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 over 35 years. Fair Wisconsin believes that it is equally important that these protections be extended to the transgender community as well.
Currently the Cities of Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton, Cudahy, Janesville, and Sun Prairie provide these protections at the local level, with comprehensive gender-inclusive housing, employment and public accommodations protections, in addition to policies in Dane County and Milwaukee County. 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 a larger statewide push for transgender inclusive protections.
To learn more about transgender terminology, including gender identity and expression, check out this guide 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 dance together frequently.
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 2014, trans* 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 trans* 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 citizens 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.
Seventeen states and more than 100 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.