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2016 in Review: Looking Back on a Not-so-Very-Good Year

Jan. 3, 2017
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I recently heard Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” We had stopped for a drink at This is It after attending The Nutcracker. Someone, in a moment of cruel irony, played the maudlin ballad on the jukebox. We endured the sentimental downbeat journey and decided a proper revenge would be to cue it up a dozen times, and leave. Perhaps another time… But, sadly, 2016 was not a very good year. It was mixed, at best.

Things started off well enough. The U.S. Navy announced it would name a ship after gay rights activist Harvey Milk. SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February offered optimism that his replacement would help solidify LGBT gains made under President Barack Obama. Then, there was national backlash to North Carolina’s HB2 that implied a growing positive attitude towards LGBT rights, and a gay man (Eric Fanning) became Secretary of the Army. A mainstream film, Moonlight, focused on a once-taboo subject: the harsh world of gay life in the hood. 

Locally, Cream City Foundation launched a scholarship program. The project gave $45,500 to 31 students at all levels of higher education. There was a grand M&M Club reunion in May celebrating the 20th anniversary of its closure after 30 years as Milwaukee’s premier bar and community center. Various groups celebrated landmarks as well. Saturday Softball Beer League played its 40th season. Milwaukee Pride produced its 30th festival and, again, had record attendance. Women’s Voices Milwaukee celebrated its 10th anniversary. The Shepherd Express’ LGBT Progress Awards held a grand ceremony at the Warehouse. A photo chronicle of city gay bars was published.

Some local talent garnered world attention: Drag queen Trixie Mattel rose to stardom; a rough-and-tumble lesbian senior, Miriam Ben Shalom, thwarted a carjacking; and a Kenosha transgender high school student, Ash Whitaker, ran for prom king (he was, however, banned from using the boys’ bathroom and sued his school district; his case is currently advancing through the courts). 

As in any year, there were obituaries. Among the many LGBT personalities and icons who died in 2016 was Vesna Vulović, patroness of flight attendants, who, in 1972, after her Yugoslav Airlines jet exploded in midair, survived a 33,333-foot fall from cruising altitude—saved, apparently, by her service cart. All others on the flight perished. Vulović fully recovered from her extensive injuries and, I’ve been told, continued working for the airline’s administration in a basement office. Meanwhile, local obituaries included This is It owner and straight ally Joe Brehm, LGBT community activist and a Pride Parade founder Sheldon Schur as well as artist Patrick Farrell, among others.

It seemed just another normal year. But then tragedy struck. On Pride Parade morning, June 12, we learned of the 49 LGBTs murdered in the Orlando, Fla., massacre at the Pulse Night Club. The Rainbow flag flew at city hall as a memorial pall for the rest of the month. All the while, the presidential campaign was underway. The parade of Republican candidates was a who’s who of homophobes. We blithely thought, “It can’t happen here.” But it did. Now, our resolution must be to reinvigorate our struggle and make 2017 a very good year, a historic one in our continuing the fight for our rights.

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