Scholar and activist Richard Wagner was the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, where he served for fourteen years. In 1983 he was appointed by Governor Tony Earl to co-chair the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues, the first in the nation. In 2005 he joined the Board of Fair Wisconsin to fight the constitutional amendment against marriage equality.
Wagner has served on the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Wisconsin Humanities Committee, the Board of Downtown Madison Inc., the Madison Plan Commission, the Madison Urban Design Commission, the Madison Landmarks Commission, Historic Madison, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, the Board of the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the Board of the Friends of UW Libraries.
In 2019, Dick authored the first of two groundbreaking volumes on gay history in Wisconsin, "We've Been Here All Along" provides an illuminating and nuanced picture of Wisconsin's gay history from the reporting on the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 to the landmark Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Throughout these decades, gay Wisconsinites developed identities, created support networks, and found ways to thrive in their communities despite various forms of suppression--from the anti-vice crusades of the early twentieth century, to the post-war labeling of homosexuality as an illness, to the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. In We've Been Here All Along, Wagner draws on historical research and materials from his own extensive archive to uncover previously hidden stories of gay Wisconsinites. This book honors their legacy and confirms that they have been fundamental to the development and evolution of the state since its earliest days.
"Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History", the second volume in Wagner’s work on gay history in Wisconsin, was released mid-2020. The revealing book outlines the challenges that LGBT Wisconsinites faced in their efforts to right past oppressions and secure equality in the post-Stonewall period between 1969 and 2000. During this era, Wisconsin made history as the first state to enact a gay rights law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. It also became the first state to elect three openly gay/lesbian persons to Congress.
In this second volume, Wagner draws on historical research and materials from his extensive personal archive to not only chronicle an important movement, but also to tell the stories of the state’s LGBT pioneers—from legislators and elected officials to activists, businesspeople, and everyday citizens. Coming Out, Moving Forward documents the rich history of Wisconsin’s LGBT individuals and communities as they pushed back against injustice and found ways to live openly and proudly as themselves.
Dick Wagner was the major focus of an excellent article in the February 2004 issue of Madison Magazine:
One day late in 1978, Dick Wagner was driving across town. The light at Wilson and Williamson had turned red, and he was stopped there. As the car idled, a voice came over the radio. "This is Harvey Milk," it said. "This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination."
Earlier that day, November 27, the San Francisco city supervisor, the nation's most outspoken openly gay politician, had been shot three times in the chest and twice in the head by fellow supervisor Dan White. Now, his voice was coming across the airwaves.
"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," the voice said. "I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know … I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights."
"I knew once I heard that," Wagner says now, "that there was no going back."
Dick Wagner drove along listening to a dead man's words, and he made a choice. He had been dabbling in politics for some years but had avoided diving in for fear of disgracing himself like Brigham Anderson, the gay Mormon Senator in Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent.
But after Harvey Milk's death, he decided he wasn't going to hide anymore. Jim Yeadon had just been elected to the Madison City Council, the third openly gay politician in the nation, and there was no reason Wagner shouldn't do the same. So in 1980, Dick Wagner ran for and won a seat on the Dane County Board, joining the ranks of one of the most open political machines in the country. Madison has produced more gay and lesbian political leaders than any other city its size, and more than many larger cities.
Two years after Wagner was elected, State Representative David Clarenbach, who led the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights political action committee in the late '90s, introduced a gay rights bill that was signed by Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus. This made Wisconsin the first state in the Union to grant gays and lesbians legal protection from discrimination.
In 1983, after gay rights activist Kathleen Nichols had been elected to the Dane County Board, she and Wagner were sent out on a fact-finding mission around the state, where they found many leaders didn't even know they had gays and lesbians in their towns. Based on their findings, Democratic Governor Tony Earl appointed the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues.
(Written for Madison Magazine by Frank Bures, a freelance writer living in Madison.)