This Day in History – February 25th

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Graphic by Kae Eleuterio / The Flat Hat

Blast From the Past is a weekly history blog dedicated to the lives of marginalized groups – such as women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and people on the LGBTQ spectrum – on a particular day. The author hopes that readers will not view these dates as a linear timeline of progress: legal and political victories do not always reflect that “things are getting better.” Rather, we should examine these stories as snapshots of people’s lives, and place them within the context of their time.

1982

After a 15-year movement, Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation to protect LGBTQ people from workplace and housing discrimination. In 1967, black lawyer, legislator and activist Lloyd Barbee introduced the first bill to decriminalize homosexuality. Barbee’s fellow members of the Wisconsin State Assembly had nicknamed him “the outrageous Mr. Barbee” because he often promoted radical legislation that favored women’s rights, drug legalization, prison reform and more. Perhaps his views were too progressive for the assembly, because they vetoed his proposals in 1967 and again in 1977. Barbee left his position that same year.

Shortly after, renowned singer Anita Bryant allied with Christian fundamentalists to spread anti-gay rhetoric across the United States. The homophobic campaign motivated Leon Rouse, a Milwaukee college student, to find a way to unify religion with gay rights. Rouse invited Christian and Jewish religious leaders to the board of a new human rights committee. He argued that all religious denominations shared a responsibility to protect marginalized individuals and re-introduced one of Barbee’s failed bills: a bill which would prevent employers from making employment decisions on the basis of sexual orientation. The members agreed with Rouse’s message of equality and urged their religious constituents to support the anti-discrimination bill, lobbied their political representatives and traveled to Wisconsin’s capital to testify in the bill’s favor. David Clarenbach, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, campaigned on the bill’s behalf when he heard Rouse’s platform. The bill finally passed in 1982. It led to another bill which legalized homosexual sexual relations a year later, which empowered legislator Clarenbach to come out as gay after he left political office. The 1982 bill was a small but significant step in the road to equality in the state. Its incremental but steady progress reminds us not to give up hope, even when our accomplishments initially appear small.

1983

Tennessee Williams, the famous homosexual playwright, died at 71 in his suite in New York’s Hotel Elysée. Williams is known for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Camino Real, as well as many other plays and poems. He ranks among his contemporaries Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller as one of the most influential American playwrights of the 20th century, and he draws on his difficult childhood and his love of the South to develop complex, haunted characters who undergo dark trials yet still maintain a sense of wonder and beauty.

Born Thomas Williams, the playwright was a sickly child, but his relatives doted on him throughout his childhood in the rural South. When he was seven, his father moved the family to St. Louis. Unfortunately, his father had a penchant for drinking and gambling, leading to continued abuse for Williams, his siblings and especially their mother. He often berated the sensitive Williams for being a “sissy.” Further, Williams’s mother was the prudish daughter of a pastor, and her negative attitude towards sex led to complexes in all of her children. His sister Rose developed extreme anxiety from her parents’ abuse and she became the muse for many of Williams’s female characters, including Laura Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Williams

took the name “Tennessee” as both a reference to the region and as an externalized persona which he could use to write on sensitive matters. His plays discuss controversial themes of incest, female dependence on troubled men, innate violence and the harshness of blue-collar jobs. Through his work, Williams protested the façade of social morality in the 1950s. He was always controversial and often hated, but he brought hope to thousands of marginalized people; he was recognized for his elegance and brutal realism with two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards.

Although Williams enjoyed his success, his life was fraught with alcoholism and several love affairs. He struggled to resolve his homosexuality with his strict upbringing, and the conflict between guilt and desire became a theme of his controversial plays. Some critics of Williams point out he did not come out as gay until late in his life, and his homosexual characters often die in his work. Despite the discord that has always surrounded Williams’s life, he remains a man who turned his painful upbringing into fine art. His death is the ultimate symbol of his duality. He died of asphyxiation in the presidential suite of the fine hotel where he had been living, likely due to drugs. Yet every aspiring young actor still wishes to act in a Tennessee Williams play as their rite of passage into “serious” theater. The man from a quiet southern town is forever remembered as the “poet of lost souls” for those in need of hope.

Sources:

https://uwm.edu/marchonmilwaukee/keyterms/barbee-lloyd-a/

http://www.mkelgbthist.org/events/community/ab70.htm

https://www.mpl.org/blog/now/first-in-the-nation-wisconsin-s-gay-rights-law

http://www.mkelgbthist.org/people/peo-c/clarenbach_david.htm

https://www.timeout.com/london/lgbt/tennessee-williams-a-true-gay-icon

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tennessee-williams

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/12/05/blow-out-your-candles-an-elegy-for-rose-williams/

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/man-queered-broadway

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/jul/27/tennessee-williams