History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - People - Bios

Leon Rouse


Primary Involvements:

Passage of historic 1982 Wisconsin Gay Rights measure



Leon Rouse was one of Milwaukee's most prolific gay rights activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While still a 21 year old student at UWM, Leon was already the subject of a 1-page biography in Milwaukee's LGBT publication, "Milwaukee Calendar" (see page 16). By this time, he had already convinced the UWM Board of Regents to add the words "sexual preference" to UWM's non-discrimination policy, which was supported by 80% of those voting in a student referendum he had initiated, and three other schools in the UW system followed suit.

By late 1981 and early 1982, Leon along with [then] Wisconsin State Rep. David Clarenbach and others were widely credited with helping push through the first law in the country which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation. Wisconsin's Gay Rights bill, known as AB70 (Assembly Bill 70), was a landmark achievement for Wisconsin and the nation. Rouse and Clarenbach were regarded as the two most important figures in that historic drive for equal rights in Wisconsin. (In addition to the above link, the history of Leon's role in that effort is also nicely summarized in a March 1982 article "AB70 A Look Behind the Scene", published in "Wisconsin's Escape" magazine (see pages 20-24).

After years of activism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and in the statewide lobbying effort and after an unsuccessful bid to become a Milwaukee county supervisor, Leon Rouse left Milwaukee in the late 1980s. He spent some time in Hawaii before running afoul of the law in the Philipines, and for some time in the early 2000's he was languishing in a Philippine prison on a serious morals charge (see InStep article dated October 29, 2002). He was released in 2003, worked for a time on a Pacific cruise ship, and (2005-2006) for various legislative members in Hawaii.

But an October 2002 news article (see link to right) outlining the result of legal difficulties that Leon encountered in later life, still recalled Wisconsin's LGBT community's debt to Leon. In the article, Rouse is described by Mark Behar, a Milwaukee activist who had followed the Rouse case: “Leon was pugnacious and loveable, charming and personable, principled and tenacious... Without Leon’s hard work and dedication, Wisconsin would not have had a gay rights law in 1982, and we would not have been the nation’s first gay rights state. His work to bring together diverse religious leaders from around the state was the driving force for passage of our rights.”

As of the anniversary of AB70 in 2012, Rouse is still living in his home state of Hawaii, and is said to occasionally visit relatives in Wisconsin.

Invitation to Fundraiser for Leon Rouse, approx. 1982

Photo of the signing of AB70 into law by Governor Lee Dreyfus, February 1982
Left to right: Leon Rouse, Governor Dreyfus, David Clarenbach

Bio of Leon as 21-year old UWM student
Milw. Calendar, May 11-27, 1979

AB 70, A Look Behind the Scene
Wis' Escape, March 26, 1982

Leon speaking at national BWMT convention, 1987
In Step magazine, July-Aug, 1987

Article about Leon in Prison,
InStep, October 2002

Leon Rouse in early 2012
(photo courtesy Andrea Rottmann)

Credits: to William Attewell of In Step Magazine,
and other articles and references,
with website concept, design and format by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: April-2012.