Dick Wagner was born in 1943 in Dayton, Ohio into a traditional German Catholic family (his great grandparents ran a successful beer brewery). Dick attended the University of Dayton, where he served on the student council and organized civil rights demonstrations, then headed to the University of Wisconsin Madison for his MA and PhD in American history. While researching his dissertation in the library, he stumbled across books on homosexuality. It was the first explicit acknowledgement he’d witnessed that he wasn’t the only queer in the world.

In 1974, Dick mounted a run for the Madison City Council, campaigning on the need for an ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Dick lost that race. But after Harvey Milk’s assassination in 1978, Dick heard Milk’s recorded will (“to be read aloud in the event of my assassination”) on the radio, urging gay men to come out. Inspired by the fallen leader’s words, Dick campaigned in 1980 as an openly gay man for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, and won. He served on the board for fourteen years, including four years as chair.

In 1983, Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl asked Dick and his board colleague Kathleen Nichols, an out lesbian activist, to co-chair the Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues – the first official, state-level council in the US to include the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’. In 1985, Dick was a founding member of the National Association of Out Officials. In later years, he served on the board of Madison AIDS Support Network and chaired Madison’s Urban Design Commission.

Keenly aware that most LGBTQ history focused on big cities and the distant East and West coasts, Dick set out to document Wisconsin’s unique queer history – for example, the fact that Wisconsin is the only state to have elected three openly gay people to Congress – and affirm the importance of Midwest LGBTQ activism. Now retired from politics, Dick is hard at work on a book that will comprehensively document Wisconsin queer history from before Stonewall through the 20th Century.

Inviting OUTWORDS to interview him in March 2018, Dick wrote, “My home in Madison is an 1857 landmark house, and has a long gay history going back to the 1940s. Good spirits hover.” Our experience bore out Dick’s description. Outside Dick’s windows was a frozen, snow-covered lake. Inside, Dick is making sure that Wisconsin’s unique LGBTQ history is seen, known and appreciated by all.

Betsy Kalin: So, thank you so much for doing this today.
Richard Wagner: Sure. Glad to do it.
Betsy Kalin: The first question is, tell us about growing up, and where you grew up.
Richard Wagner: Okay. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio.
Natalie Tsui: Wait one second. There's a tractor going outside that's making a loud noise.
Richard Wagner: Oh, big buses and lots of things go by.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. Comes with the territory.
Richard Wagner: Right. It's a city sight.
Betsy Kalin: Oh and you know what? I forgot to say-
Richard Wagner: Yes.
Betsy Kalin: [00:00:30] We're gonna start with your name, your date of birth, and place of birth.
Richard Wagner: Okay, okay. It's formally, Roland Richard Wagner. September 29, 1943. Dayton, Ohio. But, my father's first name was Roland, so we always used my middle name, Richard, or Dick, as I grew up. So, I don't really use the Roland.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, great. Thank you.
Richard Wagner: Sure.
Betsy Kalin: [00:01:00] And then, tell me about growing up.
Richard Wagner: [00:01:30] Growing up, I grew up in a family of stout, German, Catholic burgher type. My great-grandfather, who's behind me, was a brewer who had a brewing business, and he bought up taverns, so they would buy his beer. He started with three barrels at a time, and then had a very substantial brewing business by the time he had retired. Actually, when he died, his wife took it over, my great-grandmother, and she ran it for a while.
And, another of my great-grandmothers was a dealer in wet goods, which means she ran a tavern. And so there's this strong sort of German tradition in my family.
Betsy Kalin: That's great.
Richard Wagner: Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: Did you have a big family?
Richard Wagner: [00:02:00] There were five of us kids, I was the middle one. There were like 27 grandchildren that my grandmother had, and we all used to get together at Christmas and Easter at her house. My aunt who lived with her bought presents for every one of them so there was something to open all the time, and there are all of these family photos of those gatherings. For a long while, I had the old family bible, which had all these pictures of these worthy folks. I eventually gave it to one of my nieces who became a judge, and she wanted it for swearing in, so I figured that's a good use so for it. So she now has it.
Betsy Kalin: So, would you say it was kind of a traditional upbringing?
Richard Wagner: [00:02:30] Yeah. It was very traditional. My father was very involved in businesses, and I would ride around with him sometimes. He used to talk about how the pattern of where my great-grandfather had a brewery and then he had taverns to sell the beer. He was a distributor for an oil company, and he had serviced stations that he and my uncle built that they would buy the gasoline from them for sale. And so, he saw that family pattern sort of continuing in his own business development.
Betsy Kalin: [00:03:00] Great. And then, how did you end up here?
Richard Wagner: [00:03:30] I ended up here because I loved history, and after graduating from the University of Dayton, my professors there recommended Wisconsin. I looked at both the University of Chicago, and Wisconsin, came here and visited, visited there, and decided I liked Madison. So I got in here, did an MA and PhD in American History, and it was a great department. Merle Curti was my first major professor. He had studied with Frederick Jackson Turner at Harvard, and so I felt this sort of great sense of historical scholarship that I was sort of part of, though I was nowhere near their level of scholarship and interest. But, it was just a very fascinating thing to me to have a major professor like Merle Curti.
Betsy Kalin: And then, tell me about doing your research for your dissertation.
Richard Wagner: [00:04:00] Okay. My dissertation was on the progressives who tried to end the red light districts around the turn of the century. It was sort of a matter of social control. They were disturbed by the large growing cities that urbanization had created. And so, you would've had maybe an isolated red light house become a whole red light district, or something like that. For guardians of traditional morality, that seemed outrageous, and so they tried to suppress the vice, and so there were all these social evil and vice commissions that were created.
So, that got me into the stacks. I was researching the prostitution and the reformers. So, it was the social deviants part of the stacks. So while I would never ... This was in the 60s, pre-Stonewall ... So, I would never think of checking out a book on homosexuality. They were right down the aisle from the social deviants part, so I could read them there in the stacks, and then learn something because there was total ignorance, growing up, about homosexuality.
Betsy Kalin: [00:05:00] And, when you were reading the books, were they positive or negative? What would they-
Richard Wagner: They weren't terribly informative, but they were something. You know, oh my God, this exists. And so, that's one of the remarkable things about the history work that I've done is that seeing that combating the ignorance was such a huge task for the community to do, and it did it through media, it did it through academic scholars here at the university, and just through its cultural activities in so many ways.
Betsy Kalin: [00:05:30] When did you first know that you were gay?
Richard Wagner: [00:06:00] I didn't have a word for it growing up. I sensed something then, but I came out very late, here in graduate school. Catholics, you learn to suppress lots of things. Guilt piles it on, so you just sort of think, "Well, I don't know. What am I doing? I'm not doing nothing." And then finally, "Oh, this is who I am." And from there, it's been like sorting it out the rest of my life.
Betsy Kalin: So when you were in the stacks and you were drawn to researching the books on homosexuality-
Richard Wagner: Right, right, right, right. I obviously must have known that I was, but I hadn't yet done anything. It was an unknown world. You know, Oscar Wilde's famous ... "Does not speak its name." And so, eventually one finds the world, and oh, this is different and this is good.
Betsy Kalin: [00:06:30] Can I ask, how did you finally come to that?
Richard Wagner: I've been involved in politics all my life, and so I met another gay man through politics, and we eventually sort of began a little relationship, and that was sort of how I really came out, officially I guess.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you.
Betsy Kalin: [00:07:00] Thank you for sharing that. So, let's talk about politics. What brought you into politics and what led you to run for office in 1974?
Richard Wagner: [00:07:30] I was sort of always interested in politics. While I was at the University of Dayton, I can remember being invited to go talk on a radio program, and there were two of us from the University of Dayton, a good Catholic school, and there were two students from Antioch College, which was thought of as a radical leftist kind of a place that was over in Yellow Springs right outside the Dayton area.
And so, we were there and I was advocating that the UN really outta seat the Red China as it's Chinese member rather than having the Nationalist Chinese continue to have that seat in the UN. So, I was already articulating political things. Actually, I ran for student office and was on the student council at the university there. I organized the first civil rights demonstration, but they couldn't let me call it a demonstration at the time of Selma. It had to be a rally when people were marching for civil rights in '65. We had it in front of the Kennedy statue which had been put up on the campus. As a good Catholic institution, they liked the Catholic president.
But, when my father took me to see Lyndon Johnson when he spoke on the courthouse steps, which is where Lincoln had spoken when he was campaigning in Dayton ... And so, my father just had this sort of political sense. He had been a political appointee to the local county fair board, and things like that, so there was some politics in my family. Not as heavy as I've gotten into it, but there was some there.
One of the things that was interesting about Wisconsin, I remember a friend back in Dayton telling me, "Well they have two socialist organizations up on campus." Obviously this was a place where politics thrived. When I came here, I found out they were Trotskyists and other folks, and I had little interest in that kind of politics in the end, but it was an attraction.
And then in '74, I had known the alder. I had gotten involved in trying to create a historic district in the Mansion Hill area, which was one of our early sort of gay neighborhoods in town. So, I got involved in the city in that regard, and simply decided to run. I was not sort of out in terms of a public sense by then, but my campaign literature was quite explicit about fighting for nondiscrimination law on sexual orientation, and about protecting the rights of gays as a minority.
And so, I was out front fighting for gay rights at that point already, even if I was personally still not sure how public I wanted to be.
Betsy Kalin: And then-
Natalie Tsui: There's like a ...
Betsy Kalin: Oh yeah, plane.
Richard Wagner: It's a normal neighborhood. There's lots of noise.
Betsy Kalin: [00:10:00] We just have to wait for the plane.
Richard Wagner: I know, I understand. I always fought for noise abatement on the county board when I was there.
Natalie Tsui: Oh dear. I wonder if this is gonna change the light significantly. Probably. Yeah it is.
Betsy Kalin: If you close it. Yeah, it'll be huge.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. There's just like a few cars that are coming by and it's creating-
Richard Wagner: Bouncing light, yes.
Natalie Tsui: I don't think it looks super unnatural.
Richard Wagner: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, it's gone-ish. Well, actually there's still a bit of reverb.
Betsy Kalin: [00:10:30] Okay. Yeah, I still hear it.
Richard Wagner: Yeah, I know. When I was doing it, I used to distribute spotter cards with the logos of the airlines so you could call them and complain which airline had not used the right runway to fly over the city.
Natalie Tsui: Wow, I think there's another. Oh, there's a bus.
Richard Wagner: That's a bus. Yeah, right.
Betsy Kalin: I think it just went.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, it's gone. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: What was the influence of Harvey Milk? Did that affect you?
Richard Wagner: [00:11:30] Oh, very much so. I can remember right where I was when I heard NPR broadcast his will. I was driving through an intersection up towards downtown, and his urging gay men to come out. So I knew at that point, yeah, I was gonna be totally public after that. It's interesting because Stonewall at the time was not really covered here in the local press. It was just a bar raid in New york. Why would that get coverage?
So, I would go to the local Snappy's place, which was an old time news store with magazines. They had the Village Voice, and so I could pick up the Village Voice, and follow things there. And so, that was sort of my way of learning about what was happening with gay liberation, and then following Harvey's career, and other things.
We had Jim Yeadon here who was elected before Harvey was elected. Harvey had run before Jim was elected, but Harvey lost a couple times, and so Jim Yeadon actually was the fourth out elected official. But even before Jim, in 1973, Judy Greenspan ran for the school board as an out lesbian. I think she was the first out lesbian in the nation to run. She didn't win, but she did well in the downtown districts, and she had actually been banned from doing an inservice speaker group in the local high school.
And so, the local principals and school board had put this policy, they weren't gonna allow gay speakers, so she ran for the school board, and as a candidate, she was on all these forums in the high schools. And so, she found a way to get around their policy by being an out candidate. And so, that was in '73. My first race was in '74, and then Jim was elected in '77. There's an early tradition of sort of being out there, and arguing for our rights in election arenas in this town.
Betsy Kalin: And then, what happened with your election?
Richard Wagner: '74, I lost. It was a close election but I lost. And so, I didn't run again until 1980, when I ran for the county board and won that race, and then was on the county board for 14 years thereafter.
Betsy Kalin: And, can you talk about what ... Tell people what the county board is and-
Richard Wagner: [00:13:30] Oh, the county board of supervisors is the legislative body for county government. Counties are much larger geographic areas than the city. They have different responsibilities than the city. They're actually a subdivision of the state. It's interesting, when you think of Harvey Milk, he was a supervisor because it was the city and county of San Francisco. Supervisors generally are tied with county government.
Our pattern comes from upstate New York, which had county supervisors as well. The tradition of small districts in large county boards is very strong in this state. Dane County once had a 91 member county board. It was down to like 41 when I got elected. But, the district was about 8,000 people back then, they're larger now. And so, you needed like 40 signatures to get on a petition and get on the ballot. And so, it was really easy access, unlike some other places where you had to wait a long time, sort of in a political pecking order. You could just jump right in here in Wisconsin, and so that openness created a lot of openings for LBGT officials to run for office.
Betsy Kalin: Great, thank you.
Betsy Kalin: Would you like something to drink?
Richard Wagner: No, I'm fine.
Betsy Kalin: You're fine? Okay, great.
Betsy Kalin: So, when you ran in 1980-
Betsy Kalin: ... were you running as an out gay man?
Richard Wagner: [00:15:00] By then, I'd served on the advisory board for the Gay Center. Since an announced opponent dropped out, there was really little coverage for the race, and so there was no questions about ... By then, I'd been out in the community sufficiently enough. And I also, during that same period, hosted an Alice B. Toklas fundraising party for The United, which was our gay organization here in town. We did a night in old Key West and stuff like that. I was doing gay fundraisers in the community at that point, so I was pretty well known at that point.
Betsy Kalin: Great. I guess the next question is to talk about, in 1983 when you were on a fact finding mission on LGBT.
Richard Wagner: [00:16:00] Right. In 1982 election for governor, Tony Earl had run, and he was the first real statewide candidate who had solicited gay support. He had done an interview for Gay Madison about his stance on gay issues. He was asked if he would appoint a liaison, and he said yes he would, for the community.
The state was in a financial crisis when he got in office. They found they didn't really have the funds to do a new position. So, he asked myself and Kathleen Nichols, who had joined me on the county board in '82, an out lesbian activist in town, to go on a fact finding mission around the state to sort of give him feedback as to maybe what he could do to connect with the gay community.
So, for like four weekends, Kathleen and I would hop in my car and we'd go travel around the state, Milwaukee, a couple of times for seeing Stevens Point and La Crosse. We gave the governor at that point a report back as to concerns that we had heard in the community. By then, we had the state Gay Rights Law, but there was little knowledge about it and little effect that it had yet had. We still had to fight for the Consenting Adults Bill, which would decriminalize homosexual acts, along with lots of others that straights did.
There was also concern in Milwaukee for law enforcement harassment, and there was concern about social services availability all around the state in many places. And so, we gave the governor the report, and he then turned around and asked Kathleen and I to co-chair a new governor's council on lesbian and gay issues. It was the first in the nation that actually used the words " lesbian" and "gay." There had been sexual privacy things or sexual minority things, but that sort of did not claim that positive term, "lesbian and gay."
And so, he did it. Kathleen and I were the first co-chairs, and we set off traveling around the state with this sort of official executive order behind us. We arranged a lot of meetings between the local officials and their gay community folks who had never talked to each other before. We said, "We're coming to town. We have this governor's council. We want you to address our issues. We're gonna have some local folks there, and you can learn and talk to them, and they can see what you're doing for them."
Most local officials had never been asked what they were doing for their gay community before, and so we opened up that whole dialogue. We also worked with the media in the state about how, look, not all gay stories come from San Francisco. They can come from Wisconsin, they can come from your town. Some reporters started to do local profiles of their community, and won some awards for those kinds of stories, and things like that.
It really did open up a whole statewide dialogue about what was happening here in Wisconsin, and that there was a statewide community that could be found and could be given a voice.
Betsy Kalin: When you were on this fact finding, when you were part of the commission-
Richard Wagner: Right. Sure.
Betsy Kalin: You got a bunch of archives, basically. You had a bunch of material.
Richard Wagner: [00:19:00] Well yes. I've saved all my notes from that, so I have all those archives from that. There is an interim report and a final report from the governor's council. I have minutes from all those early meetings where I actually kept them by hand, and then we typed them all up. And so, it's a remarkable record in 1983, 84, and the next couple years ... I left the council after '84 ... of a Midwest gay community and it's activities.
The other remarkable thing is that in the research that I've done since on gay history, that the law and this visibility sparked a tremendous amount of organizing around the state, and you had small groups of gays ... they were never large except in Milwaukee ... spring up and start organizing in small places, smaller cities. There was a group out up north in Ashland, Wisconsin. There was activity in Superior, and of course in the Green Bay, Fox Valley area, and La Crosse, and Eau Claire. In many small towns, there was a group called BAGAL, which was Baraboo Area Gay and Lesbians. And so, it just encouraged a remarkable flowering of activity and empowerment as a result of all these things.
Betsy Kalin: Terrific.
Betsy Kalin: [00:20:30] Thank you so much. That was a great answer. So, in doing the research for this, there was this quote that I thought was really important, especially for this archive. "Much like our lives have been hidden, our history has been hidden. That's the other reason for writing, to have our history come out of the closet as well as ourselves."
Richard Wagner: [00:21:00] Sure. Since I retired after 30 plus years for the state, my major project has been writing this Wisconsin LBGT history. Most of it's unknown to everybody in the state. A lot of it was unknown to me til I started digging in research. So, a little bit ... There was two gay men, Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, who restored Mineral Point, and people sorta knew about that. There was another early gay settlement, Cooksville, where a gentleman by Ralph Warner, who I call the first out gay man in Wisconsin, in the 20s and little bit into the 30s, he was featured in all these ladies magazines. He would entertain groups, he would come off in ladies groups. He would cook, and he would play music, and he would show them his gardens and his old historic house.
They would say, "Surely there must be a woman around here," and things like that. He said, "No, no, no." He was putting this non normative presence out there fully. Somebody would knock on his door and say, "Oh, what a wonderful place." And he would say, "You should look at me. I'm the most extraordinary strange person here," thing about the whole arrangement. He was pretty out about who he was. And then, he kept a scrapbook, and in the scrapbook, he had clippings about a little woodland fairy and about other things.
This is one of the things that I found: Bob Neal also had a scrapbook in the Mineral Point library ... is that ...
Betsy Kalin: We're gonna just stop right there.
Betsy Kalin: If you can start back with Bob's ...
Richard Wagner: [00:22:30] Okay. Bob Neal also had a scrapbook in his Mineral Point library, and one of the things that I deduced was that a lot of gay men were keeping scrapbooks as a way to have something that talked about their identity that they did not see in the larger cultural frame. Neal had things about Oscar Wilde and his trip to America, or he had other little things that he had kept. Actually his patron, Mr. Gundry, also had a scrapbook of many of these similar kinds of things.
So, there were folks out there well before Stonewall. There was a gay writer, Edward Harris Heath who went in Paris in the 1930s, and he wrote a short story about finding all these non normative kinds of people in Paris, including a guy he met in the bar who sort of fondled his ear, and things like that. And you think of all the expatriates who went to Paris, Glenway Wescott was another Wisconsin writer who went to Paris and south of France. They found a way to find non normative things outside of the cultural suppression that they had here in Wisconsin and in the United States in general.
And so, you start looking and you find there's evidence of these pre-Stonewall gay lives. And then in the 50s, there were two very active networks, including two guys who lived in this very house that has a gay history going back to the 1940s. They were part of a whole east side circle of gay folks. It was an integrated circle, there was an African-American, Ted Pierce, who was part of it. Ted Pierce's own papers go back to the 30s when he met Willard Motley, an African-American novelist who was from Chicago, but he came up here thinking he was gonna play football at UW. He was too small to play football, but he and Pierce set up a friendship and they would come up for football weekends, or Ted would go down there. Their correspondence goes for several decades, including Motley asking about, maybe could he do a gay novel, and it might have drawn on some of that experience of meeting Ted here in the 30's and stuff like that.
You start digging, and there's a lot of our history there that's unknown and that should be known. And not all of it is ... It's interesting how they build networks and how they find identity, but there's also about repression, and Senator Joe McCarthy and the lavender scare. There's some documents showing that-
Betsy Kalin: I'm sorry.
Richard Wagner: Oh, another plane.
Natalie Tsui: Another plane.
Richard Wagner: Yeah. Right.
Richard Wagner: That's okay. No, stop me.
Natalie Tsui: We gotta back up a little bit too because it-
Betsy Kalin: Do you wanna start again with the African-American history? Is that when it came in?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, I think so.
Betsy Kalin: Because I think that's really important to add.
Natalie Tsui: [inaudible 00:25:08]
Richard Wagner: Okay, Ted Pierce. Right.
Natalie Tsui: It's still there.
Betsy Kalin: This is great. Thank you.
Natalie Tsui: Actually, I think another one just joined.
Richard Wagner: [00:26:00] I think you're right. It's a busy airport. I used to be on the airport commission.
Betsy Kalin: Wow, yeah.
Richard Wagner: It's Epic. A lot more flights have been added since Epic, which is a health software firm here. They have like 7,000 employees. It's like humungo.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, we're clear.
Natalie Tsui: We're good. Yeah.
Betsy Kalin: [00:26:30] So, if you could start back with Ted Pierce.
Richard Wagner: [00:27:00] Ted Pierce. Ted Pierce was part of this east side circle of gay men that revolved around this house. He lived on Williamson street almost his entire life, for most of the 20th century. He, in the 1930s, got to know Willard Motley, who was an African-American novelist from Chicago. Motley had come up here thinking he might play football at Wisconsin. He was too small to play Wisconsin football, but he formed a friendship with Ted. And so, he would come up here for football weekends, stay with Ted, Ted would go down to Chicago. They maintained correspondence for decades. Motley actually ended up living in Mexico. He had explored possibly writing a gay novel. His novels were mainly about seamy south side Chicago life, and Eleanor Roosevelt praised him, and things like that.
Anyway, this friendship and this correspondence that existed is a nice document to have. So, Ted was later part of this same group in the 50s and 60s when they were active with a broad social circle, went to lots of parties. When gay folks came to town, they knew to head to Jenifer Street here in this very house where these gay men had lived since the 40s. In fact, one of them was a poet, Keith McCutcheon. I have his papers going back to the 20s and 30s, showing his development and his sense of identity growing as well.
I don't know. I think I dropped something out of that, but that's okay. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: Talk more about your book-
Betsy Kalin: Where you are with it and what's ...
Richard Wagner: [00:28:30] Okay. All right well, at this point I've submitted a manuscript for a pre-Stonewall volume and a post-Stonewall volume, to the historical society press. We're now going through the editing process, and they're gonna come out in 2019 with the two volumes, one in the spring and one in the fall. I just found that there was so much more stuff than I ever would have realized. I first never would've thought there'd be a whole volume on pre-Stonewall, but there's a lot of things.
Some of it ... and I don't know if this picked up so I'll talk about it before, is the McCarthy period, In that in this state, Joe McCarthy was a very controversial figure. One of the things that I looked at was the opposition to McCarthy in the state. None of that opposition defended the victims, who were communists and who were gays. It's quite clear in looking at the record at the Progressive magazine that they understood he was attacking both, but their sense of coming back towards McCarthy was to attack his methods, not to defend his victims.
And so, at the time, they were furious about him, but there was no sense that they were defending the people that he was attacking. Now, politically in this state, the communists had sort of theoretically ... or there's some indication they had supported McCarthy in the primary against Bob La Follette because they hated Bob La Follette Jr. And so, they went to the Republican primary and the CIO Unions over in Milwaukee and supported McCarthy, which got him into office in a strange way.
So, the progressives in this state descended from La Follette, had no use for communists, so they weren't gonna defend them. Homosexuality was illegal everywhere in the country, so they weren't gonna defend gays. And so, they didn't defend the people that McCarthy attacked. But, there's also an interesting memo written by the Republican boss in the state, Reed Coleman, who talked about the, say, 11 reasons that McCarthy outta be supported in this national effort. Two of them were because he was attacking gays and getting rid of gays. And so, there was a clear sense amongst the political class in this state that his attack on gays was an important part of what he's doing, even though that largely dropped from historical memory, and that most writing about McCarthy days in the state doesn't even mention that he attacked gays, even though it was quite clear he did and that it was popular.
Another political reporter in the state said that more people were concerned with McCarthy's charges that were gays in government than that there communists in government. But, all that got lost in historical memory, so bringing that back is part of what the pre-Stonewall volume, I hope to do.
Betsy Kalin: [00:31:00] How many people? Do you know how many people he attacked?
Richard Wagner: [00:31:30] Well, he piled on the 91 people who had been purged from the state department in the Truman administration. He did list finally in the congressional ... Democrats tried to get McCarthy to be specific about the charges because usually, he was just waving a list and saying some vague number, and the number changed a lot. But, he did list two specific instances where the charges were homosexuality rather than communism. But in their view, homosexuals were subversives, and because they were an underground and hidden conspiracy, and therefore that they could be charged with treason the same way that communists were.
It's interesting. Much later in volume two, I deal with George Mosse, who's an internationally known scholar on modern European cultural history, and he comes to the same presentation that gays as outsiders, like Jews as outsiders, were the targets for conspiracy people and as such, both had to be eliminated, and for the Nazis, they both were. There were some similarities, there had actually been an earlier forerunner of McCarthy in the state, John Chapple, and there was a mild mini red scare in the late 1930s, not much talk about it. Everybody knows about the Palmer Raids after World War I, and the McCarthy period, but in the late 30s, there was this mini red scare.
In Wisconsin's version, Chappleism, he attacked not only the reds at the university, but he also attacked the leniency towards homosexuals that Glenn Frank, the president of the university, had shown. And so, you had a little mini ... but it was fought back against successfully in the late 1930s by the Milwaukee Journal, the Capital Times, and the Progressive, and the Daily Cardinal, the campus paper, who refuted these charges and who actually defeated a motion to extend this witch hunt that had started, and blocked it basically, in the 30s. Couldn't do it in the McCarthy period, but they did in the 1930s here.
Betsy Kalin: Why, for you, is it important to detail the LGBTQ in history of Wisconsin?
Richard Wagner: [00:33:30] Well, part of it is, I think we're rather unique in that we were the first state in the country to have a Gay Rights Law in '82, and it was like seven years before anyone else had one. We're the only state to have elected three out congress people in Gunderson, Pocan, and Baldwin, Baldwin being the first out USSenator. Something happened in this state for those things to occur. And, there's lots more besides those two things, but those are two things that might be known more nationally. And, it doesn't spring full blown just after Stonewall, though right after Stonewall, things do happen in this state. But, there had to be something beforehand, so that to me, was looking into the historical precedent.
In the 1950s, the university had a pose of therapeutic discipline, which is in cases of homosexuals. They would sort of send them off to a psychiatrist before they would readmit them to the university. And this was actually the good policy because the legislature had a sexual psychopath policy where they would send them off to institutions, even if they hadn't committed any crime yet, just on the word of two doctors and a judge deciding. And so, you had all this sort of sickness thing, but you had some of the students who got caught up in this, decide they weren't gonna go to the psychiatrist because they didn't feel that they were sick. So you had this push back already in the 50s against these prevailing normative tropes about homosexuality that people in Wisconsin were already rejecting.
It's very interesting looking at those reports about the students and the disciplinary. There's some 25 actual police interrogatories that still exist. The remarkable thing was, they kept asking them, "Did you commit the homosexual act?" Like, we had no imagination? What's this. So, you find these strange little things when you start doing the actual documents and searching them.
Betsy Kalin: Can you talk a little bit about Wisconsin and why most of the research has been on either coasts, and it's also been in city level, and not at state level?
Richard Wagner: [00:36:00] Well, there are a lot of resources on the coast, and there's a lot of scholars, and they've done great things, I mean, George Chauncey's Gay New York is a tremendous inspiration to me. I've met him and I have books inscribed by he, and Allen Berube, and all this sort of stuff. I've been following these wonderful gay scholars for most of my life.
But again, they're writing about things that don't have as much resonance for me here in the Midwest. The other thing is that there's something in Wisconsin's politics that used to be a lot different than the nation's politics, we had a four party system in the 1930s. We had the old stalwart Republicans, we had some Democrats who were sort of patronage of the new deal, we had the progressive party who were the good side of the Republicans in this state, who had split off and in the 1930s, formed their own progressive party, and they controlled the governorship and the US senatorship.
And then, we had socialists in Milwaukee who actually had seats in the legislature and had a mayor, they had a socialist mayor in Milwaukee till 1960. So, this strange four party brew is what resists this 1930s red scare when the progressives and the socialists and the assembly combined to defeat funding for this witch hunt that had been started by the Democrats at that point. And so, this unique politics ... When you pass the Gay Rights Law in 1982, a lot of those old progressive Republicans are still around. The bill would not have passed without major Republican support in both the senate and the assembly.
And so, you have to understand the uniqueness of our own historical political situation to understand why we're able to achieve some of these things. And so, that's part of what I want to bring out in history because most people don't have any comprehension of that.
Betsy Kalin: Most of the books ... I've read Gay LA.
Richard Wagner: Sure, right, right. Yes, right.
Betsy Kalin: They're about cities.
Richard Wagner: [00:38:00] They're about cities. And the other thing is that there's a very strong sense in this state of a state political community. When I looked at the gay media in this state, there were out newspapers, and then the Wisconsin Light. They all proclaim themselves Wisconsin's gay and lesbian news media or newspaper. There's a sense that there is a statewide gay community. There's a lot of competition between Milwaukee area as the major city, and Madison as the capital city in terms of our state politics, back and forth. But, there is also a sense that there's a cohesive state identity as well.
When we were doing the governor's council, we were building a statewide political movement. That whole progressive tradition ... There is this sort of uniqueness about Wisconsin that sees itself as a cohesive place, not just a series of individual things.
And the other thing that struck me was knowing of the '82 law, that grew out of a state political culture. And in my mind, the story is the interaction of a gay community organized a bit on the statewide level with the state's dominant political culture. And so, you have to understand both the gay community and its organizing, and the state's political culture to understand how that interaction works. And then, the remarkable thing to me in the research is that passing that state law helps create a further state political climate for a gay community that has a statewide sense of itself, that is empowered by that.
There's this remarkable story. Let me backtrack. There's not just a Gay Rights Law passed in '82, but in '83, there's the Consenting Adults Bill, which decriminalizes homosexual acts. There is an HIV Confidentiality Bill that gets passed in part of the state budget. There is student protections for students in high schools and grade schools around the state that the Department of Public Instruction has to enforce. There is an AIDS bill of rights that gets adopted, and a hate crimes law that gets adopted that includes sexual orientation.
All of these things happen within one legislative decade overturning a whole century and a half of anti gay legislation. And so, explaining how all of that happens and how it interplays ... because the hate crimes law includes sexual orientation because it was already in the state's non discrimination law on sexual orientation. And so, you see the linkages between these things and how they interact, and result from a state political culture. I don't think if you talk about a city, Milwaukee, you capture that significance. And so, to me, it was important to have a statewide focus for the history, rather than just a small city. But, it's statewide both geographic, and statewide political cultural.
Betsy Kalin: Excellent. Thank you.
Richard Wagner: Okay, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you so much.
Betsy Kalin: [00:41:00] So why do you think the Midwest and Wisconsin gets overlooked in the national LGBT scheme of things?
Richard Wagner: [00:41:30] In part, there's a lot of gay media on the coast. I subscribed for decades to Christopher Street. I still subscribe to other gay publications. There's a lot of media there and they get a lot of coverage. And so, there's less national focus on a place like Wisconsin in some regards.
Another I think, there's this huge interest in the revival of Boys in the Band, which was on the New York stage in the late 60s and early 70s. Well, one of the things I discovered was that in 1970, there was a playwright here in Madison who was part of the drama department, and he wrote a play Come Out, Come Out, which is very contemporaneous with Boys in the Band. It had a dramatic reading in the drama department at the university. It deals with many of the themes in a much better way than the Boys in the Band, but nobody knows about it at this point.
Boys in the Band is Broadway. This is a Madison drama department. There's a different in terms of what gets covered and the significance as it's applied to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist elsewhere if you look and you find it.
Betsy Kalin: And it doesn't mean it's not important.
Richard Wagner: [00:42:30] Doesn't mean it's not important. And the other thing is that while I find reading the writers from New York wonderful, fascinating ... But, that's not the experience of most people. I'll find a newsletter from Ashland, Wisconsin out up north. It's a small city, and people will talk about how they feel pride in being able to be who they are as a gay person in a community where there's very little support for them, and yet it's very important for them to affirm that. Part of that grows out of the passage of the state law that encourages this all around the state.
It's seen as sort of unique. There's this small paper that comes out of Westby, Wisconsin, small town of a couple hundred, near La Crosse. It's mainly covering things in La Crosse and Eau Claire. But, they have this wonderful little piece about when the AIDS epidemic comes, get your HIV test in Wisconsin, because Wisconsin had passed strong HIV confidentiality. Wisconsin had a non discrimination law on the basis of sexual orientation, whereas if you got the test in Minnesota, you couldn't be sure of the confidentiality. And, if they were using it as a marker for homosexuals, you could be fired from your job in Minnesota.
And so again, the uniqueness of what we had achieved here, and its significance, resonated with people around the state, even in small places, not just the cities that we have.
Betsy Kalin: Great. Thank you.
Betsy Kalin: Terrific. Thank you for remembering to bring that up.
Betsy Kalin: Did you talk about the 1962 gay purge at the university ...
Richard Wagner: [00:44:30] No, we haven't talked about that. In 1962 ... The university actually fought back against the McCarthy push, and for the most part, McCarthy didn't do anything really against the campus. But, homosexuality was still illegal, and the university was arresting people who got caught in compromising situations, mainly in public restrooms or who were having sex in the parks, and stuff like that. They became student disciplinary cases.
But in '62, something had changed. The dean of men at that time decided that he wanted to get rid of the gays on campus. So, he started to push people who got arrested or picked up to give names of other people who may not have done anything visibly against the laws, but if they were simply gay, they were asked to give names. Now, some of them gave names. Actually, George Stambolian, who was editor of Men on Men for many other editions, was one of those people who got caught up, and he was saying that somebody had named him, and he had had sex with many people, he said, but not that particular person who had named him. And so, some people were just naming names to get out of the clutches of the dean.
But supposedly, there were lists of hundreds of names of gay men that were comprised. Finally, the university put an end to it through, actually, its system of faculty governance. They had delegated a lot of this to the administrative staff like the dean of men. He had gone way overboard, and they had sort of a side agreement with the district attorney that the district attorney thought he was helping the university, letting the university administratively deal with these folks so they wouldn't actually come to court, but that just encouraged them to take more of a police law enforcement entrapment kind of thing on it.
It's very interesting that at the same time that this dean of men was very active compiling this purge, that the dean of women was a lesbian who had no interest in doing any purge on the women's side at all. She and her partner ... this was Martha Peterson, her partner, Dr. Maxine Bennett ... had been introduced to each other by the university president because one was from Nebraska and the other was from Kansas, and he said, "Oh, you're neighbors. You outta got to know each other," and it became their partnership in life.
They were relatively open about who they were in the 50s and 60s. Martha went on to become president of Barnard College in Columbia, and later Beloit College. She was on boards of many corporations and so, they were a real power couple in town.
So, even pre-Stonewall, you had these strong personalities establishing themselves and living public lives.
Betsy Kalin: And with all the risks.
Richard Wagner: [00:47:30] With all the risks, yeah. There were risks, but they were brave folks. You can only call them that. They knew they were competent and capable people, and they weren't gonna be held back by other people seeing that their sexual relations or orientations might be a disability.
Betsy Kalin: There were also people at University of Wisconsin-Madison who were doing research into gay issues.
Richard Wagner: [00:48:00] Yes. More of that comes after stonewall than before. Evie Beck wrote on Jewish lesbians. It was amazing that when she was writing, some people would ask her, "Are there many?" But she had a very strong group of Madison Jewish lesbian women who had supported her in that work.
Claudia Card, a professor of philosophy, wrote Lesbian Choices, a wonderful book talking about the continuum of lesbian identity from domestic friendships into the amazons, and she talked about how pride parades present us as we want to be seen, sort of sassy and joyous, and things like that. But, it was very academic scholarly work. She's quoting Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and other kinds of things. She was breaking the boundaries of how women and lesbians should be thought of.
And then there was Ruth Belrier, who wrote Gender and Science, attacking the biology theories that sort of put women into stereotypes, and there's a whole section on lesbians and the stereotypes that are created here, and her work on them.
Evie Marks was professor of French who wrote about the French text on homosexuality as well. Just a remarkable number of strong women academics and lesbians who wrote and sort of created new boundaries as well, here at the university.
Betsy Kalin: How did Stonewall affect the community?
Richard Wagner: [00:49:30] Well, it's very interesting. Stonewall happens in June, and Halloween of '69, there's the first organizing meeting for the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality on campus. It's held at St. Francis House, an Episcopal campus center. That becomes sort of the touchstone of organizing. The next spring, they have MAHE Day ... MAHE was the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality ... celebrating gay pride at the university. And so, it's even before the first anniversary march happens in New York.
Now, it was sort of like they were doing teach-ins. They were borrowing from the anti war movement as to the kinds of things that they would do. But, it was a real public manifestation that a gay movement was here on campus and in the community, and organized. People talk about how they were sort of afraid to go through the doors, but they did, and they formed this first organization.
Milwaukee had some gatherings, tentative meetings, didn't really gel till spring of the next year in 1970 when the Gay People's Union basically got started in Milwaukee. But right after Stonewall, you see organizing going on, and that has to have some roots. They're not the same people that were there before, but all of these networking and things that people had done about positive sense of identity has to play into this sense of this early organizing right after Stonewall.
And then, Eldon Murray, who was the editor of GPU news out of Milwaukee for a decade, he writes this piece five years after Stonewall about its significance and things like that. So, it was a touchstone of memory and activism in the state early on, and its significance ... But, it was not really known at the time, wasn't really covered in the papers of the day. I would go buy the Village Voice at the local newsstand to try and find out what was happening in New York in the early gay organizing and stuff like that.
So, you talked about the laws and the law in 1982.
Richard Wagner: Right.
Betsy Kalin: So how did that law pave the way for other-
Richard Wagner: [00:52:00] Okay. Actually, what paved the way was the Consenting Adults Bill. Lloyd Barbee, an African-American assembly man from Milwaukee, he got elected in 1966. He early on, his first session introduced sex reform laws to decriminalize various sexual acts, including homosexuality. He would introduce those for a whole series of legislative sessions. Right after Stonewall in 1971, he had a non discrimination for sexual orientation, and he added same sex marriage. Has to be one of the first same sex marriage laws in the country that was introduced in '71.
Barbee didn't really expect his bills to be passed, but he viewed himself as an educative legislator who would put things out there. It turns out that it got him into hot water in the Democratic primary in '74 in what was nicknamed "The God Election" when they ran against him because he was doing all these pro gay things. Barbee also would appear on a local radio station in Milwaukee, the Gay Perspective. He had a regular column in the Milwaukee Courier, the local black newspaper in which he touted introducing these bills. And he talked about how the vice cops and the kind of enforcement they did was against gays, and things like that.
He had this line when J. Edgar Hoover died, "The runt will grunt no more." And so, he had a broad agenda of reform that included not only civil rights, but also gay rights, and so he advanced this early on in the state. He did not run in '66 ... am I getting this right? No. '76. David Clarenbach took up the issue of gay rights. Barbee, when he became an assembly chair, actually held a hearing on one of these bills. It was the first time a hearing had to be held, when he had become an assembly chair.
It's interesting that in Milwaukee, there had also been formed a council on religion and the homosexual. This mirrored a council in San Francisco that had existed in the 60s. It was headed up by a Lutheran clergyman, there was also a Methodist clergyman who was involved in it. And so, this model of finding religious support for repealing these laws against criminalizing homosexual acts was an early model in the state. And so, it sort of took some of the sting away from the bills that were talking about sex because you had clergy supporting you on it. Unitarians were very involved early on in that as well.
And so, the Consenting Adults Bill actually had votes taken on it in the 70s. It passed the assembly at one point, and then they reversed themselves and it didn't. But, each session, it kept getting introduced, kept getting more support. In '82, while that bill was still pending, all of a sudden it became clear that the Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland in Milwaukee, would support non discrimination legislation. Because you had meanwhile had some support from religious organizations, they organized with Weakland so that you had Episcopal bishops, Lutheran bishops, Methodist bishops, the equivalent of bishops for the Presbyterians and some others, all supporting the Gay Rights Bill. And so, it passed really rather quickly.
Even though Barbee had introduced a version of it way back then, the bill that passed in '82 was a relatively recent introduction. And so, for a while there, while the Consenting Adults Bill was being considered, the gay law students testified that they were the only organized criminals in the law school because homosexuality was illegal.
After the big '82 bill passed, even though what homosexuals did was illegal, you couldn't discriminate against them for doing it, so you had this strange anomaly. In the next session, they did pass Consenting Adults Bill, and so homosexual acts became legal. Consenting Adults Bill had been sort of the stocking horse for this in building support and getting the religious support, and then all of a sudden it switched to passing the Gay Rights Bill, and so that's really how that legislative thing happened.
Betsy Kalin: [00:56:30] And, where was Wisconsin in same sex marriage?
Richard Wagner: Same sex marriage, as I said, Barbee introduced the bill but we didn't have anything in our constitution until it became a Republican strategy to do that. So in 2006, after two legislative sessions the Republicans had passed the bill for a constitutional amendment. It was voted on. We thought we had a chance, we had gotten four former governors, including Dreyfus, who had signed the Gay Rights Bill. So we had a Republican and three Democratic governors against it. But, it passed with 58% of the vote. Just broke our hearts.
Then, we had to wait for a court case. The federal district judge, Barbara Crabb ruled the provisions unconstitutional. That got upheld by the seventh circuit in Chicago, and the SupremeCourt declined to hear it. And so, gay marriage became an event.
It was interesting. Again, sort of the sense of how the community got organized is that Judge Crabb issued her ruling on a Friday afternoon and she didn't put a stay on the ruling. And so, the county clerk here in Dane County, Scott McDonnell, and the Milwaukee county clerk, Joe Czarnezki, both decided they would go ahead and start issuing marriage licenses. Scott McDonnell had prepared for it by creating a number of us as deputy registrars so we could help fill out the forms of all these people who got in line. We're going through and we were checking their documents and all that stuff.
We had a number of the lesbian judges and other friendly judges standing on the courthouse steps doing these marriages that Friday evening into Saturday, so that we would create facts on the ground before the attorney general could get a stay on the law. And so, we did all of that. It was fantastic that night.
Betsy Kalin: That's fantastic history.
Richard Wagner: [00:58:30] Yes, is it. It is. But again, it showed at that point we're a very sophisticated gay community in how we could organize and how we could use political allies, and things like that.
Betsy Kalin: And, how did that ruling affect you personally because you were a part of-
Richard Wagner: I was a deputy registrar. I was filling out forms and having people, and then the county clerk would come in and sign, and stuff like that. Scott is a personal friend of mine, and I had helped his political career over the years, and so it was really great to have him there and be able to have that kind of experience.
Betsy Kalin: It's 9:56. Should we move the car?
Richard Wagner: Oh, let's look-
Betsy Kalin: [00:59:00] Well, you can't get up.
Richard Wagner: I can't get up. Okay. Yes, you probably should see if there's another spot that you can move to just in case.
Richard Wagner: But, they probably didn't come right at 8:00, so you might have a few more minutes to think about it.
Natalie Tsui: I didn't see anyone.
Richard Wagner: You didn't see anyone?
Betsy Kalin: You didn't see them?
Natalie Tsui: Should I cut?
Betsy Kalin: [00:59:30] Yes. I think we probably should.
Great. So let's go back a little bit. What is something you needed or wanted that you didn't have in your formative years?
Richard Wagner: What did I need or want?
Betsy Kalin: According ...
Richard Wagner: Okay, sure.
Betsy Kalin: Like, in LGBT. This is like from the question-
Richard Wagner: [01:00:00] Right, no. Right, right. I understood. I didn't even know what I didn't know or needed to know. It was another country, which I didn't even know the name of, and I draw that from the reference of the play, another country, because it was just sort of totally unknown, and that's a shame.
One of the stories that comes up was actually surfaced in Will Fellow's book on farm boys, was that there was a high school student in a relatively small town in Wisconsin who was reading books and singing songs as part of choir, of things that were done by gay men, and he didn't know it at the time. He felt his education had been stunted because he didn't know that these gay composers and gay authors were actually the sources of the things that they were reading and signing in their high school. He went back and founded a fund for the high school that would create an opening for that to be corrected.
So, just total invisibility. It was there and it shouldn't have been. So in part, that's part of the reason for the years of research and all this other stuff to write this thing, to erase that invisibility. And it's amazing. I've had some friends who've been reading chapters and stuff like that, and for them it's like they're discovering things that they never knew. And of course, any one person's experience is only limited by their one sort of universe, and in a whole statewide experience, there's tons of things that they're not aware of. And so in part, the history is revealing itself to gays and lesbians as well as to the larger straight society.
Betsy Kalin: And is it also like a way-
Natalie Tsui: [inaudible] real quick.
Betsy Kalin: Oh, sure.
Natalie Tsui: His shirt has a sprinkle in it right here that's not very ...
Richard Wagner: Okay. Sure.
Natalie Tsui: Okay, there.
Betsy Kalin: And, is there also a way that by doing your research and writing the book that you're kind of trying to place yourself within this identity, and discover more about you?
Richard Wagner: [01:02:30] I don't think so at this point. I think I know who I am and I've been so involved with LBGT politics in the state since the 70s that I think I know where I am. I'm not trying to place myself anymore.
One of the things in talking with the editors initially about the book was they were concerned that I might not have enough of myself in it, and I said, "Eh, I think there will be," and I still think there is enough of myself in it. But, it's not my story that I'm trying to tell. I'm trying to tell a political cultural social history story, and that's the kind of academic training that I got here at the university and the history department.
Merle Curti was an intellectual and social historian. Combining that training with my own sort of political life gives me the kind of mix that I want for this thing. And I wasn't sure when I began really, what I was doing. I had a conversation with some folks in Milwaukee and I realized that to talk about a state political culture was really what I was interested in because I had been involved in it, and then I realized that most of the books had been on municipal political cultures and municipal gay communities, and that I thought there was something different here in the state. I think my research actually pretty much confirms that. I think that's a different tale, nationally, than what's been told.
Betsy Kalin: Great. And then, talk a bit about, you are in the book-
Betsy Kalin: [01:04:00] You do have this great contribution.
Richard Wagner: [01:04:30] Right. Right, right, right. Well, I'm in the book because I appear a couple times in several roles. I talk about how in 1980 we passed the Dane County non discrimination ordinance. The city had done one in '75, Milwaukee also did one ... The city of Milwaukee also did one in 1980. And so, those three local ordinances get cited by Governor Dreyfus when he signs the state law. And so again, I feel comfortable mentioning my own role in helping do that for Dane County.
There's actually an appetency that I've done which is sort of more of a memoir, which I started calling, "A Seat at the Table." One of the things I was involved in was in '85, going out to west Hollywood for the first gathering of out elected LBGT officials. Kathleen Nichols and I went out there, and there were probably a dozen of us who were there at the conference. The fact that there were two from Wisconsin and actually three from Minnesota spoke to the Midwest had a little bit more than some of the other parts of the country than they would've thought. But in part, it's the openness of the political cultures in the Midwest that permitted that, whereas in New York, you had to work your way up through a long political structure, and in California, things were such huge kinds of things.
So, the memoir that I attached the chapters ... sort of a memoir ... is "A Seat at the Table" which grew out of that political conference that we talked about the importance of actually sitting at the tables where decisions about our lives are made. So in it, I talk about sort of how you can exercise power in a much more subtle way than in the significant passage of big state bills and things like that. An example was that I was able to engineer it so that a young supervisor, Tammy Baldwin, got appointed by me as chair of the board to the finance committee, a significant committee. And then I engineered that she would end up chairing the Dane County Task Force on AIDS, which gave her a credential to use in her first assembly race, and things like that.
So, these are much more subtle kinds of things. There also is an issue about the Mazomanie beach. This is a nudist beach that goes back to the 1930s. August Derleth, a Wisconsin writer who may have been a bisexual according to one of his biographers, wrote about Bare Skin Beach in a biography of the River Wisconsin. There was a whole series of biographies of rivers in the country. And so, this beach had been there for a long time. It's in a little niche of Dane County up on the Wisconsin river in the town of Mazomanie. There had developed a gay section of it now.
There could well have been young gay men in the 1930s when Derleth was writing about it as well. And so, the moral forces always wanted to crackdown of this nudist beach, and stuff like that. We had a Democratic district attorney who didn't really wanna enforce the state law on nudity. And so the Dane County sheriff who I knew, came to me and said he wanted to create a county ordinance where he could just ticket people for being there because the tickets could be easily done, and he thought most people would pay them, and that would discourage the use on the beach.
Well, I was then chair of the Public Protection Committee for the county board, and as chair, I decided what would go on our agenda. I told the sheriff, "I'm never putting that ordinance on the agenda. You ain't never gonna see that pass the county board," because I didn't want that enforcement going on against folks that was part of the gay geography of our lives. And so, that ordinance never got enacted. The beach survived that attack. Some later ones came. But again, how subtle uses of power can occur when you're at a seat at the table, is one of the things I'm attaching in sort of a memoir to the book.
Betsy Kalin: I think we had a little bit of a plane there over the section about Tammy Baldwin.
Betsy Kalin: So, if you can talk about your impact.
Betsy Kalin: And then also, tell who she is.
Richard Wagner: [01:08:30] Okay, sure. I was on the county board in 1980. Kathleen Nichols, a lesbian activist, joined me in 1982. In 1985, Kathleen and I were organizing for the city races that would happen in '85. We were at the group of political activists and they sort of said, "Okay, now we're gonna go off and form caucuses." Kathleen and I looked and said, "We must be the LBGT caucus," or gay caucus at that point. So we went, and this young woman came up to join us and it was a very young Tammy Baldwin, fresh out of law school.
So we sat down, we talked about how to organize the gay community for the city elections and stuff like that. And then, Lynn Hainan who had been on the county board in '86 decided not to run. Lynn and I had come out together in the press in a news story in '82. So, Lynn arranged that Tammy could succeed her on the city council, or, on the county board, excuse me. And so, Tammy joined the county board as sort of our third out person in 1986, replacing Lynn, who had been out.
So then I got elected chair of the county board, and I was able to engineer an appointment for Tammy to the finance committee, a powerful and highly visible committee. And then I was able to ensure that she was head of the Dane County AIDS Task force that we were creating, and also that she would end up as chair of that, which gave her a credential to use in her first race for the state assembly in a highly contested primary. She went on to become a state assembly member, a US congress member, and a member of the US senate now.
So again, how you can encourage ... we used to call it the Homintern, and every so often we would have dinners, many of them here in this house, where we would get all of our local gay and lesbian elected officials together ... partners were welcome, and we just sort of talk about the comradery and issues we were working on, and create that kind of networking of political power and support that reinforced each other. We eventually had the first out gay Hispanic elected official in Ricardo Gonzalez, and we had sort of the second out Republican official in Jim McFarland. There's been a whole slew of Madison alders and county board supervisors who have been out as a result of that sort of early Homintern building.
Betsy Kalin: Fantastic.
Betsy Kalin: So, you also spent years as an out public official, and then the founding of the National Association of Out Officials.
Richard Wagner: Right, right.
Betsy Kalin: [01:11:00] So can you talk about that?
Richard Wagner: [01:11:30] Sure. It was in west Hollywood. It was just amazing to be there. Chris Smith, who was an out member of parliament, was there as a guest and a speaker. Harry Britt spoke as well, who had succeeded Harvey Milk.
So again, there were a couple of us in our communities, but to be with a group of each other was just remarkable as we sort of retold stories about our elections and what we were working on, and things like that, and all that issues. So it was really empowering. Following Harvey's lead, we issued a statement about the kinds of things that we thought were important and why it was important for us.
Betsy Kalin: I heard that one.
Richard Wagner: Yeah, right. I'm sorry. I'm a city boy, what can I say.
Betsy Kalin: Not a problem.
Natalie Tsui: It's gone. It stopped.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. Great.
Betsy Kalin: So we just have to back up.
Richard Wagner: [01:12:00] Okay. So, it was really remarkable to be with all this other group of gay elected officials. We sort of told war stories about our campaigns and issues we were working on, and things like that. Then there was a group that was going off to work on the statement that we would issue the next day. Since I wasn't on that committee, thank goodness, I went out to the Studio One Disco and had some fun in LA.
These gatherings ... and I have relatively a complete archival record of sort of the first dozen of these gatherings of gay elected officials. I don't know anybody else who kept them over those years, so they're going to part of the archive here.
To see the numbers increase year after year as more folks got elected and as more folks were coming from state legislative races, not just local governmental office, it was really remarkable, the kind of growth. And, that led later to the victory for them, and that kinds of things. But again, here in Wisconsin, nurturing that through being part of the National Association, and then being part of this local Homintern, and then seeing the results in US senator and three congresspeople is a really remarkable kind of thing.
It's those little things that sometimes build those bigger things. Also, that got us involved with early lobbying on AIDS, and a whole bunch of the early elected officials went to congress and lobbied on the AIDS funding. And then, I got invited to the war conference, which was held outside of DC at the time of AIDS. That led to suggestions for the National Coming Out Day, and another national march which I also was at, and was able to read names at the quilt. By remarkable coincidence, I read Liberace's name, one of our Wisconsin natives, at the quilt reading in DC then.
So, those kinds of networking and mutual support of things just really build and help create power when you do them together.
Betsy Kalin: Great. Didn't you experience some harassment and-
Richard Wagner: Oh, I got hate mail and all kinds of stuff like that, yeah. It came with the territory. Kathleen actually got more threatening stuff than I did, and she actually through the governor's office had the state patrol look into some protection issues for her, and stuff like that. I never had anything that serious. But yeah, you get plenty of cranko's.
Betsy Kalin: [01:14:30] And, was it hard to work with some people too?
Richard Wagner: No. I actually never found it hard to work with folks. We had some conservative county board members, and some of them were a little weird, but for the most part, no. I was able to work with folks.
Richard Wagner: I was a polite little German boy.
Betsy Kalin: Who was Ron McCray? And why was he important?
Richard Wagner: [01:15:00] Ron McCrea was one of the early activists. He wasn't in the first initial group of MAHE but was very involved early on, and he became editor of the Renaissance Magazine, which was the publication for the gay center, which was sort of the successor to MAHE. He became important ... Here also was a group of gay men who lived in a place called Fag Manor in Mansion Hill, one of our early gay neighborhoods. A whole series of gay activists lived there together. It was just a wonderful thing. It was right across the back yard from where I was living on Mansion Hill at the time. I sort of knew vaguely of him at that point.
And then, he got appointed press secretary to Tony Earl when Tony got elected. The Milwaukee Sentinel ran this big headline, "Avowed Homosexual Reporter Appointed by Earl," and it was just like the rest of the press in the state took the Sentinel to task for sort of highlighting this, and there's stories about how one of the governor's aides said, "Well, there's a lot of remarkable things about Ron, but I wouldn't have thought that would have been one, much less headline news," kind of thing. But, Ron was a wonderful newspaper reporter, and he had edited the Press Connection, the strike newspaper here in town, so he helped cooperate with me on writing the executive order for Governor Earl to sign, creating the concept and things like that. He did a remarkable job as press secretary.
He went and spoke to places like the Cream City Business Association in Milwaukee about the governor's work, and things like that. So, he was and is still just a great guy.
Betsy Kalin: Great. Thank you. You spoke about Ted Pierce.
Natalie Tsui: Wait. I think the fridge just kicked up. You hear that?
Betsy Kalin: I think it's a plane.
Natalie Tsui: It is a plane.
Richard Wagner: Yeah, I hear a plane.
Natalie Tsui: [01:17:00] Yeah? Oh, okay. Oh, it is a plane. Okay, so let's wait till it passes.
Betsy Kalin: I think you mentioned Claudia Card?
Betsy Kalin: But, can you speak any more-
Betsy Kalin: Oh, we're just gonna wait.
Richard Wagner: Yeah, right. Okay. I can do a little more.
Betsy Kalin: Wow, that's a long plane.
Richard Wagner: There's some long flight paths.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, I think it's ...
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, it's gone.
Richard Wagner: [01:18:00] Okay. Actually, when I was working on my graduate degree, I had a philosophy of religion class with Claudia Card, who I didn't know at that point was a budding lesbian scholar. I don't know how much she was out either at that point. This was in the 60s before Stonewall. But, I was impressed with her as a teacher in philosophy at that point. But then, I started to delve, for a chapter on academics, into her writings and was just blown away by the strong things that she was able to do in terms of ...
Betsy Kalin: So sorry.
Richard Wagner: [01:18:30] That's all right.
Natalie Tsui: There was like a rumble of a plane but now it's gone. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. You said you were impressed with her.
Richard Wagner: [01:19:00] I was impressed with her writings and how clear she was about many lesbian issues. And so, she was particularly important. It struck me that she said you have to give space for rumor as well as sort of actual clarity in some of the discussion about lesbian history, which is important because sometimes you have only hints of domestic friendships and things like that, which you may or may not have any clarity on in terms of historical record, but which you should make some presumptions about at least in favor of talking about.
She was clear of ... She talked about issues like domestic violence amongst lesbians. She also talked about how potentially professors were stalked by young lesbians in the classroom, not that she had had necessarily bad experiences because she thought lesbians basically knew how to take care of women and respect women, but she did recognize it as something that happened. She talked about outing. Gay men talked about it but lesbians didn't.
It was just a remarkable tour de force to read Lesbian Choices, and the clarity of how she was able to express ideas and things like that. So it put her right up there in terms of my sense of academics. She had taught the lesbian course for the women's studies program here at the university for a number of years. Part of that whole circle included Biddy Martin, who later became chancellor here at the university. She was in German, and so she was part of that whole circle along with Ruth Bleier. Ruth Bleier had a rock band. Just a remarkable sense of the lesbian community, and the academics. I was just blown away as I learned more about that, which as a gay man, I didn't really know much about, but I’d learned.
Betsy Kalin: Well, I think that ... as a lesbian, I actually have heard of the Madison lesbian community.
Richard Wagner: Oh yeah? Wow, okay. Sure.
Betsy Kalin: So, I think they're pretty well known-
Richard Wagner: Oh yes, right. Okay. Yeah. Right, right, right.
Betsy Kalin: Do you wanna talk about that?
Richard Wagner: [01:21:00] Well, I knew them politically because that was one of the things that ... I can't write a feminist history. That's not sort of my intellectual structure, and things like that. But, I was knowing that I had to include both men and women as this history went forward, post-Stonewall. I knew that mainly from a political point of view before I got involved in some more of the research and found more of the academic stuff. And then, I also found a whole series of authors and poets, and Hispanic poets from Milwaukee who wrote this wonderful stuff that I was totally unaware of as a gay man, that I just think people need to know about.
So, in the second volume, I'm trying to bring out this kind of balance between the community and the balance between the cultural things that people don't know if they're just focusing on the political side of things.
Betsy Kalin: And, are there any transgender examples?
Richard Wagner: [01:22:00] Oh, there's wonderful transgendered examples. Early on in the gay media in the state, there were discussions with transsexuals. OUT! did some interviews with transsexuals and there was this meeting between the women who were putting out Amazon Magazine in Milwaukee, which was primarily a lesbian group, and some transsexuals. That didn't go so well because one of the feminist critiques of transsexuals was that they fell into stereotypes of what they thought women's roles were, and the women who were fighting against patriarchy were having none of that sort of stereotypes, kinds of things. And yet, there was some sentiment they were willing to have the discussions about where those boundaries were.
There was one very famous case early on in Milwaukee where a woman who had dressed and presented herself as a man, had married another woman, and then the woman she had married was upset because she was having an affair with another woman. Whether this was a true transsexual or a lesbian threesome, I don't know. You can't tell this far from historical record, but clearly she presented herself as a man in this context.
But then there's the case of Lou Sullivan, who is from Milwaukee, is well known. He was writing in GPU news in the 70s about transvestites and transsexuals. He later, after he was here, moves to San Francisco and finally becomes a female-to-male transsexual, but he had terrible time getting medical support in San Francisco because he felt he was a homosexual, and the assumption had always been that female-to-male transsexuals would be heterosexual. And so, he had to sort of break all these additional barriers. He maintained friendships with folks in Milwaukee, with Eldon Murray.
Eldon wrote him when Alyn Hess passed away in Milwaukee, and actually sold him his typesetting machine which then Sullivan used for his own business, and stuff like that. He came back to Milwaukee for one of his organizing meetings for the female-to-male transsexual network that he was building around the county. He kept remarkable journals, which have been written up into biography of him about his life in Milwaukee and dressing up in his Bob Dylan period, and going down in Milwaukee Avenue, and trying to present himself as a male person.
And so, you had this early development of this very significant figure that comes out of Milwaukee in the transsexual community in Lou Sullivan that's there as well.
Betsy Kalin: Is there anything else you wanna ... I think you mentioned Ralph Warner.
Richard Wagner: Yes. I did.
Betsy Kalin: Is there anything else that you wanna say about him?
Richard Wagner: [01:25:00] I think we talked about Ralph. We talked about ... Oh, a little bit more about Bob and Edgar because, one of the things about Ralph, and Bob, and Edgar, and there's another gentleman, Edwin Barlow, who was another bachelor ... What Warner did was he recreated this sense of the early Yankee settlement of Cooksville, their cultural appreciation. Bob Neal in Mineral Point was doing the same thing for the Cornish. They were recreating cultural history. Edward and Barlow did the same thing for the Swiss in New Glarus.
But, they also found a way that in promoting that cultural history, you could promote cultural tourism as well. And so, it was a way of making money. And so, if you were an outsider, what could seem a more American credential than you had come up with a way of making money out of doing this identity creation? In this case it was cultural identity, but as a way to overcome outsiderdom. And so, that was, I think, a remarkable thing about these early folks in the 30s, that they had created a way to sort of give themselves a credential as Americans when they would have been thought otherwise as outside of that case.
Betsy Kalin: [01:26:00] Great. Terrific.
Natalie Tsui: I need to pause for a second and change ...
Okay, speed.
Betsy Kalin: Okay. What do you regard as the most significant change that LGBTQ people experience today as compared to 50 or 60 years ago?
Richard Wagner: [01:26:30] Oh, wow. Okay. That's a really ... One of the things that I talk about is that I don't know if young folks today can realize the importance of a local community. These folks, when they founded and formed a local unity group in Eau Claire, they may have had a dozen people come to their meetings. They were really finding support, or, in the 30s when they built this sort of small rural network kind of folks who knew each other and who could support each other.
In an age of the internet when you can find information, you can find other people so easily, the significance of these sort of geographic local gatherings may not be understood as it was then. That was one of the things that I tried ... How do you get people to understand it was a very different context where building your identity and finding a few people who could support you was a very crucial thing? And sort of, how information transferred, how you exchanged information about other folks who you thought were like you, were doing things.
Another bachelor architect here in Madison whose career was followed by folks in Mineral Point and in Cooksville, and who would be mentioned in letters with other kinds of people ... There's this sense of, there were other folks like you, and you could find them, and you could see their achievements, was groundbreaking back then. And today would be thought, "huh," I think if you had to think about it. And so, that I think is a very significant thing.
Again, the fact that the Republicans were so important from the progressive tradition in this state in supporting these changes in legislation ... Most people assume there would've been no Republican votes for these things, and actually today, there's still an out Republican legislature in the legislature. And so, this tradition just doesn't fit sort of patterns of thought today in that you have to really step outside of that if you wanna understand our history and understand how these things were significant to people. So I think that's a big change.
Betsy Kalin: And also, there's so much more information.
Richard Wagner: [01:29:00] Oh yeah, right. There's all kinds of information now. Even in these days when they found something, it was a small limited amount of information. It was reinforcing, but it was a very limited amount. One of the things that I also researched was sort of the letters to ONE magazine that were written by folks from Wisconsin, which sort of described how they had collected books or things like that, that they knew of about gay things, and how they would follow the research of the primate lab at the university, which had done some examples of whether breast feeding or having a cloth on a wire monkey was more important for nurturing young monkeys. The cloth, the comforting, was more important than the actual physical feeding, and trying to understand how that meant that amongst gay people, the non biological comfort of love, could be important.
So, they're reaching these far sort of examples, but trying to understand that was something that was important to them that today, people ... "Huh, what?" I don't think they would have a sense of how limited the information was for them to reach for those kinds of understandings and that kind of research.
Betsy Kalin: [01:30:30] Do you have a way that you think the history that you're doing can reach young LGBTQ people?
Richard Wagner: [01:31:00] Good question. I go to all the GSAFE dinners, which is our Gay Straight Alliance Support Group statewide. I was over at an LBGT summit in Milwaukee just a month ago, and went to a couple trans workshops there. It struck me that they have such a different mindset in some ways, that for them, talking about their own personal experiences is the keystone of reality. For me, raised in a period of reticence talking about my personal experience, and even as you've seen today, is a little on edge for me. But, that's not for them, for the most part.
For me, social and political structures are very important because I've seen how these institutions get built. Part of that growing up was I had this sense that my parents were part of a large sort of Catholic social group that had gone to the University of Dayton in the 1920s and 30s. And so, they had sort of built parallels structures for sort of a subculture of Catholics in this town that paralleled sort of the predominant structures, which were non Catholic, in our town.
And so, seeing the gay community build structures for gay theater, gay politics, and things like that, has been an important part of what I've done in my life, but I'm not sure people understand that as much today. Maybe I'm just musing on this and not really sure. There's a gay hockey team in town that is just fantastic and has lots of folks participating in. There's a gay chorus in town still doing wonderful things. And so, we still have social institutions, but you kinda wonder in an internet age whether that'll still continue or not, the people who write Bowling Alone, and all that sort of stuff about how social structures change.
Betsy Kalin: Just your last sentence.
Richard Wagner: Another snowplow.
Natalie Tsui: Oh.
Betsy Kalin: That's a new sound for us.
Richard Wagner: Come on here in certain months.
Betsy Kalin: We're like, "What is that?" I think it was just your very last sentence about in the internet age.
Richard Wagner: [01:33:00] Okay. In the internet age, and with social theorists writing about Bowling Alone, about the destruction of social networks and things like that, whether that can be understood and whether it's still gonna be significant, I don't know. I'm writing a piece right now for a gay chorus about sort of interspersing some of our history with their songs for the next concert.
Betsy Kalin: Oh my goodness.
Richard Wagner: The plow's coming back the other way.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, it stopped. Oh wait, there it is.
Betsy Kalin: There it goes. Okay, let's talk about writing.
Richard Wagner: [01:33:30] What's left to plow?
I'm writing right now some history stories to intersperse with the notes for a concert for the songs for the Perfect Harmony Gay Men's Chorus, and trying to give them a sense of how the themes that they're going to present in song also can be reflected in our history.
Betsy Kalin: [01:34:00] But, I think also in this time period, we're seeing a lot of backwards momentum.
Richard Wagner: [01:34:30] Oh yes, oh yes. One of the things that constantly has been in my mind is that the greatest flowering of the gay community before the present day was in Weimar, Germany, and it all got wiped out. Just got wiped out. In fact, one of the things that was most remarkable to me is that I think there was a journalist, the same guy Keith McCutcheon, who lived in this house, who had a sense of that story that he put into his columns in a small weekly newspaper in the state. He talks about a young man, and he describes him as if he were a gay man, and how he had been arrested and put in the camps and then released, and was basically broken after. But he had talked about he'd been drinking with his comrades and this sort of stuff.
And so, in the coded language of the day, it seems pretty clear to me, he's talking about a gay man's experience in the early Nazi period. There were some examples of Nazi ... they had released some gay men at a certain period, and then who did retell their stories. With the number of Germans in the state, that Keith might have somehow picked up this story, which he references he only heard about. So, it's sort of like an oral transmission of this history. But the fact that in the 1930s, somebody in Wisconsin could have talked about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals was just remarkable to me. But, the fact that the Nazis could wipe it out doesn't mean that they can't be wiped out again. I presume it won't be, but it doesn't mean that it can't be.
Betsy Kalin: I think that's why your work is so important.
Betsy Kalin: You need to have this-
Richard Wagner: [01:36:00] Needs to be a record. The record needs to be there. One of the scholars who I also talk about in the academics chapter is Jim Stakely, who has written extensively about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. He's helped revived a whole bunch of early sources on the German gay rights movement in the Weimar period, and has had a number of exhibits here on campus and lectures about that, so it's really just great that you can revive some of that stuff.
Betsy Kalin: Great.
Betsy Kalin: What would you name as the most important underlying reason for the progress that the LGBT community has made?
Richard Wagner: [01:36:30] Bravery. We decide that we're not gonna stay in closets, that we're gonna talk about our lives, that our lives are part of the American culture, and that we want to be seen and heard. If we hadn't made that decision individually and collectively, we wouldn't be where we are. That's what it has taken. As they say, there's plenty of heroes and heroines in this history. And so, I wanna recapture some of their tales.
Betsy Kalin: Like the feminists said in the 70s, "The personal is political."
Betsy Kalin: So, talk about your drive.
Richard Wagner: [01:37:30] Okay. Yeah, you keep pushing me on this. To me, understanding part of what I've been part of ... I've been part of this gay political scene in the state ... and how it came together. One, I was just glad to do the accomplishments. We broke out the bottle of champagne when the Gay Rights Law passed and drank it up in David's office, and stuff like that.
But, to understand the components of it and to be able to explain it is actually quite different than just experiencing it. And so, you can sort of do the checklist. Oh yeah, that was done. But, having people know the amount of work that went into it, who was involved in it, how the pieces came together, how tactics and political strategy were developed, that became more illuminating to me, and it's important that it be understood as well, and the fact that it resulted in this wonderful flowering of Wisconsin gay culture.
Years ago when I was traveling, I was in Amsterdam and I picked up this book about the Dutch gay community, and I couldn't read any Dutch, but I was just impressed with how all these communities across Holland all had some little gay thingy going on. The same would be true today of Wisconsin is that in all the communities, there's significant and many even smaller ... there's all these gay pride events going on, and gay community organizing, and concerts, and all kind of other stuff going on, which means that we really have established ourselves and we really have built ourselves into the fabric of the state.
Betsy Kalin: Beautiful. That's great. Thank you.
Betsy Kalin: I guess what I'm trying to get at ... You hinted it when you were talking about your early years-
Richard Wagner: Okay, right.
Betsy Kalin: And how you resisted socialism and your whole career has been dedicated to fighting for justice and equality.
Richard Wagner: Right, right, right.
Betsy Kalin: So, I kinda just want you to ...
Richard Wagner: [01:39:30] Okay. In the 60s here in Madison, there was a whole sort of very active counter cultural thing. I remember in graduate school struggling a little bit with sort of who the heck I was. This is not about sexual identity at all. It was sort of like, how do I fit into this society that I see has problems? The war was the biggest problem in the 60s, and I was very involved in the antiwar movements, one of the organizers for the moratorium against the war, went to many of the demonstrations. I was at the DOW demonstration. I was not inside the building but I was outside up on the hill during that.
It was a real crisis as to sort of how could we affirm that this society that was doing such terrible things that we thought at the time. I went over and marched with Father Groppi in Milwaukee for open housing. How could we affirm who we were? At some point, something just clicked and I said, "Okay, I can't get out of the fact that I am an American and that we have these promises about what this society should be. We're not living up to them. But the promises that I hold dear as to how a democratic society should function and how it should operate in the world ... And so, if I want to hold those things, I have to do some things to change them." And, that meant gay activism and it meant a whole series of peace activism.
I'm still part of Pax Christi and other kinds of things like that, to this day. And so, it's the call of what the founders might call citizenship. One of the things ... One of my early jobs was as director of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. The federal government didn't want just the eastern states to celebrate, they wanted them all to celebrate it, so basically they bribed the rest of the states with money. And so, Wisconsin had this money to give out for celebration of the bicentennial, I was director of the commission that did that. I remember we had a bit in the newsletter about Susan B. Anthony at the time of the centennial, talking about, are not women citizens, basically.
Seeing Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, basically that poses the question for gay folks, are we not citizens and will we not claim our right as citizens? And so, if you're gonna be an American and you're gonna be a citizen, you have things you have to do, and part of that is participatory democracy in so many ways, and so that's what my life has really been about. And as a gay man, that's been part of it, but it's just a part of it.
Betsy Kalin: That's what I see as I talk with you-
Betsy Kalin: ... as I see this constant fight for equality and justice.
Betsy Kalin: And it's for everyone.
Richard Wagner: Yeah, right. It is, right.
Betsy Kalin: But, it's also like your work towards-
Richard Wagner: Right. Right, right, right.
Betsy Kalin: ... LGBTQ equality is huge.
Richard Wagner: Yeah. Right, right, right. It's been the main area, but it's not the only thing. Right, yeah.
Betsy Kalin: So the last part is, we have four questions.
Betsy Kalin: These are just meant to be kind of short answers.
Richard Wagner: [01:43:00] Okay, sure. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: So, if a young person came to you today and wanted to come out, what would your advice to them be?
Richard Wagner: [01:43:30] You need to decide you're ready to do it, you need to find support along the way to do it, but hopefully, you will decide to do it.
Betsy Kalin: And why?
Richard Wagner: And why? Because you have to live your life. You cannot live the life that somebody else wants you to live. You'll never be happy living that other life.
Betsy Kalin: Terrific. Thank you. And, what is your hope for the future?
Richard Wagner: [01:44:00] Oh, in these days that's ... Actually, it's a real basic hope. I hope our democracy survives. As a historian, I read all kinds of strange things, and I read a book about how the collapse of liberal democracy in eastern Europe happened in the 1920s and 30s as people no longer believed in parliamentary and democratic institutions. As a result, they succumbed to authoritarianism and illiberal regimes. God forbid we go to that point.
Betsy Kalin: It's terrifying.
Richard Wagner: It is. One of the other crazy things is I read a book about collaboration during the Vichy period in France. You think today, who the heck is collaborating? And what kinds of levels there are of collaboration as there were during that period, and whether you can reconstruct democracy after such a period.
Betsy Kalin: [01:45:00] Okay, thank you.
Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Richard Wagner: Actually, it's not important for me to tell my story. It's important for me to tell the story of a community.
Betsy Kalin: But, through you telling that story, it is important.
Richard Wagner: Maybe. I was raised to be a modest guy.
Betsy Kalin: So this is for our archive.
Betsy Kalin: [01:45:30] I'm gonna ask, why is OUTWORDS important? And then if you could say, “OUTWORDS” in your answer.
Richard Wagner: Sure. I think OUTWORDS is important because it's creating part of an archive of what the gay, lesbian, transgender and bi experience has been ... Bi is a little harder about all this. We have less organized activity for them, but there are signs of it, and I have some in my book. But, history is important because if you don't understand how things combine and see the patterns that history can provide, you have a hard time understanding the present, it seems to me. And, if you don't understand the present, you can't build a future.
Natalie Tsui: [01:46:00] Sorry.
Betsy Kalin: We're gonna have to go back and do that again because of this interference.
Richard Wagner: Sure. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: Thank you. That was a great line.
Richard Wagner: Okay. Which one?
Betsy Kalin: About understanding history.
Betsy Kalin: And if you don't understand.
Richard Wagner: Right, right, right. Okay.
Natalie Tsui: It's gone.
Richard Wagner: Okay. I think it's very important to understand our history because if you can't understand the history and the patterns and developments, it's hard to understand the present. And, if you don't really understand the present, you're not gonna build a future.
Betsy Kalin: [01:46:30] Beautiful.
Richard Wagner: I was in politics too long.
Natalie Tsui: Oh yeah, I have some questions. So, I ask a question but you answer to her.
Betsy Kalin: Me.
Richard Wagner: Okay, all right. Okay. All right.
Natalie Tsui: And so, I've been curious ... Okay, I've seen a bunch of these interviews at this point.
Richard Wagner: Sure, okay.
Natalie Tsui: [01:47:00] There are certain parts where I feel like ... there are portions of the interview where I'm like, "Okay, this is probably documented. You have this in your book. We can probably dive and get that eventually." But I do want ... I'm curious what your personal story is and if you could tell a little bit about that, beyond what we've already covered.
Natalie Tsui: Anything from your personal history, from your personal experience that ... because, there are probably young people that are gonna be watching this, and I think as a young queer person-
Natalie Tsui: ... when I talk to my queer elders, of course I wanna learn how to organize and how to be active-
Richard Wagner: Right, right, right, right.
Natalie Tsui: ... and help my community.
Natalie Tsui: But additionally, there's a lot of stuff that we don't get from our parents, so if there's anything that you wanna share that might be helpful.
Natalie Tsui: Or anything from your experience that you just wanna share.
Richard Wagner: [01:48:00] Okay. All right. One of the important things to me in this gay experience has been finding others who share the work, and that's why I mentioned about the young person maybe wanting to come out, that you need people to share a journey with you. That's common beyond our gay community experience. It's common in most spiritual kinds of choices, is that having a spiritual director or spiritual companion is important. It's also common if you look at Native American tradition and people who go on spirit quests, is that they need somebody to help them be an elder in that journey to support them when they do that kind of a quest.
And so, finding that compatible, compassionate person who can share with you as you're sorting through, is very significant, it seems to me.
I don't know if that gets the part of what you're saying.
Natalie Tsui: I wonder if there's anything from your personal experience that ...
Natalie Tsui: Some anecdote or story?
Richard Wagner: [01:49:30] Sure. One of the things I mentioned was Merle Curti, my major professor when I came here. I came here as a young green graduate student. I had no idea what I was really doing in academic history. I loved history as a discipline. I loved the past. I have a huge collection of historical geographies, and things like that. But in terms of actually understanding things, I had to learn that in graduate school, which I did, frighteningly.
But, Mr. Curti was one of those rare teachers who could help you find that path, and yet was a scholar of a gentle nature. I can remember another gay student who knew Mr. Curti and sometimes we would have dinner with Mr. Curti and his wife. He recalled how Mr. Curti had called a faculty member who he knew his partner was not present, and was just sort of checking in on him and that sort of thing. And, that kind of sense of decency and willingness to be open struck me as, this is the kind of person that I would like to model myself after in a way. A person of great knowledge, a person of willingness to talk about the knowledge and how you learn it, but also a person interested in other people and willing to sort of approach them as they perhaps needed to be approached. That was, I think that's my cell phone.
Natalie Tsui: Cell phone. Yeah.
Richard Wagner: Sorry. I don't know how to shut these things. I don't have it on ring, so it must be ...
Natalie Tsui: It's just vibrating.
Richard Wagner: [01:51:00] Vibrating, yeah. Right.
Natalie Tsui: It'll vibrate itself out.
Richard Wagner: Okay. It did. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: Did we get the end of that?
Natalie Tsui: No, we did not get any of that, no.
Betsy Kalin: I think it's from when you said you wanted to model your life.
Richard Wagner: [01:51:30] Yeah. That, Mr. Curti gave me an example of somebody who could be a scholar, somebody who could appreciate learning, but yet could encourage others, and understand and approach people where they were. That was really sort of part of his teaching. And so, in so far as I'm able to not only research and present things, but hopefully encourage other people through teaching, that's part of what I wanted to do with the work.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, great.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, that's it for me.
Betsy Kalin: Okay, and then-
Betsy Kalin: ... do you have anything else that we haven't talked about that you wanna touch on?
Richard Wagner: Oh, we've touched on so much now. I think that's [crosstalk 01:51:56]
Betsy Kalin: All right, well before we go-
Betsy Kalin: [01:52:00] ... I'm gonna go through all my notes.
Richard Wagner: Okay, that's fine. That's fine.
Betsy Kalin: Just make sure that I have-
Richard Wagner: That you covered everything you wanted, sure.
Betsy Kalin: Yeah. See all my yellow? Did we talk about you trying to establish the LGBT archive?
Richard Wagner: No, we didn't. We didn't talk about that. Okay.
Betsy Kalin: [01:52:30] Okay, let's hold that and I'm gonna keep going.
Natalie Tsui: I'm gonna cut.
... The archive.
Richard Wagner: [01:53:00] Okay. You're already going? Okay.
When I started on the project, I had picked up a few documents to sort of very strangely ... There was a block sale going on in the block, and one of my neighbors had helped clear out the house of an elderly woman. Her husband had kept a scrapbook on physical culture, which was basically the gay erotica of the 20s and stuff. And so, there were all these pictures of nude or semi nude men posing artistically with spears or other kinds of things suggestive of various things. And so she said, "You outta buy this." And so I said, "Sure." So I bought it.
And so, that just sort of began my own personal collecting, and it was right here on the block. And then, since I was an activist and historian, I was involved with stuff, and I just started pitching things in boxes.
So, when I began to write, I myself realized I had 40 boxes of gay archives that I had saved over the years from all of the things that I had been involved in. I knew that in Milwaukee, they had worked on creating an LBGT archive at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and have done a spectacular job. I've gone and researched there a lot. And so, it struck me that in Madison, we didn't have such a thing. So, some other folks I knew, knew some of the archivists at the university, and so they decided they were willing to do an LBGT collection connected with the University of Madison archives, the same way that the Milwaukee collection is connected to the University of Milwaukee archives.
And so, we formed a committee and went round asking people, "Will you give us stuff?" In fact, in my trunk of my car right now, I have eight boxes from somebody else who was willing to donate all their stuff to the archives. And so, we've come across remarkable things from early activists who donated things. In fact, we've come across some pre-Stonewall stuff because we got the Martha Peterson, Maxine Bennett autobiographies and their photos from a lesbian whose mother was actually the caretaker of their estate, and so she had saved these things over all the years. And so, we were able to get them donated as well.
So, we just started this fabulous collection. We've had a couple preview parties where we've shown things. We got a whole bunch of bar newsletters, some of them fairly erotic. We had a health educator who had created this sort of condom demonstration item, which he did with PVC pipe. He could put like six different condoms on it and then pump it up, and so you could see all the variety of condoms that might be available. And, all kinds of other strange things that started pouring out of people's closets so to speak. We still know there's a lot more out there to collect. And so, it's been a wonderful thing to see and have people come and remember and say, "Oh yeah, I might have some things we can donate too."
Betsy Kalin: Terrific. Very important.
Betsy Kalin: So, you said that ... This is a quote from you.
Betsy Kalin: [01:56:00] You said, "You need to live your life boldly. You need to be part of a community, and you need to share the stories of what our lives are. But then there's still a lot of work out there to convince people that we are citizens of this country, and we have contributions to make, and we will make them."
Can you talk a little bit along those lines?
Richard Wagner: [01:56:30] Okay. I think we've talked around most of those things, but let's see.
Betsy Kalin: I think it's more like, you didn't overtly say that ... We still have a struggle. People still-
Richard Wagner: [01:57:00] Oh yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. Homophobia is very present. We talk about all of the things that we've achieved as successes, and they're remarkable. They really are truly remarkable. But that doesn't mean that we've ended the homophobia, which has been the constant theme of the struggle. One of the things that struck me was that right after we passed the Gay Rights Law in 1982, the Republican party, which had had no position on any gay issues, all of a sudden argued for repeal of the law, and then they took up the anti gay marriage stuff after that.
So, the fact that people still think taking away our rights describing us as sort of despicable, is still strong, and it is still strong in this country, means that there's still plenty of work to do. We should celebrate where we've come and what we've done, but that doesn't mean it's finished by any means.
I'm old and I'm tired, but I just know there's more for us all to do.
Betsy Kalin: You gotta keep up the fight.
Richard Wagner: Yes. Right, right. It doesn't go away. It does not go away.
Betsy Kalin: [01:58:00] And history is cyclical.
Richard Wagner: It can be, it can be. I don't really subscribe to the "history is cyclical" theory, but there's some folks that do, I think some things repeat in history. I don't know that they're in a direct relation to a cycle. So, we get into historical theory here, we could go around a lot.
Betsy Kalin: Yes. Wonderful. I'm so happy.
Natalie Tsui: Is that good?
Betsy Kalin: This is-
Natalie Tsui: So let's get [crosstalk]
Betsy Kalin: We're gonna be quiet for 30 seconds.
Natalie Tsui: [01:59:00] [inaudible]
Okay, that's good.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Betsy Kalin
Date: March 07, 2018
Location: Home of Richard Wagner, Madison, WI