

As I grew into my queer identity, I recognized that there was a huge disconnect between my gender/sexual identity and my cultural identity. Experiences with homophobia limited my access to certain cultural spaces and it affected my relationship with my culture. It was not until college that I learned about the term Two Spirit, their historical recognition of different gender identities and sexualities in many Indigenous cultures, particularly in Ojibwe culture. That moment was really empowering for me because it introduced me to a term that recognized my queerness through a cultural context, and it was also the first step I took into looking for and eventually finding my Two Spirit community.

I wanted to recreate that experience through my artwork. When creating “My Gender is Indigenous”, it reflected my personal journey to find the language to articulate the intersections of my identity. The phrase itself is meant to empower my Queer Indigenous audience, and to hopefully spark conversations around gender and sexuality through the specific cultural lenses of the viewer.

“I look queer and Indigenous because I am queer and Indigenous, and thus, the definition of what is queer and Indigenous-looking, is defined by my existence, not the other way around.”

More about Ryan Young

Two Spirit artist

Ryan Young (they/them/their) is a Two Spirit Ojibwe multi-disciplinary artist from Lac du Flambeau, WI. They are a graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts, completing their BFA in Studio Arts (Photography) and a certificate in Performing Arts. Their senior show focused on empowering Two Spirit people, using a variety of mediums, including photography, silkscreen printing, projection and mixed media.

Their first photography project, Indigeneity, promoted representation of Indigenous students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This project led to a photo spread in Native Max Magazine and a position as their deputy fashion photography editor. Young’s photography appeared in multiple issues and in advertisements for JG Indie during New York’s Fashion Week. In 2018, Young was announced as Eighth Generation’s designing artist for the Two Spirit Blanket, which was released later that year. After completing their degree in 2019, they worked as the Native American Student Services outreach coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before returning to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they continue to make art and serve on the IAIA Alumni Council.

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Explore more LGBTQ+ history

Learn more about the gay experience in Wisconsin and beyond through these historical essays.

Features a greek-style drawing of a man on the front, and on the back a depiction of a naked man and woman wearing broken chains, with the words: 'Gay Brothers & Sisters Unite! Free Ourselves / Smash Sexism'

LGBTQ+ Rights Movement in Wisconsin

Poster promoting a meeting of M.A.H.E. (Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality) at the St. Francis House.

Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality

Steve Gunderson posing outdoors in front of the U.S. Capitol building.


More Historical Essays

Passing the Nation's First Nondiscrimination Law | Gay Purge of 1962 | Eldon Murray | George Lachmann Mosse

Compelling Images from the Our Historical Collections

Poster produced by the Madison Gay Liberation Front promoting their weekly meeting at the St. Francis House, located at 1001 University Avenue. A young man wearing only a necktie is surrounded by a decorative border

Those Gay Boys Are Taking Over

Handmade poster entitled 'Lesbian Love'. Announces gay sisters meetings at 10 Langdon Street and a women's party after the meeting. Objective is to plan for Gay Arts Nite.

Lesbian Love

A neon sign with a bottle of Miller Lite for the 'i' spells “Pride” in the window of the 'Chances R' gay bar on Jay Street. The word 'Pride' is underlined with a neon rainbow. The window is framed in wood and surrounded by stucco painted blue.

Gay Bar Pride Sign

Cover and back page of 'The Gay Endeavor,' a publication for gay women and gay men. Includes an image of Paul Soglin and Nichols who were interviewed for the issue.

LGBTQ Flyers

Poster proclaiming the need for an urgent lesbian meeting. Poster depicts Athena with shield. Agenda for meeting includes a speakers bureau, counseling groups, sports, W.I.L.D (Women Incensed against Lesbian Discrimination) and your own ideas. The meeting was held Sunday September 30th at 8:00 pm at 550 State Street.

LGBTQ+ Posters

Cover illustration of a calendar promoting gay pride. The calendar features numerous photographs, illustrations and quotations for each month from March 1971-February 1972. The cover illustration features an analog clock as a bomb, butterflies, and a montage of various pop culture logos and traffic signs.

Gay Is Angry

Outside Resources

The Society has put together this page with stories, images, and artifacts from our LGBTQ+ collections; however, these collections just scratch the surface of the history of the LGBTQ+ community in Wisconsin. Please take the opportunity to explore these additional resources from other Wisconsin sources.

The UW-Madison Library Resource Image of a group in front of the ROTC building protest, due to discrimination.

UW-Madison Library LGBTQ+ Resources

Image from the UW-Milwaukee collection featuring the AIDS Walk Wisconsin: Walkers standing in front of a banner that reads 'Together in Pride'

UW-Milwaukee Library LGBTQ+ Resources

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