In 1982, Wisconsin made history by being the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This historic legislation has been protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual Wisconsinites from discrimination at their workplace, in housing, and in public accommodations for forty years. At Fair Wisconsin we believe that it is equally important these protections be extended to protect all people based on their gender identity and expression as well.
Currently the cities of Appleton, Cudahy, De Pere, Green Bay, Janesville, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh (partial protections), Sun Prairie, Racine, and Verona provide these protections at the local level, with comprehensive gender-inclusive housing, employment and public accommodations protections. In addition, Dane County and Milwaukee County have fair housing protections and personnel policies that prohibit LGBTQ+ discrimination. We continue to work to advance local ordinances in targeted communities as a method of educating the public about this issue and to underscore the need for comprehensive state and federal laws.
To learn more about transgender and non-binary people, check out this resource from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Wisconsin’s Nondiscrimination 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 also dance together.
Expanding Our Laws to Include Gender Identity and Expression
Though our 1982 nondiscrimination law was a landmark victory for fairness in Wisconsin and nation-wide, it is hard to believe that in 2023, transgender and non-binary workers still are not protected from this kind of discrimination under federal or state law, but it’s true.
Since 1982, current nondiscrimination best practices include protections for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals with the addition of “gender identity and expression” as a protected class.
By modernizing our nondiscrimination policies, Wisconsin will have a new tool to protect our residents from incidences of discrimination. Current laws protecting public safety and nondiscrimination will stay in place; the updates we seek will ensure that all people, including gay and transgender individuals, will be protected from discrimination.
Dozens of states and hundreds of cities across America – including Madison and Milwaukee – have already passed similar fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections and implemented them successfully, with no increase in public safety incidents.
Many successful businesses, large and small, already have fully inclusive nondiscrimination policies in place. These companies know first-hand that such policies contribute to, rather than undermine, their success, competitiveness and growth.
It’s time for Wisconsin law to change so every worker, including those who are gay or transgender, is judged by their performance and their qualifications – nothing more, nothing less. It’s about striking a balance. We can give everyone an equal opportunity to earn a living and hold everyone to the same professional standards.