Wisconsin Anti-Discrimination Laws
In the workplace
You cannot legally be fired, demoted, denied a job, or otherwise treated unequally in your workplace because of your sexual orientation. The law covers all employers, including labor unions, employment agencies, and licensing agencies.
Workplace harassment based on sexual orientation is also illegal. This means, for example, if co-workers harass someone for being gay, supervisors have a duty to try to stop that harassment.
Under Wisconsin law, harassment may include verbal abuse, epithets, vulgar or derogatory language, display of offensive cartoons or materials, mimicry, lewd or offensive gestures, and telling anti-gay jokes. The behavior must be more than a few isolated incidents or casual comments. Harassment involves a pattern of abusive and degrading conduct directed against the employee based on sexual orientation that is sufficient to interfere with his or her work or to create an offensive and hostile work environment.
Wisconsin state courts have said that the workplace nondiscrimination law does not prohibit an employer from refusing to provide domestic partner benefits.
It is illegal to be evicted, threatened or intimidated, denied the ability to rent, buy, construct, or finance a home or otherwise be treated unequally in housing because of your sexual orientation. This applies to management companies, landlords, real estate agents, and subsidized housing. This does not apply to roommates in units in which five or fewer people live.
In Public Accommodations
It is illegal to be kicked out of, denied services from, or otherwise treated differently by a place of public accommodation because of your sexual orientation. Wisconsin law considers public accommodations to include places of business or recreation, lodging establishments, credit/financial services, restaurants, taverns, nursing homes, clinics, hospitals, and any other place where accommodations, amusement, goods, or services are available to the general public. Private, nonprofit organizations that provide accommodations, amusement, and goods and services only to their members and members’ guests (for example, country clubs) are not considered public accommodations under state law.
The law also forbids anti-gay harassment in public accommodations, so long as the employees or owners have some degree of control over the harassment. For example, it may be illegal discrimination if a bartender consistently talks with patrons using anti-gay slurs.
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in public accommodations can also include discrimination against same-sex couples who show each other affection in the same way that opposite-sex couples do in the same establishment. For example, you cannot be kicked off a bus or out of a store for holding hands with your partner, or for slow-dancing with your partner in a bar where heterosexual couples dance together frequently.
A handful of local governments also ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although state law already bans such discrimination, local laws reinforce the message to area employers, landlords, and public accommodations that anti-gay discrimination is unacceptable.
Local civil rights laws can provide additional ways (other than under state law) to seek help if you experience discrimination. Many towns and cities have agencies designed to enforce these laws, providing complaint and investigation procedures similar to the state Equal Rights Division process.
These local jurisdictions provide the following protections in addition to state law:
- Dane County— sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in housing, county government (public) employment, and for companies that contract with the county.
- City of Madison— sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in private and public employment, housing, and public accommodations.
- City of Milwaukee— sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in private and public employment, housing, and some public accommodations (companies that need city licenses to operate).
- Village of Shorewood Hills— sexual orientation discrimination in public employment.
- Winnebago County— sexual orientation discrimination in public employment.
This list may not be complete. Please contact your local officials to find out if your community has additional local protections.
Protections for the Transgender Community
Transgender individuals should contact the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division with questions about whether discrimination they experience is discrimination on the basis of sex or disability. Both the Cities of Madison and Milwaukee and Dane County specifically ban discrimination of the basis of gender identity. This means transgender people who experience discrimination in Madison, Milwaukee or Dane County should consider contacting local agencies for assistance - see the section on “To contact local civil rights agencies” on our If You Experience Discrimination page.
Disclaimer: This resource is designed to educate people generally about the law, but it is not legal advice. If legal advice is needed, contact an attorney.
CITATIONS FOR LEGAL INFORMATION
Workplace discrimination law: Wisconsin Statutes sections 111.31 - 111.395
Religious exemption: section 111.337(2)(am)
Refusing to provide domestic partner benefits is not illegal workplace discrimination: Phillips v. Wisconsin Personnel Comm., 167 Wis. 2d 205, 482 N.W.2d 121 (Ct. App. 1992)
Housing discrimination: Wisconsin Statutes section 106.52
Public accommodations discrimination: Wisconsin Statutes section 106.52(3)
Harassment in public accommodations: See Neldaughter v. Dickeyville Athletic Club (LIRC 05/24/94, ERD No. 9132522); Bond v. Michaelís Family Restaurant (LIRC 03/30/94, ERD Case 9150755, 9151204); and Hampton v. Pizza Hut of Southern Wisconsin (LIRC 07/27/00, ERD Case No. 199700355)