Dane County Becomes Wisconsin’s First Transgender Sanctuary

(Photo via DepositPhotos)

By Fiona Hatch

July 31, 2023

Here’s what that means, and why it matters.

Last month, the Dane County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution with near-unanimous support to make Wisconsin’s second-largest county the state’s first transgender sanctuary. The move is in line with the current trend of communities stepping in to support their transgender communities, who are facing an increase of bullying and hate crimes both in person and online. Kansas City declared itself a safe haven in May, and last year, two of the biggest cities in Texas, Austin and Houston, passed similar resolutions. 

As a transgender sanctuary, Dane County vows to protect gender expression and care for transgender people living within its borders. 

The City of Madison in 1975 became the first place in Wisconsin, and one of the earliest in the country, to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by amending its Equal Opportunities Ordinance,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who supported the resolution, said. “And we’ve been blazing a trail ever since.”

What Does the Resolution Do?

Neighboring Minnesota recently passed a similar “trans refuge” bill in March, which prevents out-of-state laws from interfering with gender-affirming practices in-state. But Dane County goes one step further–not just protecting transgender people but openly supporting them.

While the resolution is largely symbolic, it also asks the Sheriff’s office to de-prioritize enforcement of any state laws that “impose criminal or civil punishments, fines, or professional sanctions on people or organizations that seek, provide, receive, or help someone receive gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers, hormones or surgery.”

“When we hear a need, we take action and we do something about it,” Madison’s District 16 Representative Rick Rose, who helped draft the resolution, explained.   

Why Now?

Dane County’s decision was passed the same month the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans. More than 75 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation have been signed into law across the country–doubling last year’s total. 

Data from the HRC shows that Wisconsin has no current bans on gender-affirming care, bathroom usage, pronoun refusal and others that actively harm the LGBTQ+ and transgender community. But there is still work to be done in Wisconsin. The Movement Advancement Project (MAP) ranks Wisconsin as “Fair” in overall LGBTQ equality and even lower in gender identity policy, tallying only 5.25 of the total 23 points available. 

While there are many trans/nonbinary folks involved in activism and political organizing here in Madison and Dane County, local political demonstrations often bring out anti-trans feminists, religious extremists, and other far-right groups that are antagonistic toward our community. So while there is a lot of support for the LGBTQ+ community in general, we are not insulated from political harm,” the Madison Area Transgender Association wrote in response to Dane County’s declaration. 

What’s Next?

While this is a step forward, the HRC says Wisconsin still needs to pass specific anti-discrimination laws, like anti-bullying laws covering LGBTQ students, as well as “shield” laws protecting access to transgender healthcare. 

The state also has no gender-neutral options on its birth certificates and driver’s licenses and requires a medical sex-change procedure to change the gender on one’s birth certificate.

New legislation also threatens the status of transgender equality in Wisconsin. In July, two bills circulated the state legislature that would ban transgender girls and women from competing in girl’s and women’s sports at the K-12 and collegiate levels.

Evers vowed to veto the bills if they ever reached his desk, and Dane County residents now have additional protection against such legislation under the newly adopted sanctuary resolution. But, as Rhodes-Conway said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “a problem that municipalities in Wisconsin face is the lack of power they have relative to the state government, whose laws preempt theirs.”

SNAPSHOT: Transgender Equality By State

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