LGBT Milwaukee: An Interview with author Michail Takach
In his new book, LGBT Milwaukee, Michail Takach takes a look at a one of the more under-examined Milwaukee communities. While work on ethnic groups and neighborhoods abound, work on the city’s gay and lesbian community was scattered. Working with historian Don Schwamb of the Wisconsin LGTB History Project, Takach has assembled an incredible collection of photos and stories that present a much more complete history of LGBT people, businesses, and organizations in the city. As a part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Modern America series, the volume is anchored by its photos. But Takach does a fine job at making LGTB Milwaukee more than just a picture book. Much of the book’s narrative was new to me, including the tragic story of Elroy Schultz, a gay man who died after being badly beaten by an undercover Milwaukee vice cop in 1960. The book also brings to life the raw and rough side of downtown Milwaukee that many historians have ignored (not this weirdo, though!). Overall, LGBT Milwaukee is a thoroughly enjoyable and easy read for anyone interested the hidden parts and people of the city and an essential addition to the existing body of work on Milwaukee.
Takach was kind enough to speak with What Made Milwaukee Famous about the book, researching an underground community, and the future of local gay bars.
WMMF: As you note in the opening pages, creating a history like this one has a number of unique research challenge. How did you overcome these challenges?
Michail Takach: It’s really very remarkable that gay liberation happened here, as early as it did, and as boldly as it did. Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community owes much to its elders of the 1950s and 1960s, Many of these people left us before we could thank them. Some of them left before we could ever know them. Some are still with us today, unable to live the life that they wanted and deserved to lead.
Precious few primary sources exist from the early days of Milwaukee gay history. We might know where people gathered, and maybe the dates of business operations, but not what happened there or what it looked or felt like to BE there. Until the book project, we didn’t know why a business closed, moved or changed names. More importantly, we didn’t know why these spaces ever happened in the first place!
When you’re researching hidden history, you’re working with fleeting memories, half-facts and generous amounts of hand-me-down hearsay. There’s a lot of misremembering, mistaken identities and fact distillation that goes on when people experience significant change in their lifetimes. History becomes a game of telephone, and by the time a researcher steps in, the facts can be somewhat murky.
Defining the scope of the research was also challenging. Unfortunately, in 96 pages, this story had to be told at the macro level: we couldn’t cover every individual, organization or business. Sadly, it also couldn’t reflect everyone’s experience: while we know much about gay and lesbian history, we know so very little about what it meant to be transgender or bisexual in an earlier Milwaukee. Someday, maybe we will.
The focus had to be at the community level: how an oppressed group of people emerged out of the shadows of shame to stand together with pride. While PrideFest may only have existed for 30 years, the festival is an annual testament to a long, proud, entwined heritage between the LGBTQ communities and the city of Milwaukee. The book is a celebration of that heritage and those who built it.
WMMF: Tell us the collections of the LGBT history project and how they helped you putting together this book.
MT: The online Wisconsin LGBT History Project, which originated in 2003, has its roots in the PrideFest History Exhibit that started in 1994. Don Schwamb, curator and site administrator, leveraged a library of LGBTQ periodicals (from “bar rags” to today’s press) to create a timeline of key historical events, businesses, organizations and people. Thanks to this ongoing community project, the when, where and who was documented to the extent it could be. My challenge was to use this source material, dig deeper into that “what” and “why,” and tell a compelling, progressive story of how we got to here.
We had what we believed were the facts. We had what we thought was the timeline. We were missing the storytelling. I come from a long line of storytellers, and I’ve learned that people connect better to stories than dates, addresses, even photos. They want to know, learn and understand. So I set sail to find them, in summer 2015, and a year later, I’ve brought back more riches from this world than I ever imagined.
WMMF: You have a number of quotes in the book that come from "contributors." Who were these people and how did you gather their stories?
MT: While there were already known and respected sources of gay and lesbian history in Milwaukee, and many contributors to those efforts, we felt for many years that we’d tapped out our streams of legacy information. Sadly, many of those champions for community history, like the legendary Josie Carter, have already left us.
Fortunately, we’re a far more connected community than we were when the online Wisconsin LGBT History Project launched in 2003. The History of Gay Milwaukee Facebook group, started by Jamie Taylor in 2009, was both a source and an inspiration for this project. For years, I watched as people stepped forward to share their personal experiences, memorabilia and photos in a shared interactive space. They were not only there to ask questions – they were there to provide answers for other’s questions. As a group member and later moderator, it was really remarkable to see this ongoing dialogue taking shape. People learned from each other, reconnected with long-lost friends, and created a new appreciation for our shared past. It was a real case study in the cultural power of social media. For the first time, we were able to start filling in the gaps in the Wisconsin LGBT History Project timeline, and we also started realizing there was a much more extensive story to be told beyond the timeline parameters.
When I began reaching out to group participants to schedule one-on-one interview time, I learned something unexpected and unfortunate. Many of our elders have been forced back into the closet in their senior years: by family members, by caregivers, by their living arrangements. While they’re entirely comfortable sharing their stories online using nicknames, they’re not interested in jeopardizing their golden years by “naming names.” These were formative people in local LGBTQ history and now significant sources of information for our project. They’re spending their golden years remembering a life that they can no longer lead. Working with them was bittersweet and inspiring. Out of respect for their privacy, I list them only as contributors and not by name.
Many seniors who began their lives in the closet will now end their lives in closet. That’s not just ironic, it’s tragic, especially when you consider how far the world has come. It infuriates me. And it makes the need for understanding and respecting our hidden history even more important.
As I continue this work, there are many, many more people I still need to connect with, but I can’t thank enough those contributors named in the book. Thanks to their time and involvement, this became not just a story I was writing, but one thousand stories of our community that I was telling.
WMMF: The bulk of the stories and photos (but not all) in the book focus on bars, etc for gay men. How does researching the history of Milwaukee's gay community compare with that of its lesbian community?
MT: As with many marginalized groups, the history of LGBTQ Milwaukee is the history of victimization. Gay men weren’t known for their pride, they were only known because they’d been shamed for a real or perceived sex act. By the 1950s, gay men were a public enemy, second only to prostitutes as a public health risk, second only to rapists as a public safety threat. No exaggeration: many men were portrayed as predatory and deviant monsters. Society was so focused on the sexual that they forgot these men were still human. When there are media mentions of “sexual deviates,” they all involve men, implying that homosexuality is exclusively a male tradition.
Public health, law enforcement and government officials became so obsessed with the gay menace that they overlooked that there were gay women, too. And trust me, they were there!
Gay men and women mingled at the Royal Hotel Bar as early as the 1930s, and at the St. Charles Hotel even earlier, but unique women’s spaces didn’t really exist until much later. The Wildwood (1430 W. Walnut St.) became a gathering place for butch women in the 1950s. Josie Carter once described the Wildwood as the city’s first real “dyke bar,” filled with the toughest women she’d ever seen. “Truck drivers would come in and try to start trouble,” said Josie, “and these women would take them out in the street and really kick their asses.” But little to nothing is known about the Wildwood, why it opened, why it closed, or why it appealed to women of that era. No photos exist of the bar either, since that entire neighborhood has been gone for decades.
So it’s not until the Nite Beat opened in 1960 that there was a truly dedicated women’s space in Milwaukee. Stanley Kowalezyk and his partner, Carrie, invited a lot of trouble by opening a lesbian bar, but they created a long-lasting legacy. Originally at 901 W. National Avenue and later at 196 S. 2nd Street, the Nite Beat was the predecessor of all the women’s bars to come: the Leaded Shade, Beer Garden, Sugar Shack, Lost & Found, Hot Legs, Kathy’s Nut Hut, Fannie’s, Dish, Walker’s Pint. I was grateful to include all of these popular venues in the book, but there were a few that didn’t make the cut, simply because there was so little known about their short existence.
WMMF: You make an interesting point near the end of the book that the age of the "gay bar" in Milwaukee is fading away, as bars (and other public spaces) no longer need to define themselves as gay or straight and can welcome all people. While this is undoubtedly a positive thing, this book makes clear that these bars and other places fostered a strong sense of community that many people held very dear. Is something being lost as gay bars and other similar space become less necessary?
MT: While it’s admittedly remarkable that Milwaukee sustained up to two dozen gay bars at a time, until recently, the mainstreaming of LGBTQ people has caused some casualties. I lived in the heart of the old Fifth Ward for 10 years, and watched as one legacy gay bar after another vanished from 2nd Street, until finally four remained. It was astounding to watch this exodus in progress, and it really felt like we were at a turning point in history. It wasn’t just gentrification and renewal of a historic neighborhood driving out the old, it was massive cultural assimilation of a formerly fringe culture.
During those 10 years, I was also one of the Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar leaders who were leading 100+ LGBTQ people into traditional straight spaces on the first Friday of every month. Although our playful “takeover” events were intended to shatter the status quo and shake up a little social distortion, we never would have expected them to drive any real cultural change. But, by the time of the last takeover in fall 2015, the invasion rhetoric had become satirical. No one needed the safety or security of mass numbers to explore straight bars on their own anymore.
Nobody – gay or straight – wants to see the gay bar go extinct. But it’s clear that only the strong will survive in an on-demand world of fickle loyalties, fleeting attention and limitless choices. LGBTQ people know they have become a target demographic, and are increasingly skeptical of being used for profit. Throwing a pride flag on a bar and calling it gay just isn’t going to work anymore.Gay bars that create a unique, valuable and culturally connective experience will continue to thrive in Milwaukee, as they have for generations. And fortunately, we have some brilliant business leaders in town who know better than anyone how to connect with their community. The story of LGBT Milwaukee, past and present, is nowhere near over. The book is not the end of the story. New stories are happening every single day, and we invite everyone to get involved in sharing and celebrating our shared history.
Takach will be at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer. on August 25th at 7 pm to give a talk on his book with a signing to follow.