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Lloyd Barbee: Forgotten African American Ally in the LGBT Struggle

Feb. 14, 2017
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Reading Lloyd Barbee’s biography on Wikipedia, blackpast.org or even in a local newspaper tribute from 2013, one would never know of his impact on Wisconsin’s LGBT progress towards equal rights. These sources omit this significant aspect of his struggle for social justice. It is a sad testament to a man whose fight was so defined by his belief in the universality of equality. One wonders why certain writers choose to deliberately avoid mentioning his LGBT record and, by omission, instead insert their own “alternative facts.” Apparently, these writers either fail to understand Barbee and his higher calling, or, for some ulterior agenda, seek to deliberately diminish his accomplishments.

Obviously, his moral mission was so superior to their own that they expunge and thereby dismiss this part of the man’s legacy. Some might not possess the courage to acknowledge it. For others, it may be anathema to reconcile a black man’s fight against homophobia, so they simply pretend it never happened. The love that dares not speak its name and all… It’s reminiscent of those old retouched Soviet photos in which purged personalities progressively disappear as they fall from grace.

So, to retell the rest of the story, Lloyd Barbee—in 1967 a state representative from Milwaukee (he served 1965-1977)—was the first lawmaker to introduce legislation to decriminalize homosexuality. It was two years before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and in the midst of the national civil rights battle. Then, as now, Milwaukee was a bastion of segregation. Barbee is particularly known for his confrontations with Milwaukee Public Schools over integration. He also challenged many other forms of institutionalized racism against African Americans. Still, this did not distract Barbee’s assault on the state’s sex laws.

At the time, almost any sex act beyond the “missionary position” (and that only between a married couple) was illegal. Barbee’s next attempt for LGBT equality was in 1971, when he introduced a bill to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. Although unsuccessful, Barbee helped crack the system and solidify the resolve of LGBTs and their allies who, three years later in 1974, would manage to change the laws.

Those are the historical facts. But why did Lloyd Barbee take on LGBT rights? After all, it was 1967, the year of Milwaukee’s racial tensions that culminated in a midsummer race riot. There was much to do on that front alone. Besides, even Martin Luther King Jr. distanced himself from the issue. But Barbee wasn’t impaired by the myopia of identity politics. He was a true progressive and understood the power of coalitions. Only inclusion and unity for a common cause could create the monolith required to affect change.

It’s no coincidence that our own governor infamously proclaimed his own “divide and conquer” strategy. Sadly, he’s been successful because we’ve lost Barbee’s conviction in the unified struggle. Equality for all isn’t merely a political expedient but a moral imperative. It sometimes seems we’ve lost awareness of that fact. Needless to say, there are no African American History Month memorial events planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this pioneer’s historic action in the struggle for Wisconsin’s LGBT equality.

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