An Open Letter to Speaker Vos

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison. Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Representative Vos,

As the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly you are in a  position to push certain bills or your entire agenda forward if you wish. That is the nature of the job you hold. You can also ensure that proposals that are not to your liking do not get a chance to be voted on by the legislature. As the leader of the Assembly you wield a great deal of power.

As I’m sure you know that power should not be taken lightly. Throughout history Speakers have used their authority to advance their causes and it is understood that will happen to an extent. There are scant few people in the world who would not take at least some advantage of the opportunity afforded by the position. However, there are some issues that should transcend partisan politics and personal goals. Most politicians and other citizens would agree that the safety and protection of our children are among those critical issues. As Speaker there are times when you do not just represent your district, your campaign donors, or your party.

There are two bills currently being circulated that it seems you do not believe are a high priority, but which are of vital importance to the safety and well-being of children across this great state. I would like to be proven wrong about this and see them introduced in session, but I am not hopeful at this time.

The first is commonly known as Erin’s Law (Assembly Bill 691). This law has been enacted in 26 states. Until now Wisconsin was one of only seven states that had not even introduced it. Under the law, all public schools would be required to provide a prevention-oriented program on child sex abuse to children through grade six. In addition, it would also provide information on sexual abuse to parents of young children.

As a child sex abuse survivor who just published a book on surviving that harrowing childhood experience (Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story) I can tell you that this bill is badly needed. One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. Most do not tell anyone about it because of shame, confusion, or threats. If these children are taught how to recognize these sexual violations, what to do to protect themselves, and how to report what happened to them to a safe adult I can guarantee you that countless lives will be saved, countless men and women will not turn to alcohol and drug abuse to escape their memories, and countless innocent children will be spared devastating abuse and years of its aftereffects. Providing parents with information on child sex abuse will also help responsible adults recognize signs that will enable them to get their children much-needed help. Studies have shown that the sooner a child gets into therapy after sexual abuse and the less abuse that has occurred the greater their prospects for recovery and healing.

The other bill in question is the Healthy Relationships bill (AB692) which would require schools to provide teen dating violence prevention education. I work with 13-18 year old students in a youth theater program and have seen the shattering effects of dating violence on some of them. As young people who may not yet be fully mature, educational materials that help them recognize early what constitutes a healthy and safe relationship will prevent possible emotional and physical violence and lead to a safer environment for our students.

I understand that some bills may have priority for you over others, especially when you are working to push through laws that are important to you and your fellow Republicans. Again, it’s the way things work. But I beseech you to listen to the needs of Wisconsinites who don’t care about party loyalty when the safety of their children is at stake. Both of these bills are critically important for Wisconsin’s children and families. They are also both bipartisan bills sponsored by members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. There should be no question about the bills reaching the floor and being supported by members on both sides of the aisle. You can help make that happen.

As a survivor of child sex abuse and someone who works with youth I urge you to do everything in your power to get these bills through this session, which is quickly running out. You cannot tell me that a law that would have helped me when I was a boy and that will help countless other children now, along with a bill that will help teenagers stay safe, can be less important than allowing pink blazers during the hunting season, allowing children younger than ten to hunt, or several other bills that some people may want but that were never clearly a priority for the majority of the citizens of this state. I would be happy to meet with you and share my personal story as to why these bills are of far more importance and why they need to be enacted into law now.

Thank you for your consideration.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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