Wisconsin’s LGBTQ community confronts efforts to suppress visibility

Pride month goes on amidst efforts to remove LGBTQ books from schools and GOP candidates’ vow to take down the Pride Flag at the Capitol

By: - June 10, 2022 6:50 am
Rainbow LGBTQ heart on hands, Getty Images

Rainbow LGBTQ heart on hands, Getty Images

LGBTQ+ Pride Month, which goes on through June, is a celebration of visibility and acceptance. This year it is happening against a backdrop of coordinated suppressive efforts by some state legislators. Nevertheless, allies of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ community say they are undeterred and unafraid.

As Gov. Tony Evers kicked off Pride Month with a flag-raising ceremony at the Capitol, he warned of threats to the LGBTQ community in the form of bills that are pending in the state the Legislature. It was the fourth annual Pride month celebration at the Capitol, where the Evers Administration became the first to annually raise a rainbow flag. Evers thanked the LGBTQ community and advocacy organizations stating, “your work is so necessary, especially now.”

LGBTQ+ Pride flags | Susan J. Demas/Michigan Advance

This was the first year the Progress Pride flag flew above the Capitol. “The Progress Pride flag was created to increase visibility and inclusion of marginalized communities within the LGBTQ community,” said Evers, noting the additional stripes on the flag that represent LGBTQ people of color, the transgender community, and an honorific for people who’ve battled HIV/AIDS.

“This inclusion matters,” said Evers. “Representation matters. Our words matter.” While Wisconsin has a progressive history when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion, as  the first state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, lately progress has been stalled. Republican legislators have rejected some LGBTQ-related proposals under Evers, who acknowledged that as the state celebrates Pride month, he knows that “we have a heck of a lot of work yet to do.”

Evers highlighted the more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills pending across state legislatures nationwide, including “legislation from the so-called ‘don’t say gay’ bills to other legislation that will have dangerous and disastrous consequences for kids in Wisconsin and across our country.” “And we’ve unfortunately seen these harmful bills in our own Legislature, right here in the great state of Wisconsin. So I want to be clear about this today: The sort of hateful and divisive rhetoric we’ve heard in the Capitol are not welcome in this state. And whether these bills or future bills make it to our desk or not, there’s no question that their mere introduction is hurtful and traumatizing. Most especially, for our kids.”

Gov. Tony Evers | Evers’ Facebook

As the state and nation grapples with the mental health needs of youth, particularly LGBTQ kids, Evers said he feared efforts to ban books and restrict instruction on LGBTQ topics would undermine work being done to prevent more suffering “LGBTQ kids deserve our love and respect and support, just like any other kid,” Evers said. “I will always stand with them.”

Aspen Morris, an LGBTQ student who uses he/they pronouns, and is almost 17, spoke after Evers, saying the ceremony was important  “so that we feel able to be ourselves, not just with friends and family, but also at public celebrations like this one.”

Aspen Morris, an LGBTQ student who uses he/they pronouns. (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)
Aspen Morris, an LGBTQ student who uses he/they pronouns. (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

Evers highlighted ongoing efforts by Republican legislators to ban or restrict books about the LGBTQ community, social justice and other issues in schools. “There’s lots of Republican legislators at this point in time that are spending time essentially looking at books and other materials that are in schools. And you can be damn sure that after they come out, they’re going to be putting themselves in charge of banning books in the state of Wisconsin. And you can be damn sure that some of it is going to be directly related to LGBTQ community efforts. Just think about that.”

He called it a “breathtaking” endeavor, which would likely be championed by Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch were she to secure a victory in the fall elections. Kleefisch derided same-sex marriage when she was lieutenant governor, stating, “at what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects?” She added, “can I marry this table, or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs?”

On May 31 the Wisconsin Examiner reported on efforts by GOP lawmakers to search for “inappropriate” books in their districts. Guiding at least some of these efforts is a list of books by over 50 authors, spanning topics including LGBTQ education, social justice issues and ethnic identity. Emails sent by Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona) and Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) suggest the book search was tied to ambitions to change the law so that school and library staff could be criminally prosecuted for providing certain books to kids. The Examiner’s reporting was cited in an Associated Press piece covering Evers’ comments at the Pride Month event. Evers said he fears that a victory by one of his Republican opponents in the governor’s race  could mean the rolling back of LGBTQ equality in the Badger State.

Two women shadowed while making a heart together with their hands behind a LGBTQ rainbow pride flag
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels

The Sentencing Project has released a new report, examining the criminalization of LGBTQ youth and adults nationwide. Social stigmatization, fear of rejection, and lack of acceptance are factors, along with family rejection, employment discrimination and the high cost of gender-affirming health care, that can lead LGBTQ youth to engage in street-based economies such as drug sales and sex work, the report notes.

“LGBTQ+ youth, often fleeing abuse and lack of acceptance, are over twice as likely to report homelessness than non-LGBTQ+ youth,” the report found, “and often experience disproportionate enforcement of low-level offenses (e.g., loitering, sleeping outside, panhandling, and prostitution). Adverse experiences at home or in foster care can affect young people’s performance in school, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline: 90% of LGBTQ+ youth in detention have been suspended or expelled from school at least once.”

Rep. Greta Neubauer speaks at a 2019 Pride Festival event. (Photo courtesy of Neubauer.)
Rep. Greta Neubauer speaks at a 2019 Pride Festival event. (Photo courtesy of Neubauer.)

Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), herself part of the LGBTQ community, emphasizes the importance of visibility and acceptance. “Our words and our actions matter,” Neubauer told Wisconsin Examiner in a statement. “Being at the Progress Pride flag raising event last week with Governor Evers and members of the LGBTQ+ community was very meaningful to me. Seeing young people experience that event, where their identities were respected and celebrated, was a very moving experience.”

Neubauer added that, “events like the raising of the Progress Pride flag are important signifiers that Wisconsin is a place that everyone can call home. Leaders that value inclusivity and doing the right thing are critically important for the future of our state. I am very concerned about the harm that can be done to people across our state with different leadership at the helm – whether it be through harmful statements, legislation, or actions.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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