“In the Dairy State You Cannot Discriminate:” Protesting Military Homophobia at UW–Madison

By Ezra Gerard

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The multi-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2022, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Content Warning: The UW–Madison Public History Project blog aims to provide a space where our community can begin the difficult work of reckoning with our history. Some of the content and language in this blog post is disturbing. In this post, you will encounter descriptions of LGBTQ+ persons that are harmful and offensive.

Donna Shalala stands outside her office next to a man wearing a T-shirt that reads “Silence=Death.”
Then-Chancellor Donna Shalala stands outside her office talking to students who are protesting the ROTC policy on gays and lesbians. Next to her stands a man wearing a T-shirt that reads “Silence=Death.” UW–Madison Archives.

In April 1990, students crowded around UW–Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala’s office demanding the expulsion of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) from campus. Student activists sought to ban the ROTC because of the U.S. military’s discriminatory policies against gays and lesbians. This protest was the culmination of years of activism on the part of students and faculty who argued that the military’s exclusion of gay and lesbian service members contradicted laws against discrimination in the state of Wisconsin as well as the university’s avowed commitment to diversity and equality.[1] Protesters faced significant resistance from university officials. While the chancellor and most members of the Board of Regents opposed the military’s policy, they insisted on maintaining the university’s ROTC programs. This insistence stemmed largely from concerns over a loss of federal funding which university officials assumed would result from a termination of the ROTC’s contract with the university. While UW officials publicly espoused a commitment to ending discrimination on campus, they ultimately prioritized financial considerations over protecting the rights of gay students.

Students’ opposition to UW’s relationship with the military began as early as the 1950s. In 1968, students staged a protest against compulsory ROTC training for male students.[2] Opposition to military programs on campus gained momentum during protests against the Vietnam War. In 1969, Karleton Anderson, (who was not a student at the time) set fire to an ROTC building on campus.[3] Anti-ROTC sentiment remained strong throughout the Vietnam War era. Anderson would later become most famous for his involvement in the Sterling Hall Bombing which killed graduate student Robert Fassnacht. The melding of anti-military attitudes with outrage against discrimination fueled a new wave of anti-ROTC activism in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 1980s, professors and students raised questions about the ethics of the military’s presence on campus due to its homophobic policies. This was a period in which the plight of gays and lesbians gained greater visibility both locally and nationally. In 1986, a group of professors and students organized an “ad hoc committee on the relationship between the University of Wisconsin and ROTC Programs in regard to university non-discrimination policy.”[4] The following year, the committee approved a document demanding the termination of UW’s contracts with the ROTC if discrimination against gays and lesbians persisted. Committee members pointed out that the ROTC’s policies went against the university’s newly ratified anti-discrimination guidelines as well as state law. Wisconsin became the first state in the U.S. to legally protect the rights of gay people when the Legislature added sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination law in 1982.[5] The university followed suit, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual “preference” in 1987.[6] These new protections catalyzed the movement against UW’s affiliation with the ROTC.

Student and faculty discontent with the university’s inaction over the issue of military discrimination culminated in 1989–1990. The most prominent opponent of UW’s affiliation with the ROTC was sociology professor Joe Elder. Elder served as co-chair of Faculty against Discrimination in University Policies (FADUP), which fought against the ROTC’s policy.[7] Elder opposed the ROTC not only because of its homophobic policies, but also because of the “contradiction” between the aims of the military and those of the university. He stated that at the university, “we’re teaching people to think critically” while members of the ROTC were “being told to obey.”[8] According to Elder, ROTC officers on campus responded to the issue of military discrimination by stating that they were “just following Pentagon orders,”[9] a stance Elder argued “contradicts what seems to me to be the essence of a liberal education, which is: If orders don’t make sense, they ought to be challenged.”[10]

Several dozen people seated in a room, hands raised in support of the vote to remove the ROTC from campus. In the foreground is Professor Joe Elder.
Professor Joe Elder and attendees at the Faculty Senate Meeting, December 4, 1989. UW–Madison Archives.

Elder opposed the ROTC on ethical grounds and worked with other faculty members to call for the termination of the university’s contract with the ROTC unless they abolished their discriminatory policies. Elder and FADUP circulated a petition to convene an all-faculty meeting to vote on the issue of UW’s contract with the ROTC. The petition received nearly 300 signatures from faculty across departments.[11] On December 4, 1989, the all-faculty meeting convened at the Stock Pavilion, where students on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions over whether the ROTC should be permitted to remain at UW. [12] At the conclusion of the meeting, the faculty voted 386-248 in favor of removing the ROTC from campus in 1993 unless gays and lesbians were allowed to participate. This would allow current cadets to finish their education and training before the termination of the university’s contract with the ROTC. Newspapers across the country reported on this historic vote, inspiring protests on other university campuses, including Dartmouth and Yale.[14] Sue Hyde, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Military Freedom Project stated that “The resounding vote [at UW] is but the first wave of public universities insisting that the Pentagon change its policy and insisting that gay and lesbian discrimination will not be tolerated.”[15]

In response to the faculty vote, Elder received numerous letters, some expressing gratitude for his support. Faculty members at UW and other universities across the country praised Elder for taking a stand on discrimination.[16] Military enthusiasts also sent Elder letters deriding his activism and affirming the supposed importance of ROTC training on campus. Much of the opposition to Elder’s work came from Christians who cited the Bible as evidence of the “sinful” nature of Elder’s activism. One respondent was “sickened” by the faculty vote, stating that the AIDS crisis evidenced God’s hatred for “perverts.”[17] As the debate on ROTC programs continued on campus, numerous gay and lesbian students also reported being verbally and physically harassed.[18]

A group of protestors gather outdoors holding signs against ROTC’s anti-gay policy. Signs read “ROTC discriminates against Lesbians and Gays” and “Stop ROTC discrimination.”
Protestors during the weeks’ long protest of the ROTC’s anti-gay policy, ca. 1990. Photo by Michael Mihm, UW–Madison Archives.

While the faculty vote indicated widespread opposition to discrimination, the fight was not over. Despite the faculty vote, on February 2, 1990, the Board of Regents resolved to retain ROTC programs. Instead of cutting ties with the ROTC, the regents, UW System President Kenneth Shaw, and Shalala supported lobbying against the military’s policy of discrimination on the federal level.[19] While Shalala was “proud” of the faculty vote, she argued that the university could not change ROTC policy because the military answered to federal guidelines not state law or university policy.[20] In affirming the military’s adherence to federal rather than state law, Shalala deflected the blame for the presence of ROTC homophobia at the university.

A group of protestors demonstrate in front of Bascom Hall during the weeks’ long protest of the ROTC’s anti-gay policy, ca. 1990. Protestors are holding signs that read “ROTC discriminates against Lesbians and Gays,” “ROTC is homophobic,” and “Tell the truth about ROTC Donna.”
Protestors demonstrate in front of Bascom Hall during the weeks’ long protest of the ROTC’s anti-gay policy, ca. 1990. Photo by Michael Mihm, UW–Madison Archives.

The Board of Regents’ decision caught the attention of student activists on campus. Following the regents’ declaration, students staged protests against the ROTC’s homophobic policies and decried the administration’s failure to stand up against discrimination. On April 19, 1990, 60 students began a protest outside Shalala’s office.[21] Some brought sleeping bags, spending the duration of the protest camping out in Bascom Hall. Tim Longman, a graduate student studying political science, reported that protesters believed Shalala and the university administration had “sold out to the military and big business.”[22] Longman was right. Financial considerations were an important factor in the university’s insistence on keeping the ROTC. The university received federal funding as a land grant university and ROTC students brought “$2,000,000 in salaries, scholarships, subsistence payments and other assistance” to campus.[23]

A student lays on a sleeping cot, with a handmade “Home Sweet Home” behind him during a sit-in outside Chancellor Donna Shalala's office to protest the ROTC policy on gays and lesbians.
Unidentified students hold a sit-in outside Chancellor Donna Shalala’s office to protest the ROTC policy on gays and lesbians, April 18, 1990. UW–Madison Archives.

Discussions of the financial considerations involved in terminating ROTC’s contract with UW began in the 1980s. University officials believed that the practical and financial burdens of eliminating the ROTC outweighed the importance of banning discrimination on campus. In their arguments in favor of retaining the ROTC, university officials highlighted UW’s obligation to offer military training services due to its status as a land grant institution.[24] Despite the university’s public claims that it was powerless to change ROTC policy and that terminating UW’s affiliation with the military would negatively affect cadets, money was in fact the primary motivating factor. Despite viable alternatives, university officials persisted in supporting ROTC training. Prior to the establishment of the ROTC in 1916, UW had provided military drills as a means of fulfilling its land grant requirements.[25] Furthermore, the Wisconsin State Legislature had indicated its eagerness “to work with the University to devise an alternative, non-discriminatory program to satisfy the [land grant] act.” [26]

A letter from the UW System’s legal counsellor Patricia Hodulik to the Board of Regents confirms the university’s prioritization of financial gain over taking a stand against discrimination. While Hodulik acknowledged that the university was not obligated to offer ROTC programs, she asserted that by terminating its contract, UW could risk losing federal funds, although there was no precedent for this fear.[27] Hodulik presented three options to the regents. First, UW could end ROTC programs on campus and provide alternatives for military training. Second, the university system could eliminate the ROTC on all campuses except UW–Madison, the only land grant campus. Third, the university could keep the ROTC, but lobby the federal government to change its policy. Hodulik advocated the last two options because of the “legal and practical consequences that could follow the elimination of ROTC.”[28] Hodulik stated that should the university choose to abolish the ROTC, it would have to “assume the full cost” of establishing an alternative means of providing military training.[29]

Hodulik concluded that “the costs associated with eliminating ROTC programs do not appear to yield corresponding benefits to any identifiable person or group.” She asserted that there was no evidence of discrimination against prospective cadets on the basis of sexual orientation. This lack of evidence was, of course, likely due to the military’s obfuscation of its discrimination as well as gay and lesbian students’ unwillingness to speak out about their experiences. Even if the UW ROTC did not actively exclude homosexuals, the reality of the military’s discriminatory policies meant that the ROTC could not accept openly gay people, thereby forcing students to feign heterosexuality in order to join. Furthermore, the issue at hand was not whether students had faced discrimination in practice, but whether the university should tolerate the presence of a homophobic institution on campus. University officials did not grasp the symbolic weight of refusing abolish the ROTC. The mere presence of such an institution at the university served as a reminder to gay students that they were not fully equal. The decision to retain the ROTC signaled that monetary gain took precedence over taking a stand against homophobia on campus.

In response to the administration’s continued refusal to formally oppose discrimination, the Wisconsin Student Association, headed by Jordan Marsh, demanded that a disclaimer accompany ROTC promotional materials on campus. The disclaimer stated that “The University of Wisconsin ROTC units, as a result of federal regulations, are required to maintain a policy of exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation. This policy contradicts university policies which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as passed by the UW–Madison Faculty Senate on Monday 7, 1979, and by the UW Board of Regents on April 10, 1987.”[30] Shalala opposed the disclaimer. She stated that “The whole point of all of this is that we want to keep ROTC but we want it to be open to every student. I do not see the usefulness in this disclaimer in achieving that goal.”[31] Dean of Students Mary Rouse presented alternatives to the disclaimer, which included explaining the ROTC’s policy during orientation and sending letters to students and their parents “letting them know where the university and the Department of Defense stand on ROTC.”[32]

Unsatisfied with the chancellor’s response, on April 23, 1990 students marched to the Board of Regents’ office in Van Hise Hall. After a 10 hour sit in, University of Wisconsin–Madison Police (UWPD) and Capitol Police began to arrest students who refused to disperse. They ultimately arrested 40 students, many of whom were dragged from the building. According to a news report, “Scores of students set up human barricades at the various entrances in an attempt to block police from dragging students outside.”[33] A crowd of nearly 300 chanted, “in the Dairy State you cannot discriminate.”[34]  While protesters were released once they had exited the building, a number of students reported maltreatment at the hands of the police. Students complained of “excess use of force.”[35] Neil Willenson experienced convulsions after being “shoved repeatedly” by UWPD officers and was ultimately hospitalized. Gay student leader David Wilcox reported being punched by the police. Others recounted being mocked by officers who “laughed at, insulted, and blew kisses” at them. Students also accused officers of homophobia for wearing rubber gloves, purportedly from fear of contracting AIDS. Madison Alderman Andy Heidt, who arrived at the close of the protest, commented that “it is reprehensive that the university should be so entrenched in their discriminatory policies that their henchmen should lash out with such violence.”[36]

After the protest, Jordan Marsh remarked that “we made the assumption that P&S [University Police and Security] are professionals… and they beat the crap out of us.”[37] University officials and campus police maintained they had handled the situation with the appropriate amount of force. Assistant Dean of Students Roger Howard stated to the Daily Cardinal that “the police have a responsibility and I believe they did make an effort to get people out as safely as possible.”[38] Campus Police Chief Ralph Hanson declared: “I believe we handled it quite successfully.”[39] University officials’ justification of their actions in the face of student complaints of mistreatment evidences a prioritization of maintaining order over the wellbeing of students. Rather than supporting students’ activist engagement and taking a stand on discrimination, university officials opted to restore order by using police violence.

Student protests at UW inspired a surge of anti-ROTC activism at campuses across the country. As co-founder of the UW–Madison LGBT Archive Scott Seyforth noted, “there was a flurry of media coverage, which inspired activism on campuses around the country throughout the spring of 1990. In the year following the UW–Madison vote, more than 60 schools across the country engaged in the movement, making these grassroots efforts an ongoing national news story. In 1991, over 125 campus student organizations participated in an April National Day of Coordinated Action against Discriminatory Policies in ROTC.”[40] While the faculty vote and protests at UW did not succeed in convincing the university to terminate its contract with the ROTC, the student and faculty movement at UW inspired a national conversation about whether institutions of higher education should allow a fundamentally homophobic institution to remain on campus.

UW’s response to student and faculty demands to ban the ROTC from campus remains relevant in the present. This case shows the importance of scrutinizing the motives underlying university officials’ decisions. The discrepancy between an official commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment and the failure to act accordingly remains a pressing issue on campus. As the case of the campus ROTC shows, hidden financial interests can shape decision making and can ultimately take precedent over affirming the university’s intolerance of bigotry. University officials must be held accountable for their actions and should, at the very least, be forthright about the motives behind decisions affecting the rights and safety of students.

The following statement was provided by the Officer Education Program:

The UW–Madison student-led protest of discrimination against gays and lesbians by the Reserve Officer Training Corp programs successfully raised awareness to the issue. The media coverage helped spread attention to the unfair policies of the US service branches, and it wasn’t long after the 1990 protest that policy changed for the better. In 1993, President Bill Clinton issued the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Department of Defense Directive 1304.26, that went into effect in early 1994. Although it did not allow service by openly gay and lesbian individuals, it ended the policy of dismissal based on sexual orientation.  This act was repealed in 2010 during the Obama Administration to remove the restrictive clause. Policy for the entire US military is now set by DOD Instruction 1350.02, which states that the DOD Military Equal Opportunity Program will: “Ensure that Service members are treated with dignity and respect and are afforded equal opportunity in an environment free from prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender identity, or sexual orientation.” The ROTC programs on campus strongly support this policy.

At the time of the protest, the University administration and UW System chose to retain the ROTC programs in favor of lobbying for change at the federal level. Although the Defense Department changes took time, the decision was the right one. Educating future military officers at public institutions like UW–Madison exposes them to a diverse set of viewpoints, and graduates draw from their educational background when implementing and influencing military policy. Conversely, having ROTC officer education on campus gives other students a chance to learn about the US armed services, and it broadens the array of career opportunities. The experiences that students receive through the ROTC programs could not have been replaced at any cost. The active-duty cadre, who are faculty members and instructors in the University’s Military Science, Naval Science, and Air Force Aerospace Studies Departments while stationed here, are dedicated and share their valuable service experience. In addition, our cadets and midshipmen participate in training programs that are conducted with active units in the field and at sea.

In contrast to views expressed in the article, our service branches value having leadership at all levels that makes well-informed, well-reasoned, responsible decisions. UW–Madison is one of the top public institutions in the nation, and the education that serves Badger graduates so well in the civilian sector also serves those who serve the nation as commissioned officers.

The protest movement at UW–Madison is part of the rich history of the University. Its contribution to ending discrimination in the US service branches based on sexual orientation was a success. The military training heritage, which dates to the University’s earliest days, is also an important part of Badger history and of the education that we offer today.

Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

[1] The ban on gays and lesbians in the military began during World War II. While before this time, men could be prosecuted for the “crime” of sodomy, military policy did not specifically exclude women or men from service for being homosexual. During World War II, the military began barring homosexuals from on the basis that they were psychologically unfit for service. During the psychological exam required of all recruits, military doctors asked a number of questions intended to identify homosexuals.[1] This homophobic policy continued to be enforced throughout the twentieth century, provoking activist responses at the local and national level. See Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

[2] Protests and Social Action at UW–Madison During the 20th Century, University of Wisconsin, Madison, accessed September 29, 2020.

[3] “Brothers Tell of Fatal Bombing,” AP News, May 18, 1986.

[4] “Ad Hoc Committee on Relationship between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and ROTC Programs in regard to University Non-discrimination policies.” Out! Wisconsin’s Gay and Lesbian Newspaper Vol. 5, No. 10, August 1987.

[5] “UW–Madison and ROTC: A Summary of Recent History,” ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[6] Timeline. The Faculty Senate had already condemned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1979. See Faculty Senate minutes.

[7] Oral History Interview with James Steakley. Interviewed by Troy Reeves. August 17, 2010.

[8] Oral History Interview with Joseph Elder. Interviewed by Robert Lange, 2005.

[9] Joe Elder, qtd. in Richard P. Jones, article on Joe Elder. Newspaper Clipping. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[10] Joe Elder, qtd. in Richard P. Jones, article on Joe Elder. Newspaper Clipping. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[11] Letter from Joe Elder to Department Chairs, October 26, 1989. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[12] Oral History Interview with Joe Elder. Interviewed by Troy Reeves.

[13] Oral History Interview with Joe Elder. Interviewed by Troy Reeves.

[14] “Reaction,” The Daily Cardinal, December 5, 1989, 3.

[15] David Anger, “U. Madison to ROTC: Shape Up or Ship Out,” Out Takes, Newspaper Clipping.

[16] Letter from Bill to Joe, December 5, 1989. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives. See also Theodore Wright (State University of New York at Albany) to Joe Elder, December 12, 1989.

[17] Letter from Mr. and Mrs. Robert Schumacher to Joe Elder, February 28, 1990. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives. Folder 1. See also Charles Schuster to Joe Elder, January 10, 1990. See also Christopher Rissetto to Joe Elder, January 31, 1990. Folder 1.

[18] Letter to UW Students, February 7, 1990. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives. Folder 1.

[19] Steve Schultze, “Colleges May Sue Over ROTC Rules.” Newspaper Clipping. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives. Folder 1.

[20] “UW Faculty Opposes ROTC,” Wisconsin State Journal, December 5, 1989.

[21] Associated Press, “Wisconsin Students Stage Sit in to Protest ROTC Ban on Gays,” April 19, 1990.

[22] The Journal Times, “ROTC Protest moves to Shaw,” April 24, 1990.

[23] Annual Report of the Officer Education Committee, 1988–1989. ROTC Board of Regents.

[24] Joseph Elder, Oral History Interview.

[25] ROTC History, badgerrotc.wisc.edu/history/. Accessed October 2, 2020.

[26] “THE UW–MADISON CAMPUS AND ROTC-DISCRIMINATION A SUMMARY OF RECENT HISTORY,” 6. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation Collection.

[27] Letter from Patricia H. to the Board of Regents, 1987.

[28] Patricia Hodulik, Letter to Faculty, April 17, 1989, 6. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[29] Hodulik, Letter to Faculty, April 17, 1989. ROTC Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Folder 2. Accession 2004/081 50F3 University Archives.

[30] Sarah Wise, “Marsh Introduces ROTC Disclaimer,” The Badger Herald, February 26, 1990.

[31] Associated Press, “Wisconsin Students Stage Sit-In,” April 19, 1990.

[32] Associated Press, “Wisconsin Students Stage Sit-In,” April 19, 1990.

[33] Jean Christensen, “Police Use Force to End ROTC Sit-in,” The Daily Cardinal, April 24, 1990, 1.

[34]Jean Christensen, “Police Use Force to End ROTC Sit-in,” The Daily Cardinal, April 24, 1990, 1.

[35] Peter Kafka, “Students Ask for UW Investigation of Police Tactics,” The Daily Cardinal, April 25, 1990, 5.

[36] Peter Kafka, “Students Ask for UW Investigation of Police Tactics,” The Daily Cardinal, April 25, 1990, 5.

[37] Peter Kafka, “Students Ask for UW Investigation of Police Tactics,” The Daily Cardinal, April 25, 1990, 5.

[38] Peter Kafka, “Students Ask for UW Investigation of Police Tactics,” The Daily Cardinal, April 25, 1990, 5.

[39] Peter Kafka, “Students Ask for UW Investigation of Police Tactics,” The Daily Cardinal, April 25, 1990, 5.

[40] Scott Seyforth, “In People’s Faces,” 95.