Scholar and activist Roland Richard "Dick" Wagner was the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, where he served for fourteen years. In 1983 he was appointed by Governor Tony Earl to co-chair the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues, the first in the nation. In 2005 he joined the Board of Fair Wisconsin to fight the constitutional amendment against marriage equality.
Dick came to Madison as a graduate student in history in 1965, getting his doctorate in 1971. In 1972, Gov. Pat Lucey named him executive director of the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission. After Lucey resigned in the summer of 1977 to become Ambassador to Mexico, Dick ran the executive residence for Gov. Martin Schreiber until January 1979, when he joined the Department of Administration as a budget analyst. Dick retired from state service in 2005.
In addition to serving on the Dane County Board from 1980-1994 – including four years as the first openly gay county board chair in Wisconsin – Dick’s record of state and local public service is extensive. In 1983, Gov. Tony Early appointed him co-chair of the aforementioned Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues. That same year, he co-founded the New Harvest Foundation, a funding source for south central Wisconsin’s LGBT communities. Dick stepped down last year as chair of the Madison Urban Design Commission, following service on the Madison Plan Commission, Madison Landmarks Commission, Wisconsin Arts Board, Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Board of Downtown Madison Inc., the Madison Urban Design Commission, Historic Madison, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, the Board of the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the Board of the Friends of UW Libraries-- and numerous other organizations. In recognition not just of his service but the way he served, Dick was named the first recipient of the city of Madison’s Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility in Public Discourse Award, in 2007.
In 2019, Dick authored the first of two groundbreaking volumes on gay history in Wisconsin, "We've Been Here All Along" provides an illuminating and nuanced picture of Wisconsin's gay history from the reporting on the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 to the landmark Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Throughout these decades, gay Wisconsinites developed identities, created support networks, and found ways to thrive in their communities despite various forms of suppression--from the anti-vice crusades of the early twentieth century, to the post-war labeling of homosexuality as an illness, to the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. In We've Been Here All Along, Wagner draws on historical research and materials from his own extensive archive to uncover previously hidden stories of gay Wisconsinites. This book honors their legacy and confirms that they have been fundamental to the development and evolution of the state since its earliest days.
"Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History", the second volume in Wagner’s work on gay history in Wisconsin, was released mid-2020. The revealing book outlines the challenges that LGBT Wisconsinites faced in their efforts to right past oppressions and secure equality in the post-Stonewall period between 1969 and 2000. During this era, Wisconsin made history as the first state to enact a gay rights law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. It also became the first state to elect three openly gay/lesbian persons to Congress.
In this second volume, Wagner draws on historical research and materials from his extensive personal archive to not only chronicle an important movement, but also to tell the stories of the state’s LGBT pioneers—from legislators and elected officials to activists, businesspeople, and everyday citizens. Coming Out, Moving Forward documents the rich history of Wisconsin’s LGBT individuals and communities as they pushed back against injustice and found ways to live openly and proudly as themselves.
Dick Wagner was the major focus of an excellent article in the February 2004 issue of Madison Magazine:
One day late in 1978, Dick Wagner was driving across town. The light at Wilson and Williamson had turned red, and he was stopped there. As the car idled, a voice came over the radio. "This is Harvey Milk," it said. "This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination."
Earlier that day, November 27, the San Francisco city supervisor, the nation's most outspoken openly gay politician, had been shot three times in the chest and twice in the head by fellow supervisor Dan White. Now, his voice was coming across the airwaves.
"If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door," the voice said. "I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know … I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights."
"I knew once I heard that," Wagner says now, "that there was no going back."
Dick Wagner drove along listening to a dead man's words, and he made a choice. He had been dabbling in politics for some years but had avoided diving in for fear of disgracing himself like Brigham Anderson, the gay Mormon Senator in Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent.
But after Harvey Milk's death, he decided he wasn't going to hide anymore. Jim Yeadon had just been elected to the Madison City Council, the third openly gay politician in the nation, and there was no reason Wagner shouldn't do the same. So in 1980, Dick Wagner ran for and won a seat on the Dane County Board, joining the ranks of one of the most open political machines in the country. Madison has produced more gay and lesbian political leaders than any other city its size, and more than many larger cities.
Two years after Wagner was elected, State Representative David Clarenbach, who led the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights political action committee in the late '90s, introduced a gay rights bill that was signed by Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus. This made Wisconsin the first state in the Union to grant gays and lesbians legal protection from discrimination.
In 1983, after gay rights activist Kathleen Nichols had been elected to the Dane County Board, she and Wagner were sent out on a fact-finding mission around the state, where they found many leaders didn't even know they had gays and lesbians in their towns. Based on their findings, Democratic Governor Tony Earl appointed the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues.
(Written for Madison Magazine by Frank Bures, a freelance writer living in Madison.)
Dick Wagner passed away on December 13, 2021. His obituary on the Ryan Funeral Home & Cremation Services website read:
Born Sept. 29, 1943, to Roland A. Wagner and Katherine Moorman Wagner at Good Samaritan Hospital, Dayton, Ohio, Roland Richard "Dick" Wagner graduated from the University of Dayton, B.A. 1965, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, M.A. 1967, and Ph.D. 1971 in American history. Dick had a storied career as a public servant and community leader. He worked for the State of Wisconsin in various budget, policy, and management positions for 33 years. He wrote "DOA The Story: Four Decades of Wisconsin's Department of Administration."
Dick chaired the Madison Landmarks Commission and headed up the Historic Park Fund which created the Period Garden Park in Mansion Hill. He lived in several Madison landmark home and was a founding member of Historic Madison, lnc. and the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. Appointed by Mayors Soglin, Skornicka, Sensenbrenner, Bauman, and Ciesleweicz to other bodies, his service included chairing the Plan Commission and the Urban Design Commission.
ln 1980, he was elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors where he served 14 years, including four years as chairperson. County service included the Dane County Regional Planning Commission, where he championed the first Starkweather Water Quality Plan, and on the Airport Commission, where he championed noise abatement efforts. Other civic involvement included serving on the boards of Downtown Madison, lnc. and the Olbrich Botanical Society for three decades.
Governor Martin Schreiber appointed him to the Wisconsin Arts Board, where he served as chairperson, and the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Governor Tony Earl appointed him as co-chair of the Governor's Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues. ln 1974, he supported efforts to enact a Madison gay rights ordinance and in 1978 and 1979 he served on the advisory board for the Gay Center.
As one of the first dozen openly gay officials in the nation, in 1985 he was a founding member of the National Association and Conference of Gay and Lesbian Public Officials (now the Victory Institute) and co-hosted with now Senator Tammy Baldwin the fifth conference in Madison.
Dick was a founding member and first co-chair of the New Harvest Foundation for LGBTQ charitable causes in the region and organized efforts to place George Segal's "Gay Liberation" in Orton Park. He served on the Board of AIDS Network where he championed the Rodney Scheel House for persons with HIV/AIDS. He served on the board of Fair Wisconsin 2005-2013.
ln retirement, he was acclaimed as an award-winning author on Wisconsin gay history. He authored "We've Been Here All Along: Wisconsin's Early Gay History" (2019) and "Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History" (2020). He contributed a chapter to the anthology, "Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea" (2O2O).
A strong supporter of ecumenical Christianity and social justice, he organized a rally in Dayton for civil rights at the time of Selma and marched with Father James Groppi for open housing in Milwaukee. He was a campus organizer for the Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam
Influenced during his graduate school days by the brothers of Taize from their ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, he has been associated with the ecumenical Benedictine Holy Wisdom Monastery and the effort to preserve Wisdom Prairie.
A celebration of his incredible life was scheduled to take place at HOLY WISDOM MONASTERY, 4200 County Highway M, Town of Westport, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, with visitation from 2pm-3pm, services at 3pm, and a reception to follow. Memorial gifts to the Olbrich Botanical Society or Holy Wisdom Monastery are suggested.
Credits: initial page creation by Don Schwamb;
Website concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: December, 2021.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.