David Clarenbach

“I Was Raised in a Feminist Household.”

Interviewed by Annie Crump, June 2019

DC:  My name is David Clarenbach and I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was raised and have spent virtually my entire adult life at home in Madison, Wisconsin. I was fortunate to have been raised in a feminist household, which I think for someone of my generation, born in the 50s, it was a little unique that my mother and my father worked.

In fact, before I was born my mother and father taught at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan. They both had full time positions. My mother was paid one half of what my father was paid. She had the PhD, he did not. So even before I was born, I was to have been born in a feminist household.

In my youth it was particularly noteworthy – as a child you don’t really understand or see those things – but I think it was important. And I even to this day, I have friends who tell me how startled they were to have a two-parent household. Both working, yet still one of them was there when we got home from school. We had birthday parties, we had warm meals, the homework got done and more often than not it was my father.

And it was a partnership and I guess that’s to me the true meaning of feminism: that men can be strong in supporting women just as women can be strong in supporting men. And the combination results in a better society. I learned that from a very early age. I learned it not from lectures, but by witness and practice, day in and day out.

AC:  That’s wonderful. Did you have siblings when you grew up and other family members living with you or was it just the main family?

DC:  I have two sisters. An older sister and a younger sister. And both are very committed feminists too. There are no divisions in the Clarenbach household. And we did cherish the parentage that we had. I think we all recognized that it served all of us to have that kind of household and that kind of relationship with parents. And while it was unique for us in the 50s and the 60s, it’s now much more commonplace and it doesn’t seem like a very earth-shattering thing, but a generation ago it was not common.

AC:  How did you personally get involved in the movements as you grew up?

DC:  It was difficult to avoid becoming involved in social reform movements generally. Being a child of the 60s civil rights and the war in Vietnam and all of those were raging in Wisconsin and in Madison. It was in the mid 60s that my mother started getting involved with the feminist movement as one of the founders of NOW. We knew what she was doing.

My own involvement in civil rights and against the war in Vietnam was really part and parcel of what she was doing as a feminist leader on the front lines of that struggle. So, we really were taught and believe that it’s all part of the same movement. It’s the humanist approach to society – that all of us are equal and should be treated as individuals who have equal opportunities. And we were shown that and that’s how we lived.  

For example, there were efforts at the at the state level in the creation of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, for instance, that my mother chaired for quite a number of years in the 60s and 70s. The Commission adopted a series of resolutions and proposals from which the legislature acted. That included things such as marital property reform. Reform of the sexual assault statutes. The Equal Rights Amendment.

It was the Equal Rights Amendment where I first really got my hands directly involved, because Wisconsin was one of the states of course that had adopted, and the right wing focused on Wisconsin very strongly. The Phyllis Schlafly’s of the world were alive and well. And those names may be ancient history, but those were very much a part of my life as a young adult, recognizing that those are some of the battles that have to be fought and had to be fought not just by women, but by men as well.

AC:  Would you say the greatest issue for you or the most prominent issue for you was the women’s movement or what issue would you identify with as you grew up?

DC:  I’m gay and I knew I was gay from high school days, but I didn’t come [out] to my parents until I was in my 20s. They were accepting and supportive. My partner, even before I came out to them, would be there for Christmas and Thanksgiving. And it was clear that we lived together. We had a domestic partnership as they would later call it. And so, the LGBTQ civil rights movement was an important part of what I felt on a personal level and also recognizing that it was part of this larger movement. They were not separate and distinct by any means.

I think that in the early stages of the modern feminist movement there was some friction between the those who wanted to narrow the scope of organizing around equality and pay equity and things of that sort; and those that wanted to take a broader approach to include lesbian and gay civil rights as part of the feminist movement. I helped my mother see the value in the approach of that latter option – that is, to include gay and lesbian civil rights as part of the feminist movement.

I think that in the early days, at least in the mid 60s from what I understand, my mother was very concerned that there would not be an overreach and that there be credibility in the broader political arena. Those are balancing tests that no one can easily second-guess looking back. But we all need to grow and learn. I know that I’ve learned many things and I’ve made many mistakes. I think that those in my family did not know I was gay.

Frequently when you come out to your parents, one of them might say, “I’ve known you’re gay since you were a kid.” Not so much in the Clarenbach household. In fact, my older sister when I told her, she was in California. I said, “I should tell you that I’m gay.” Her reaction was, “Are you being blackmailed?” The interesting thing, at least to me, a lot of people were like oh geez this must be a risky business for you. You have to be very careful.

I think that every member of the legislature and every member of the press corps knew that I was gay. I didn’t advertise on my campaign literature. But I never lied. I never hid, but I was never asked either. It was a very comfortable environment. Maybe that’s unique to Wisconsin or maybe it was unique to the early 70s when I was first getting involved in electoral politics. But it was no secret and that I think was part of the reason that Wisconsin became that first state to pass a gay rights law to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. To this day still, a majority of states do not have those basic civil rights protections.

AC:  When did you decide to run for office?

DC:   I was in high school and had been involved in the student rights movement because those who were the consumers of the educational system had virtually no voice in determining how that curriculum and educational system was structured. We fought when I was in high school to have student representatives on the school board and we actually were successful. I wasn’t one of them, but there were two high school students sitting on the Madison School Board participating in all of the discussions. They were elected by high school students in the Madison public school system.

From that I knew that I wanted to devote my adult life to electoral politics. I ran for the County Board of Supervisors when I was 18. I was the first 18-year-old elected to public office in Wisconsin because the 18-year-old vote was created in January of 1972 and I was elected in the spring of 1972. So, there couldn’t have been any one that slipped under that wire. It also helped me, I think, bring a different approach to politics from a personal standpoint.

And in the legislature when I was elected, I was 21, virtually everyone else in the legislature was old enough to be my father. In almost every case father not mother or grandmother or grandfather. I gave a generational perspective in the legislature, but it also freed me up. I represented a district in Madison that included much of the campus and the working-class part of the city. I had more freedom and flexibility to speak out on issues like abortion rights and the reform of sexual assault laws as well as gay and lesbian civil rights.

My district wasn’t going to turn their back on me because I was speaking out on what at that time were considered to be fringe issues. In fact, I used to say that my political future would be in jeopardy if I failed to speak out on those issues. Today I think that’s the standard by which we judge the real stars of this generation that’s in power now. Those that take risks and move the boulder up the hill and not be worried about the political ramifications personally, nor the fact that sometimes you lose, but you sometimes gain even when you lose.  

I want to make a very quick example of it. We passed a law that legalized consensual sexual activity. Prior to that point it was known as the sodomy statute but in fact it criminalized sex acts that were engaged in on a daily basis between a man and a woman who were legally lawfully married as well as gay and lesbian same sex activities. The process by which we got that bill passed was a journey that took us eight years. We were not afraid of losing.

The first year it was introduced with the great civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee from Milwaukee. It was laughed out of the legislature. It won’t happen – not in this lifetime. The next session of the legislature we got a hearing committee and then the next session we got it out of committee. Then the next session we got to a vote in a state assembly. We lost by one vote – and then we knew we had it. In 1983 it became legal in Wisconsin and our great Governor Tony Earl, the courage that he had to sign on the dotted line. 

AC:  That’s a wonderful story. As you think back, are there any other significant events that you would like to share that mark your tenure in the assembly or other political events as time went on?

DC:  My entrance into politics was something that was a natural flow of how I was raised and what my priorities were with life. My exit was a less smooth and a more difficult process. I served in elected office for more than 20 years and the incumbent Democratic member of Congress from our district, Bob Kastenmeier had lost in an upset election in 1990. It was a Democratic district that he never should have lost. I ran for Congress and I was supposed to win the election. It was a Democratic district, it was a first term Republican incumbent.

I had raised money and I had support across the board, or so I thought, and perhaps it’s ironic that I was not elected. I didn’t even get it past the primary, so I did not get a chance to run against that incumbent Republican. The irony is that I was beat in the primary by a Native American woman. That was the first year of the woman, 1992, and more women were elected, and more women ran for public office. You never know the ebb and flow of political fortunes. It was a very difficult period for me personally.

Unfortunately, the woman who won the primary lost to the incumbent Republican member of Congress, badly, and he served until he chose to leave. That was unfortunate, but it did allow me freedom from the political process. I had to give up my seat in the state legislature to run for Congress. I was asked to run the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington. I guess my goal of getting to Washington was served at least in the short run.

The Victory Fund is like Emily’s List, a political action committee that bundles money to support the candidacies of openly gay and lesbian candidates for public office at the local, state and federal level. And the Victory Fund helped, I might say, elect people like Tammy Baldwin who succeeded me in the state Assembly – who then succeeded that Republican in Congress, who then was elected and now re-elected to the U.S. Senate.  

In her place in the state assembly was an openly gay man, Mark Pocan who then replaced Tammy Baldwin as the congressman in the 2nd Congressional District of Wisconsin. They both remain in office today and are both doing important work. At least in some minor way, I hope that I helped maybe grease the skids for those of a different generation to make their mark and make the progress that we’re seeing done today.

AC:  With all the work that you’ve done for the state and all the contributions, what positions are you involved in now if any in your life? And how would you reflect back on your life?

DC:  It’s been 48 years since I first decided to commit my life to political and social change. I was 17 when I first decided to run for that first office on the County Board of Supervisors. I regret not one moment of it. Much frustration and a defeat or two along the way. But what I’m most proud of is what has been accomplished since I left politics. Wisconsin being the first state to pass a gay civil rights law. People thought, Wisconsin? Sure – New York, Massachusetts or California. It was years before the second state passed a gay rights law.

AC:  That was really attributable to your work.

DC:  We were able to build a coalition, an extraordinary coalition. Maybe it was a sign of the times. The bill was passed in a bipartisan fashion. The margin of victory in both houses of the legislature were provided by Republican votes and the bill was signed into law by a Republican governor. That took the partisan bite out of the political risks that we were asking legislators from all across the state to take when they voted for gay rights (“I’m going to get defeated in the next election.”).

No, you can point to the Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfuss, and he said quite eloquently in the signing ceremony, “It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that the government ought not intrude into the private lives of individuals. And there is certainly nothing more private nor sensitive than who you love or how you love.” And with that, the historic gay rights law was signed into law today.

We see youngsters who are out, transgendered individuals who are being supported by their communities, their parents, their schools and even the religious communities. We hope more and more. But we built a religious coalition around that gay rights law that included the Catholic Church. We didn’t ask the church leaders to decide whether homosexuality was good or bad or sinful or not sinful or to be encouraged or discouraged. We controlled the terms of the debate.

We asked is bigotry and discrimination to be tolerated against any group in our society? And when that’s the question that’s posed, the answer is almost a universal, “No it is not to be tolerated.”We isolated the moral majority as they were called at that time. The lunatic fringe that they were and that they are today. And those kinds of tactics, I think, would serve us well today as well, as we move forward into the new challenges of the future.

AC:  I think that is so well said, it sends shivers up and down my spine to hear from you. Is there anything else, David, that we have not covered that you’d like to comment on today? I wanted to ask you about your impression of Pete Buttigieg running as an openly gay man for president of the United States and I think that’s certainly a marker and a celebration for all of us.

DC:  There are so many ground breaking landmarks of the gay and lesbian history. I never thought that in my lifetime I would see same sex marriage legalized in any state, much less nationwide. I didn’t think that I would see an openly lesbian member of the United States Senate. And now there are many gay and lesbian members of the House of Representatives.

And to have Mayor Pete, as he’s called, not running as a token candidate. He is being taken seriously. He is a viable contender for the Democratic nomination, and he may not win. He probably won’t be nominated, but his mere presence on the stage and in the debates not as a marginalized fringe candidate, not as a one issue candidate, which is what they’re always trying to do. Not with not just gays and lesbian but with feminists.

You’re a “women’s libber” they used to say. I was a “women’s libber”.  I was a woman’s libber and I was offended by that – just as feminists were at the time. Pete Buttigieg is someone who has already made his mark on history and he has a bright future. I don’t think that I would put money on his winning the nomination in 2020, but I would not be surprised if he were a candidate and were to be elected president at some point in the future.

He certainly has a bright future. He’ll be in a cabinet of a Democratic president. He’ll be a vice presidential nominee at some point. He and people like him and the people in the next generation keep moving the ball forward. And that’s the important thing, whether we’re talking about LGBTQ civil rights or reproductive rights or feminism as a whole, as part of a humanist movement. Progress is being made, sometimes very slowly, sometimes in a frustratingly Ice Age sense. But sometimes there are great leaps of progress, great leaps forward and I think we see some of those being done as we speak.

AC:  If there’s anything else you’d like to cover – otherwise this has been just a wonderful experience. 

DC:  I have enjoyed reminiscing and thank you for the opportunity. This project is so important, not because I’m in it, but because people have to know from whence we came. As generations progress that history is important. If for no other reason than as an inspiration to demonstrate that change does happen. It doesn’t happen often. Maybe it doesn’t happen often enough, it doesn’t happen quickly enough, but change can happen.