Archive Fever: Pelting Gay Marchers with Eggs and Busting Porn, a 1980s Wisconsin Flashback

Here’s a depressing spectacle, but one that bears witnessing and remembering: Ray Fisher of Sparta, Wisconsin, waiting with smile on face and egg in hand, to pelt participants in what would have been the town’s first gay rights march.

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Would have been the first march, “but no gays showed up.” I wonder why.

I came across this clipping while doing research for my dissertation. It’s from the La Crosse Tribune, 8 January 1984. That’s the town I was born in, and attended college in, at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (I spent most of the interim growing up in Alaska). I was back home from grad school in Los Angeles, visiting my parents, when I realized UW-L had a small collection called the La Crosse Pornography Ordinance Collected Papers, 1977-1980, donated by professor Dale Kendrick, I had to check it out.

A Google search suggests I’m the only person to ever use the small, one-box collection, which is a shame, since it’s a revealing look into the local politics of moral regulation in a fairly standard Midwestern town of about 50,000.

Material in the collection reflects the various emotional investments people had in policing porn in the late 70s. This letter, typical if perhaps slightly overheated, to an anti-censorship activists links smut to, let’s see, communism, homosexuality, “raping,” VD, drug use, the black arts (I assume they didn’t mean Amiri Baraka, but maybe?), occultism, academic freedom, and, naturally, Sodom and Gomorrah.

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There was also a tantalizing visual survey of La Crosse’s three adult bookstores. Alley Kat was gone by the time I returned, and I recall the gay bookstore Pure Pleasure closing right before I turned eighteen, allegedy on account of its gloryholes, as I remember it (it was a crushing disappointment at the time). This left only Best Buys standing, a straight shop whose quarter booths were nonetheless cruising grounds for a good many local men, including even a belligerent homophobe with whom I had attended most of high school across the river in LaCrescent, Minnesota.

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What does this all have to do with Ray Fisher throwing eggs at phantom gay people? Well, pornography and homosexuality were certainly linked in the rhetoric of the New Right, as twin threats to the monolithic family (always straight, married, nuclear), and activism against each built on and exacerbated activism against the other; pornography was somehow queer in its deviation from proper heterosexuality (a good reminder that heteronormativity not only others queerness, but disciplines straightness), and homosexuality was inherently pornographic in the minds of its foes.

In La Crosse, where voters passed an antiporn ordinance in the late 1970s, this linkage could be seen when the results of local obscenity prosecutions arrived: in late 1979 the owner of Best Buys beat a charge, which had been based on straight porn. A few months later, in early 1980, Pure Pleasure owner Gary Enea was convicted; “this was not normal, healthy sex,” explained city attorney Patrick Houlihan of the “group sex and homosexual activity” in this batch.

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Obscenity law was hardly the only mechanism through which queerness was ostracized in the early 1980s, of course. From churches to the Republic Party, which dripped with a bigoted venom from the 1970s through the present day, from mainstream media (check out Craig Loftin’s great blog Music Video Closet to see the queer challenges, but also the pervasive homophobia, of the MTV era) to the punk underground (shame on you, Adolescents, shame on you, Descendents), this was an oppressive era in U.S. history, one that’s easy to forget now that typical U.S. triumphalism has declared the victory of acceptance (never mind the record-setting level of murders of trans people, apparently, surely unrelated to desperate, pathetic Sanctity of the Bathroom bills).

The United States likes to forget its legacies of oppression. It’s why white people constantly remind everyone that slavery ended 150 years ago, as if that equated to meaningful equality for black Americans, and it’s why, as Peggy Pascoe showed in her important book What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, as soon as Loving v. Virginia eradicated miscegenation laws in 1967, an almost immediate collective forgetting that they had ever existed swept the nation.

But we know what happens when we forget: “what Vietnam, Iraq has nothing to do with that? Plus we would have won, except, liberals.” So, in the spirit of not forgetting, here’s what happened thirty miles from where I was born, at the exact moment Ronald Reagan was supplying America with an endless series of shit-eating grins while people died of AIDS unmentioned (not to mention the countless deaths he supported in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere): 200 people lined the street, not to support the gay march in protest of the release of Harvey Milk’s killer Daniel White in California, but “to heckle.” According to reporter Monte Hanson, the march itself was a hoax, but his own reporting hardly convinces of that; with a pull-quote from the aforementioned Mr. Fisher explaining, “I tell you what, nobody around here likes queers,” and a crowd vocally threatening to attack any marchers, how possible would the march have been? “It’s a little embarrassing to the community,” a local police officer explained, and it’s unclear whether he meant the vicious antigay mania or the march itself. “We’re glad it didn’t come off,” he added, suggesting the latter reading.

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So, that’s it: a document of the everyday social violence of my home state, within lived memory. Not a momentous document, but a telling one. Maybe somewhere Ray Fisher is ashamed or contrite, maybe he’s developed empathy and recognized the link between casual daily dehumanization and larger patterns of violence and oppression. I have no idea. But I think it’s important not to forget these sorts of banal, prosaic stories, in places like Sparta or La Crosse, whose lasting legacies can be seen in Wisconsin in the deplorable recent election of Rebecca Bradley, who once mocked “degenerates” for dying of AIDS, to the state supreme court. Her callousness didn’t develop in a vacuum, but it reminds us that the ugly ghosts of the 1980s are still with us, often repackaged in shiny new discourses that can sound less cruel (who doesn’t support “religious freedom,” the latest dogwhistle, after all?), but still amount to a smiling face of hatred, egg in hand, safe in a crowd and ready to throw.

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