David Michael Miller
The much-vaunted Progressive movement in Wisconsin was largely about pocketbook issues like worker's compensation, minimum wage and progressive taxation. On social issues the state was generally more conservative. But three recent studies on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) friendliness suggest the state is friendlier to alternative lifestyles than you might think. Moreover, it's not just in liberal Madison that these changes are occurring.
The 2014 Municipal Equality Index, which bills itself as the only national rating system of LGBT inclusion in municipal law and policy, recently released a study ranking 353 of the largest cities -- and the 50 state capitals -- on a 100-point scale. The average score nationally was 59, but it was 70 for the Midwest and 76 for the four cities studied in Wisconsin. Madison got a 100, Milwaukee 91, Kenosha 58 and Green Bay 54.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which partnered with the Equality Federation Institute on the study, noted the leadership of Wisconsin's two biggest cities: "Cities like Madison, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Hope had already been providing inclusive nondiscrimination protections for decades by the time marriage equality reached Wisconsin and Pennsylvania."
Change is happening pretty quickly in cities, faster than in states, Griffin noted: "In just three years, the number of municipalities earning top marks for their treatment of LGBT citizens has more than tripled."
These changes are occurring across the country, the study stressed, but its regional averages for city rankings told a somewhat different story. The scores for cities averaged 71 in the West and 70 in Midwest, but just 43 in Great Plains states, 35 in the Southwest and 31 in the Southeast.
Progress has been slower in the nation's schools, judging by a new study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Its biennial National School Climate Survey has been done since 1999, and the latest survey offers four major findings: "Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students; a hostile school climate affects students' academic success and mental health; students with LGBT-related resources and supports report better school experiences and academic success; and school climate for LGBT students has improved somewhat over the years, but remains quite hostile for many."
Its analysis of Wisconsin schools suggests they are slightly worse than the average nationally. A majority of LGBT students experienced verbal harassment -- eight in 10 based on their sexual orientation (compared to 74% nationally) and nearly six in 10 based on the way they expressed their gender (55% nationally). And nearly four in 10 students were physically harassed based on their sexual orientation (compared to 36% nationally), and more than one in 10 were physically assaulted (compared to 17% nationally).
"Policymakers and education leaders in Wisconsin must do more to create safer and more affirming schools for LGBT students," said Dr. Joseph G. Kosciw, GLSEN's chief research and strategy officer. Such changes would make life less tough for LGBT students, and would also hike student achievement. LGBT students who experience victimization have grade point averages that were 9% to 15% lower than those of other students, the study found.
In contrast to what's happening in the schools, American corporations are in the vanguard of changing LGBT policies, to judge by the 2015 Corporate Equality Index, done by the HRC, which partnered in doing the Municipal Equality Index.
"When it comes to LGBT equality, corporate America is a leader, not a follower," said HRC's Griffin. "At every turn, from advocating for marriage equality to providing vital support for transgender employees, this country's leading companies have... worked tirelessly to achieve new progress."
The report, which ranks corporations from 0% to 100% on LGBT-friendly policies, this year gave a perfect score to 366 of 781 companies. That compares to just 189 companies getting a 100% score two years ago, and just 13 companies getting a 100% score in the first report in 2002.
Wisconsin companies have been part of that progress, particularly in Milwaukee. Those receiving a 100% score included the city's two top law firms, Foley & Lardner and Quarles & Brady (both also have offices in Madison), along with Northwestern Mutual Life, Robert W. Baird & Co. and Rockwell Automation. Madison's top companies ranked lower, with 85% scores for Alliant Energy Corp. and American Family Insurance Group and 50% for CUNA Mutual Insurance Group. But by far the lowest score for any Wisconsin was for Kohl's Corp. in Milwaukee, with 15%.
As these rankings suggest, the state's two biggest cities are moving in the same direction on an issue like LGBT equality. Thirty years ago, Milwaukee was more of a blue-collar manufacturing town to the right of Madison on social issues. Today, Milwaukee has more college students than Madison, and Dane and Milwaukee counties are both heavily Democratic redoubts united in opposition to conservative Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker. Milwaukee and Madison now have far more in common, and that has ramifications that both city's leaders might want to ponder.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.