Before the epochal Stonewall Inn raid of 1969 ushered in the modern era of the Gay Rights Movement, accounts of LGBTQ activity in Milwaukee are scattered. Cases of women dressing and living as men (and occasionally of men dressing and living as women) made local headlines between the 1890s and 1910s. At least two of these incidents included same-sex marriages that were unwittingly granted by the state. This behavior was, among women living as men, passed off as a result of child-like confusion. For men living as women, it was usually treated as a criminal offense.
LGBTQ Progress Awards Honors Those Who Struggled for Equality
The Shepherd Express has the largest LGBTQ readership in Wisconsin, and we’re showing our pride with our third annual LGBTQ Progress Awards, taking place on Thursday, Aug. 10. The awards serve to celebrate and thank both the sung and unsung individuals fighting for progressive policies and promoting diversity in our communities. Eric Peterson of the Cream City Foundation will be the event’s emcee, and the Shepherd’s own Dear Ruthie will be among the presenters. The event starts with cocktails at 5:30 and dinner at 6:15 p.m. at The Wherehouse, 818 S. Water St. Tickets can be purchased at: shepherdtickets.com.
These rare glimpses into Milwaukee’s early LGBTQ community (although it had no such title at the time), were only brought about by arrest and scandal. But evidence suggests that the city already had a secretive network of such like-minded people early on in the 1900s. Downtown hotels, bars, rooming houses and parks became known, by both members of the community and the police, as hangouts for gay Milwaukeeans. Police raids of these spaces resulted in arrests and, often times, in the public “outing” of the men charged as their names and addresses were listed in articles in the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel. As noted by the Milwaukee LGBT History Project, at least one of these men committed suicide after having being named as a “deviate” in the paper.
According to Michail Takach’s 2016 book, LGBT Milwaukee, there were at least 33 gay or lesbian bars in the city pre-Stonewall. Most of these places were clustered in the river-bound Downtown districts long known for their embrace of certain behaviors—prostitution, gambling, drug use and others—that would not have been tolerated in other neighborhoods.
Emerging from the Shadows
In the early 1970s, however, Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community began to emerge from the shadows as the fallout from Stonewall emboldened activists nationwide. In 1970, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Liberation Organization (later to become the Gay People’s Union or GPU) were founded, the city’s first two gay rights groups. The following year, the GPU published the first issue of the GPU News, a publication that would remain in print for 10 years.
Throughout the ’70s, gay and lesbian activists organized and demonstrated to assert their rights while Milwaukee’s LGBTQ social scene expanded and became more open. Although the local community still faced persecution and discrimination, Milwaukee became a beacon for young LGBTQ people from small cities and towns all across Wisconsin. Actor and musician John Schneider came to Milwaukee from Fond du Lac in 1970. “I think it’s safe to say that if you found yourself gay in the 1970s or earlier and you had the ability to do so, you would move to Milwaukee,” Schneider says.
The scene in those days was far beyond anything that a young gay man from central Wisconsin could have imagined. Recalling his first visit to Castaway’s South, a South Second Street gay bar that opened in 1969, Schneider says, “I was so overwhelmed to be in such a place that it seems like a dream when I think back to it. I found it thrilling. There were all these smiling men, not much older than me, and they seemed to be comfortable with themselves.”
But there remained significant challenges for the community in Milwaukee. Gay hangouts were aggressively patrolled by police, with officers often going undercover to arrest gay men on charges of “lewd conduct.” Gangs of young men prowled popular gay hook-up spots like Juneau Park, attacking and beating couples. Perhaps most challenging was the coming-out process itself, as many young gay people were forced onto the streets by parents and friends who could not accept their sexuality. And then, in the ’80s, the AIDS epidemic shocked the community as much of the straight world and government officials ignored it as a “gay plague” or just retribution for “immoral behavior.”
Growing Strong in Crisis
Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community grew stronger through the crisis, forming a local chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to raise awareness of the disease and advocate for government resources devoted to the AIDS fight. ACT UP Milwaukee also fought for the legal rights of AIDS patients and worked to improve their access to medical services at a time when there was still widespread fear and confusion about the disease.
In 1988, the Milwaukee Lesbian/Gay Pride Committee held the “Rightfully Proud” celebration in Mitchell Park. Although various pride celebrations had been held since the early 1970s, this one would spur the annual event that has come to be known as PrideFest. The event added a parade in 1989, expanded to a two-day format in 1994 and moved to Henry Maier Festival Park in 1996. PrideFest has since expanded to three days and is now acknowledged as the traditional “opener” of the city’s festival season, drawing more than 30,000 people—gay and straight—every year.
Since the mid-’90s, PrideFest has featured various displays of the history of Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community. These efforts eventually evolved into the “Milwaukee LGBT History Project,” which debuted at 2003’s PrideFest with a collection of memorabilia, movie posters and excerpts from a series of oral histories of the community recorded over the previous 18 months. The drive to document and preserve the community’s history led to the creation of mkelgbthist.org, an incredible online repository of stories, artifacts, biographies, business histories and more.
“The Wisconsin LGBT History Project is critically important to Milwaukee and surrounding areas,” said Takach, whose book relied heavily on the archives amassed by the Project. “As our LGBTQ elders continue to leave us, their experiences, memories and knowledge are increasingly being lost to the communities of today and tomorrow.” Milwaukee’s LGBTQ history has added many chapters since the Project was born.
A more accepting city has melded the community’s once-hidden nightlife into the mainstream, as the distinction between gay and straight spaces has faded. In 2012, local voters helped to elect Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, making her the first openly gay Senator in U.S. history. In 2014, a court ruling permitted same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, striking down a constitutional amendment that had been passed by voters in 2006. Opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of state residents now approved of marriage equality. Still, challenges remain.
Shifts towards the far right at both the state and national levels have threatened LGBTQ rights and emboldened hate groups. Transgender people in particular have been targeted by bigoted policies that seek to roll back recent progress and leave them as second-class citizens.
Takach believes that the history of the community in Milwaukee has left a legacy that is vital to its present and its continued advancement. He has spoken about his book and his research to groups both local and national and has seen a tremendously positive response to the work.
“At the end of every engagement, someone inevitably says, ‘If I knew that my community had such a long and proud history, I would have felt so much better about coming out myself.’ That’s the lasting legacy of LGBTQ history,” Takach says. “We can’t imagine, in the modern context, what it meant to live out loud as an LGBTQ person in these earlier times. We owe it to these courageous pioneers to make sure that nobody has to live in shame or silence ever again.”