LGBT History: The Country's First LGBT Anti-Discrimination Bill

| By James Gleason

Wisconsin became the first state to pass a law preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation on February 25th, 1982. Although other states like Massachusetts would follow suit nearly a decade later, the state of Wisconsin was the first of today's total of 20 states that have passed laws to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Before the enactment of this law, LGBT people were routinely denied jobs that were available for heterosexual people. Discrimination was commonplace, and LGBT community members were often put at risk of losing their jobs or homes if they decided to be open about their sexuality.

In the years leading up to the introduction of the country’s first anti-discrimination law, police across the country clashed with the LGBT community in numerous encounters. These riots made national news and as word spread, LGBT communities across the country were inspired to fight against the injustices they faced in their own communities.

In Wisconsin, legislator Lloyd Barbee drew on the response to these clashes to gain support for a new bill that would protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. When he retired, he passed the bill onto Representative David Clarenbach who worked on getting support to pass the bill. Assembly Bill 70 (AB70) was officially proposed by Representatives Clarenbach, Leopold, Coggs, Ulichny and Becker in 1981 and went on to be passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by a Republican governor, Lee S. Dreyfus.

The anti-discrimination bill introduced in the Wisconsin legislature put an end to state-condoned anti-LGBT discrimination, explicitly stating that one cannot legally deny someone housing, public accommodations, or employment on the account of one's sexual orientation.

The bill also stated that one cannot be denied access or service in a public accommodation based on his or her sexual orientation. Any place, public or private, that served the public as whole in Wisconsin could no longer reject patrons based on their sexuality. Employers were held to similar standards and were prohibited from practicing of discriminatory hiring methods. It was now illegal for employers to refuse to hire someone or in any way harass employees due to their sexual orientation.

Although the bill did not protect discrimination against members of the trans* community, the enactment of the country’s first law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation paved the way for continued advances for the LGBT community over the next three decades. Though many states have passed similar bills since 1982, sexual orientation discrimination is still not outlawed in many parts of the country and no federal law has yet to be enacted to protect LGBT people from discrimination.

This post is part of a series of posts highlighting LGBT history in the workplace and in the government in celebration of LGBT History Month 2017.