This article originally appeared on the UW Archives Tumblr, “Found in the University Archives!,” (30 March 2022).
Clip from: Andrea Rottmann interview with Barbara Lightner
Today it’s hard to imagine any psychologist getting up before the city of Madison’s Equal Opportunity Commission and testifying that discrimination against gay people ought to be legalized because of the inherent sexuality of young boys and girls. However, as Barbara Lightner said, they lived in “the confrontational days” when the LGBTQ+ people of Madison had to march, organize, and band together to ward off attempts from anti-gay activists who tried to deprive them of their right not to be discriminated against.
In a post-Obergefell v. Hodges time and in a liberal bubble like the city of Madison, the fight for gay rights can sometimes seem like an afterthought. Of course, virulent anti-gay sentiments, de facto discrimination, conscious and unconscious bias against LGBTQ people still exist across the United States. However, in the city of Madison, the hometown of Tammy Baldwin, the first openly LGBTQ US Representative and Senator, which also elected its first openly LGBTQ mayor, Satya Rhodes-Conway, in 2019, it can be easy to forget those who fought to make Madison the place it is today.
The University of Wisconsin’s Oral History Program is lucky enough to house the oral histories of two such individuals: Barbara Lightner and Jess Anderson. Between Lightner’s and Anderson’s interviews, the pieces of the larger mosaic of gay life in Madison in the second half of the twentieth century come into focus. From the lesbian softball leagues to the “party hardy” crowd, who populated the earliest gay bars in Madison, Lightner’s and Anderson’s oral histories convey the vibrant, revolutionary, and sometimes dangerous nature of living as an out-LGBTQ person in Madison.
Born in 1939, Barbara Lightner came to Madison for graduate school in English Literature. But after completing her degree, she soon realized that she wanted to leave the “ivory tower” of academia for the grittier life of a community organizer. By 1980, she had become the coordinator of Madison Community United, which eventually merged with the Gay and Lesbian Center (now known as OutReach). As coordinator, Lightner led grassroots organizing campaigns and worked behind the scenes with politicians in the City of Madison and in the State Legislature to pass monumental pieces of legislation, namely the 1982 statewide anti-discrimination law and the 1983 “consenting adults” law, which legalized sex between any two consenting adults. While today the legal basis and moral reasoning behind these laws are rarely questioned, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, organizers from the right-wing “moral majority” specifically targeted liberal cities like Madison that passed the earliest legal protections of LBGTQ people.
In 1975, Madison became part of the first wave of communities around the United States to pass an ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, in the years after, inspired by Anita Bryant’s national efforts to attack laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people in the 1970s and 1980s, Reverend Wayne Dillabaugh, the minister of Madison’s Northport Baptist Church, began an effort from the right to repeal Madison’s anti-discrimination ordinance. For community organizers in Madison focused on gay rights like Barbara Lightner, Dillabaugh’s efforts threatened to undo the progress they had been fighting to achieve. So, they dug in. In her oral history, Barbara Lightner goes into detail explaining how Dillabaugh and the LBGTQ community pushed for control over the city of Madison. He would organize his own events, such as a God and Decency Rally including “Skydiving for Christ,” an event where born-again Christians jumped out of planes to signal their devotion to Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, the LBGTQ community began to organize at the ground level. At St. Francis House, 240 members of the LBGTQ community came together to form the United, which spearheaded the organizing efforts that eventually stopped the repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance. As historian R. Richard Wagner notes, Madison was the first targeted city in the country to successfully stop the moral majority’s efforts to repeal anti-discrimination laws.
Roughly a decade earlier, Jess Anderson had sat in the same basement room of St. Francis House. In 1969, a group composed of exclusively gay men, including Anderson, formed the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality (MAHE). The group would go on to organize around Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus. As Anderson discusses in his oral history, the group’s efforts culminated in the first national conference of gay people at Memorial Union on Thanksgiving weekend of 1971. The “Thanksgiving Conference” included workshops on strategies for coming out, sex, and a variety of other subjects, but it also became a stark illustration of the myopic view of the gay community at the time. In his oral history, Anderson talks about how all women and people of color who attended the conference boycotted the main plenary session of the conference in protest of the conference overlooking their place in the LBGTQ community. In doing so, Anderson’s story of early LBGTQ organizing gives us modern day listeners a look into how the notion of intersectionality became such a key issue within queer and gender studies.
While both Lightner and Anderson include their experiences with community organizing, their oral histories include so much more. They paint a picture of LBGTQ life in Madison, which often included fun, rowdy times. Anderson, who took part in the “party hardy” gay bar scene, talks about their importance in Madison. He says that Rodney Scheel’s bar, The Back Door, became one of the first places where LBGTQ people and allies could drink, dance, and have a good time without any awkward stares or threats of violence.
In Brittingham Park, Lightner and Anderson both recall attending Rodney Scheel’s other claim to fame, his MAGIC— Madison Area Gay Interim Committee — picnics. Lightner talks about how Brittingham Park would fill with hundreds of members of Madison’s LGBTQ community where people would meet, dance, collect signatures for petitions, listen to speeches, and drink— there was a five-dollar cover charge for unlimited beer. Perhaps more than any other stories in their oral histories, it was the days of the MAGIC picnics that Anderson and Lightner recall with the most joy.
There are many other stories in Anderson and Lightner’s oral histories that could be useful for future researchers or anyone looking to learn more about LGBTQ life in Madison, but I have found that hearing both of their personalities through their stories to be the most memorable part of listening to their oral histories. Jess Anderson speaks about his life as if he is reliving each memory in real time. His voice goes up when talks about the first time he fell in love as a working-class boy in Peoria, Illinois. His voice almost cracks when he remembers all his friends who have died from AIDS. He goes on a diatribe about the future of the soul of the United States. On the other hand, Barbara Lightner does not hold back her disgust about Reverend Dillabaugh and other anti-gay activists. She almost whispers her “hot takes” about the faults of notable Madison politicians. She recalls her days with the United with such passion that you can almost picture how persuasive and unrelenting a community organizer she was.
By listening to their histories and by hearing their personalities, one will realize how Lightner and Anderson truly helped change the world. Their names may not be written in national history books like other more famous LBGTQ organizers or politicians, but they made Madison the city we all know today a reality. If not for Barbara Lightner’s efforts as a part of the United, it’s not clear that the anti-discrimination and consenting adult bills would have become law in Wisconsin. If not for Jess Anderson’s bravery and unshakable belief in himself, it’s not clear where the gay bar scene or University of Wisconsin-Madison’s gay community would be. For all that, I thank them. I encourage anyone else to check out their oral histories as a part of the University of Wisconsin’s Oral History Program.
For this article, in addition to the oral histories of Lightner and Anderson, I depended on R. Richard Wagner’s book Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2020).
To listen to the oral histories in their entirety:
Jack Styler is a senior at UW-Madison studying History and Political Science with a certificate in Art History. Under the guidance of Professor Allison Powers, Jack is writing his senior honors thesis on the history of right-wing paramilitaries in the 1980s, specifically related to the Iran-Contra scandal. Outside of school, Jack is a captain of the mock trial team at UW-Madison and tutors West High School students as a part of Badger Volunteers. Jack is excited to work on many worthwhile projects, including making oral histories more accessible, as a Mosse Program Undergraduate Intern in European and Digital History.