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Supporting LGBT Life for the Holidays

Dec. 6, 2016
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In 1993, in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, on a quiet East Side corner just blocks from the UW-Milwaukee campus, a small storefront hung out a rainbow banner. That moment heralded the opening of a Milwaukee business that was not only gay owned but also specifically served the LGBT community. It even had an espresso bar, too. It was the only gay-owned business of its kind. It still is. Others opened in the post-Stonewall 1970s, others later, but they’re all gone. In fact, Madison’s Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative just closed after 27 years and the historic ones in major gay meccas are long shuttered as well.

Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee offers the typical array of rainbow merchandise including same-sex wedding cake toppers (a recent inventory addition), cards, beef cake calendars and all manner of literature from pulp romance to the lofty works of LGBT novelists, social scientists and philosophers. Of course, there’s also conversation to be had over coffee. 

At the time of its opening, owner Carl Szatmary was already a well-known community activist. He had long been busy quietly pioneering LGBT cultural life in our fair city. In 1987 he created the LGBT Film Festival. A regular PrideFest marketplace vendor, I can recall seeing Szatmary setting up his booth amid stacks of boxes and displays. He also hosted a literary coffee house there. And, over the decades, he’s authored book and film reviews for the LGBT press, penning in a unique third-person voice under the nom de plume Glenn Bishop (in homage to the 1950s muscle model). Most of those various LGBT newspapers he wrote for have come and gone as well, yet Carl and Glenn carry on regardless.

For more than two decades the little neighborhood bookstore has catered to the literary needs of LGBTs as well as the curious and the closeted (the latter no doubt entering the redoubt with great trepidation to then find themselves welcomed within). Some, according to Szatmary, considered their visits to Outwords a rite of passage. Hosting monthly gay and lesbian book clubs, with authors readings punctuating its calendar (I even did a short reading there when my first short story was published years ago), it remains a rare oasis where one finds that certain comfort in a smart LGBT environment. 

At one point, logically enough, Outwords also sold textbooks for UWM’s LGBT Studies courses. But then some parents protested. They didn’t want their children buying books for their LGBT classes at a gay bookstore so that ended that. 

Meanwhile, faced with the realities of virtual lifestyles, mainstream bookstore LGBT sections and competition by big-box mail-order houses (even local ads for LGBT literature link to a major online distributor), Outwords’ future depends on community support. While we are proud to claim and document our history, we need to maintain and continue it as well. Milwaukee’s little cultural asset should not share the same fate of so many other aspects of LGBT life.

I’d advise a visit. With our politics regressing half a century, we should rediscover our roots. Besides, it’s time to stock up on gay gifts for the holidays.

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