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New archive to highlight and preserve Wisconsin's LGBTQ history

The Wisconsin First Archive Project, launching February 25th, aims to address gaps in information and gaps in access to records that tell the story of Wisconsin's fight for gay rights.
Gay Rights Bill Signing
Posted at 1:49 PM, Feb 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 14:49:53-05

MILWAUKEE — A new project aims to celebrate the legacy of gay rights in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin First Archive Project, launching February 25th, aims to address gaps in information and gaps in access to records that tell the story of Wisconsin's gay rights.

Reporter Ryan Jenkins sat down with Bill Wardlow, owner of Fluid Bar in Milwaukee's Walker's Point on Friday ahead of the launch of the project. Inside Wardlow's bar, you'll find tributes to gay icons and a safe place for all.

"I've been here since 1984," said Wardlow. He's hosting an event Sunday to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the signing of Wisconsin's Gay Rights bill, which was signed by Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus in 1982. The bill decriminalized homosexuality and granted anti-discrimination protections to gay and lesbian people. "When this bill was passed into law, I was 19-years-old already."

It's not lost on Wardlow how far the community has come in the fight for LGBTQ rights. He hopes the Wisconsin First Archive Project helps young people understand the progress.

"​These were untold stories that were kept hidden and unseen for a long time," said Michael Takach of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. "This is a concentrated effort to bring together all of the paperwork, photography, oral history, memorabilia - all of the storytelling components of how this happened."

Takach said the project is funded by a grant from the National Archives and allows researchers to dedicate resources to document and digitally archive historic moments in Wisconsin LGBTQ+ history.

"Right now these elements are scattered, they're in the Wisconsin Historical Society, they're in archives in Milwaukee and in Madison, they're in the private collection of former politicians who are reaching the end of their public lives and there's really not a linear collective story for students, educators, historians, archivists, legislators, politicians to study," he explained.

The project creates a one-stop shop where people can access information. Takach said it also combats efforts to overturn or censure progress being made in the LGBTQ+ community.

​ The words of one of our earliest Wisconsin gay rights elders Elden Murray ring true, when he said, 'The rights that we have must constantly be guarded or you will see them taken away' and never has that been more true than in the past few years in America," said Takach.

The Wisconsin First Project. An effort to achieve the good and the bad, showing Wisconsin's place as a progressive state in the ongoing fight for LGBTQ rights.

"What's that saying? If you don't remember the past you're condemned to repeat it and I guarantee you, speaking to the younger generation, you don't want to repeat some of the things that we've seen," said Wardlow.