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A Night to remember for Milwaukee’s LGBT Community

Aug. 16, 2016
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Last week I attended the second annual Shepherd Express LGBT Progress Awards presentation banquet. There are many such award events. After all, today there are many dedicated individuals, businesses and so many organizations that contribute to LGBT life that deserve and get their due recognition. But what made this evening exceptional was its focus on LGBT progress and the fact that it was a non-LGBT entity presenting awards to LGBT people. Like a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, the award recognized those whose past and ongoing actions, begun decades ago before it was safe, fashionable or profitable, went about their activism almost unconsciously. It was simply their reason of being without consideration of risk or the valiance of their intent. The awardees were Karen Gotzler, Joseph R. Pabst, Saturday Softball Beer League, Dear Ruthie, Jeff Kelly, Bob Schmidt and Si Smits. Collectively they have advanced our progress in equality, health, business, philanthropy and the arts.

During the presentations that included a brief biography of each recipient, the recurring remark among those in attendance was “I never knew that about him…or her…or SSBL.” Some personalities we know because of their current or recent roles as LGBT leaders. But all of the awardees have been making their impact long before many beneficiaries of their activism were even born.

Award presenters offered anecdotes about the awardees, like Si Smits astride his motorcycle on “Some Call Them Gay,” a local TV news segment aired in 1973. The visual takes on the character of Paul Revere’s ride, defiantly proclaiming, “The gays are coming!” Speaking of visibility, there’s the night a decade later when Bob Schmidt took a crowbar and removed the wooden window shutters from his M&M Club. The police actually stopped by, thinking he was breaking in. The idea occurred to Schmidt only moments before he took action. It just seemed like the right thing to do. But, it was a courageous, revolutionary act, an act of progress that enlightened the entire community. Then, in 1996, Gotzler, beyond being active in founding lesbian groups, was the first out political candidate to run in a city election. SSBL brought organized softball not only to Milwaukee but was also among the founding leagues of the national LGBT sports organization. It brought fame and reputation to our fair city, hosting the Gay Softball World Series three times. The last, in 2009, brought thousands of gay softball players to Milwaukee. And, by the way, that event was made possible in part by Dear Ruthie and, of course, Joe Pabst as its greatest individual donor. And, finally, Jeff Kelly, since moving to Milwaukee, 1994, has been a leading figure in HIV/AIDS research and awareness, not only locally, but in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Delivering the closing address, Cream City Foundation’s President and CEO Peter Holbrook reminded the audience of our continuing challenges and the need for redoubled efforts to move forward. Still, I couldn’t get those images out of my head—of Si on his motorcycle and Bob prying away the plywood from those famous floor-to-ceiling windows to let the light in and the gays out. 

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