Today, students who interact on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and in University Housing are free to engage and live with each other as they please. But, for students attending the university in its first century of operation, discipline and regulations on campus regarding housing and sexuality looked very different.
Armed with discriminatory practices and an “in loco parentis” approach to fill guardians’ roles while their students were on campus, UW-Madison formerly aimed to eliminate expressions of sexuality on campus throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The main operational standard for the university for nearly 100 years was something called in loco parentis, which is Latin for “in the role of the parent,” Public History Project Director Kacie Lucchini Butcher said. “So there was this idea that college students, when they went off to college, were not adults yet and that they still needed to be parented and needed people to guide them and help mold them into good adults — civically minded participants in society.”
With this parenting role in mind, UW-Madison took measures to monitor student sexuality. On campus, men and women were not allowed to live in the same building, and the women’s facilities were required to have house mothers, or an adult who lived in the facility and cared for the women.
There were also disciplinary actions taken for students who were caught engaging in sexual activity. Scott Goodnight, who served as Dean of Men from 1916-1945, was infamous for seeking out students who were engaging in acts that the university deemed inappropriate.
“He got word that there was a man and a woman — students — who were in the same room together and he went to the room, knocked, tried to get them to come out,” said Luccini Butcher. “They wouldn't come out, so he took a rocking chair and he sat and waited for them to come out because he knew that there was only one way out. Eventually he gave up, but he sat there for hours and it became this kind of campus joke.”
For some students, punishment was as harsh as an expulsion.
“There were women who were kicked out of school for being caught having sex out of marriage,” said Luccini Butcher. “Oftentimes you'll see people try and justify it to get out of trouble. So they'll say, ‘oh, we're engaged,’ or ‘oh, we're going to be married in the summer, so we're allowed to hold hands, and kiss’... things like that. But the university is really policing.”
For students who did not identify as heterosexual, the punishments were harsher, and UW-Madison officials sought out and tried to rid campus of students who identified as homosexual.
“It's worse because the university really views homosexuality as morally devious, and they believe that allowing gay students to continue to be on campus could be a corrupting force for other students. So they feel like they have this kind of moral obligation to rid the university of gay students,” Luccini Butcher said.
In 1948, 12 men, both UW-Madison students and Madison residents, were arrested for “sodomy” and “disorderly conduct.” Then, from 1948 to 1962, the university engaged in what was known as the Gay Purges, or an effort to find and expel homosexual male students.
Annette Washburn, UW-Madison’s medical school’s first female doctor developed a program for the university’s mental health clinic, similar to what is contemporarily known as conversion therapy, for students who she considered “not true homosexuals.”
“She created this policy based on psychiatric best practices at the time, and she kind of differentiated that there were true homosexuals, and these were people that she believed could not be helped,” Luccini Butcher said. “They were unrepentant about being gay. They didn't view their homosexuality as a problem and therefore they couldn't be changed. The other people she thought were people who could be helped, and so those students — if they were deemed as not true homosexuals — were usually forced into therapy against their will to try and make them straight.”
According to Luccini Butcher, if students were deemed heterosexual after the therapy, then they were able to return to school. If students did not agree to go to therapy, then they were expelled, their parents were called, they lost scholarships and graduate school opportunities and the UW-Madison dean sent letters to other potential transfer schools.
“Honestly the treatment of gay students was much more aggressive than straight students because with straight students it was like, UWPD found these kids making out at Picnic Point,” Luccini Butcher said. “But with gay students they were bringing these gay men in, interrogating them and threatening to call their parents if they didn't name five people that they thought were also gay. They were really using these kinds of aggressive tactics.”
Today, UW-Madison condemns and confronts systemic homophobia. In 2021, Student Affairs released a statement regarding the history of Gay Purges on campus.
“It is painful to learn how challenging and cruel the college experience was for LGBTQ+ students at the UW-Madison,” the statement reads. “There is no excuse for such actions. The students’ stories are real and should be heard.”