A Progress Pride flag is seen above the Wisconsin State Capitol.
A Progress Pride flag is photographed above the Wisconsin State Capitol building’s east wing after being raised during a ceremony to celebrate the beginning of Pride month on June 1, 2023. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)
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This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ residents in recent years have faced a wave of harassment, threats and legislation that aim to erode support and growing acceptance.

In 2023 alone, about 650 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced across the country; at least 574 are specifically anti-trans. Such bills seek to block transgender people from access to basic health care, education, legal recognition or the right to publicly exist.

And on Oct. 12, the Wisconsin Assembly passed three bills that would ban gender-affirming care for minors and bar transgender girls and women from competing on high school and college women’s sports teams. The Senate on Tuesday voted to pass the bill barring medical procedures for minors, while the other two bills have yet to go to the full Senate for a vote. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vowed he would veto all three of the bills if they reached his desk.

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But the current deluge of anti-LGBTQ+ activity across Wisconsin doesn’t stop at the state Capitol. It also includes book bans, the diminishment of affirming spaces, court-sanctioned rights to deadname and misgender youth, pride event protests and social media-fueled pressure campaigns. They target LGBTQ+ people, sponsors, safe spaces and support networks.

These efforts can have devastating effects, but are not new.

Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ people have, since the 1880s, endured a cycle where new rights, growing acceptance and public popularity are inevitably met with a loud, demeaning, often-violent backlash. Sometimes the issues and foci changed over the last 150 years, but the pattern has not, said Michail Takach, a Wisconsin LGBTQ+ historian, author and co-host of the “Be Seen” podcast, which documents Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ history.

“The mainstreaming of LGBT content or events followed by this attack and moral outrage, this cycle has repeated the last two centuries over and over and over,” Takach said. “As drag, as the LGBT rights movement has achieved some wins and high visibility, this outrage has expressed itself. It’s what always happens.”

Frequent targets of threats, disinformation

The swarm of threats, disinformation, misinformation, attacks, protests and public action impacts most corners of Wisconsin.

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Whether policies like this get enacted or survive legal challenges, the damage is already done for a majority of LGBTQ+ youth. Nearly two in three LGBTQ+ youth said hearing about potential LGBTQ+ bans at the local or state level dramatically worsens their mental health, according to a 2023 survey from the Trevor Project.

An American Psychological Association report on psychological harm noted upticks in suicide attempts, anxiety and depression in LGBTQ+ youth, especially trans youth, who are constantly besieged by debates on their right to exist.

“Young trans people today are experiencing a tremendous amount of anxiety,” wrote APA President Thema Bryant in the report. “There is a sense of not feeling safe. This increased sense of animosity toward this already vulnerable population is even affecting those living in states where antitransgender legislation isn’t even on the table.”

In light of recent legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ youth, the Evers administration proclaimed Oct. 17 “Rise Up for LGBTQ+ Youth Day” throughout the state. The campaign, orchestrated by the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, commonly referred to as GLSEN, invites individuals to make a pledge advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ youth, be they safe learning environments, affirming curricula and the rejection of anti-LGBTQ+ bills and rhetoric.

“I want LGBTQ folks, including our trans kids, to know they are welcome, wanted, and belong here in Wisconsin, and I will keep fighting every day to continue our work to build a state where they feel safe, supported, and loved being exactly who they are,” Evers said in a press release. 

Wisconsin’s first drag show happened in Milwaukee in 1884

In 1884, Francis Leon, aka “The Only Leon,” and his boyfriend Edwin Kelly brought their world-renowned drag troupe to Milwaukee and put the growing city on the cultural map. The performance predated the advent of plumbing or electricity in the city.

In 1899, Milwaukee police arrested Millie Brown, also known as Harry Hynes, for living life as a woman, and she spent 60 days in jail. Without evidence, police speculated Brown and others “masquerading” as women were planning a crime spree.  

In the 1920s and ’30s, drag queens, then called “pansy performers,” gained popularity in cities across the U.S. The “pansy craze” increased visibility for LGBTQ+ people until 1933-34 when Catholics led a push to ban and reduce the presence of LGBTQ+ people in public life. 

Drag performers routinely entertained straight audiences at nightclubs in cities like Milwaukee in the 1950s, but the performers’ popularity was met with “three-piece laws.” Although never an official law, the rule emboldened police to coerce people into showing their genitals if they were seen wearing three articles of clothing of the opposite sex. Such overexertion by police encouraged opponents to wield power over trans people, according to trans historian and author Susan Stryker.

Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project historian Michail Takach
Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project historian Michail Takach (Courtesy of Michail Takach)

“This rule, which may or may not have ever existed, terrorized gender non-conforming people in cities all over the nation,” Takach said. “It was simply a way to control behavior through fear.”

Fear is the name of the game for many of the loudest protesters. But for Mel Freitag, an LGBTQ+ health educator and advocate, it stems from a fear of losing control and power. That fear comes at a time when the LGBTQ+ population is diversifying and growing rapidly, especially for people under 30.

“As those identities become less dominant — literally not the majority — there’s going to be major systemic resistance,” Freitag said. “And we’re not going away, regardless of how we identify. More and more of us will continue to present outside the binary, whether or not people believe we exist.”

Takach said the volume of these attacks and attention they receive gives the perception of a loud, outsize group when in fact they’re a dwindling minority. 

“This last gasp of conservative outrage and pearl-clutching morality appears to be the prevailing voice, but it’s not,” Takach said. “A one-time moral majority is losing their foothold, losing their grasp on the national narrative. It’s all happening out of fear, a fear of losing control, of losing power, of losing relevance. In the meantime, the most vulnerable people in our community don’t have the resources to fight back.”

This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the region.

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Jeff Bollier is a St. Louis native whose 19 years in Wisconsin almost qualify him for resident status. He arrived in the Badger State via Beloit College and began his journalism career with the Beloit Daily News. He joined the Oshkosh Northwestern in 2003 and introduced his business column, Streetwise, in 2005. From new stores opening to corporate bankruptcies that impact whole communities, Jeff has done it. His work on restaurant health inspections, an air guitar-playing state assemblyman and an aging hotel have earned plaudits from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.