By Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee Published Apr 26, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Since MONA’s closed in summer 2012, Milwaukee has only had one true lesbian bar: Walker’s Pint, 818 S. 2nd St., which also holds the title for last remaining lesbian bar in Wisconsin.

Approximately half of the gay bars in America have closed since 2008, according to historian Greggor Mattson, but women’s spaces have been especially decimated.  In 2020, the Lesbian Bar Project confirmed there were only 15 surviving bars nationwide – and some of those survivors were further challenged by pandemic economics.

Fortunately, the Renaissance has arrived:  as of 2024, there are now 32 known lesbian bars nationwide, an increase of over 100 percent in four years.  

And right here in Milwaukee, a clever new pop-up space aims to get women back on the dancefloor.

What is HerLounge MKE?

On Jan. 29, a mysterious new Instagram account began posting “coming soon” videos, promising something new and exciting was coming this spring.  After much playful teasing, HerLounge announced its first event “Blooms & Beats,” featuring DJ Sammy T, to be held at Denizen, 4227 W. Vliet St., on Saturday, May 18 from 7 a.m. to midnight. Tickets are now available online.

We were fortunate enough to connect with Francesca Wilson, founder of HerLounge MKE, who shared her excitement about launching a new local experience for women.

Francesca Wilson
Francesca Wilson, the force behind HerLounge MKE.

Wilson was born and raised on the north side of Milwaukee, where she attended Milwaukee Public Schools. She enlisted in the military in 2006, traveled around the world, and remained active duty until 2017. 

“I’d seen and done a lot of things,” said Wilson, “but I felt it was time to come back home. Leaving and coming back, I’ve seen Milwaukee from a new perspective. I appreciate the city more now than ever."

Over the past few years, HerLounge has really been on my mind. So, this was the year when I finally started putting my endless thoughts and notes into something tangible and physical.”

Wilson left Milwaukee when she was 21, so she never really explored the Milwaukee gay bar scene.

“I knew they existed,” said Wilson, “and I knew where they were, even though I couldn’t really indulge at the time.”

“I joined the military during the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ era.  I’m a masculine presenting woman, so people saw me for who I was, but it wasn’t anything I could act upon or even discuss. There was always this fear that somebody would report me. Friends of mine – people I was very close to – were kicked out of the military due to their sexuality. We were a close-knit group, and we’d go out and do things together. But we’d have to go further out to avoid anyone from our base – out of fear of who might see us.

“My favorite places were probably Germany and England, where I discovered wonderful places to dance, but I also spent time in Dubai, Honduras, England, Turkey and all over Europe.”

After returning to Milwaukee, Wilson noticed that there are only a handful of queer spaces to visit ... and all of them felt very similar.  

“After visiting places all over the world, I felt inspired to create an alternative option – something that was very, very different from what already exists in Wisconsin.  And that’s how HerLounge MKE was born.

“I check a lot of boxes in the community,” said Wilson. “LGBTQ. African American. Veteran. A woman. I want to be able to reach people in each of those categories, and be a beacon for those who feel unheard or unseen.

“It’s easy for us to just go to a gay bar. It’s easy for us to just go to a straight bar,” said Wilson. “But those aren’t going to be the most comfortable spaces for us.  I don’t understand why there aren’t more lesbian bars, because so many women in Milwaukee want camaraderie and connection with other women.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people who step up.

“I decided it was up to me to change that.”

What can you expect at HerLounge MKE?

“It’s not necessarily a dress-up event, but we want people to come together, look good, feel sexy, connect and mingle,” said Wilson. “I’d love for everyone who comes to meet someone they’ve never seen before in Milwaukee. I want the atmosphere to support people trying something new.”

Approaching her 40s, she’s eager to create a sophisticated experience for women of a certain age.

“You won’t really know until you try it. You do you.”

While HerLounge MKE is designed as a “female-forward” space, the event is always open to allies.

For now, HerLounge MKE is a traveling pop-up, but a permanent location isn’t out of the question.

If the 2024 events are successful, Wilson plans to scout a new home base in the Historic Third Ward, Walkers Point, and downtown.

“People don’t always like change,” said Wilson, “and they don’t always want something new. Before I open a brick and mortar space, I want to take the concept for a test ride. I’m hoping to do three pop-ups this year, gauge interest, and figure out what my next best move would be.”

Wilson challenges the community to get involved – and to support each other.

“If you know someone trying to something better,” said Wilson, “you need to support them. It doesn’t have to be financial support. Share their information with your network. Show up for them at their events. Share encouraging words with them. It means a lot to the organizers.

“I have a ton of support,” said Wilson, “just a ton of people encouraging me and telling me I’ve done the right thing. What I’m trying to do just does not exist here today. So, I’m committed to making it happen, and making HerLounge the best event it can be.

“Together, there’s no way we can’t succeed.”

Explore over a century of local LGBTQ history and heritage at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website.

Michail Takach Special to OnMilwaukee
Growing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreaGrowing up in a time of great Downtown reinvention, Michail Takach became fascinated with Milwaukee's urban culture, landmarks and neighborhoods at a young age. He's been chasing ghosts ever since. Michail, a lifelong Milwaukeean, dreams of the day when time travel will be possible as he's always felt born too late. Fearlessly exploring forbidden spaces and obsessively recording shameless stories, Michail brings local color to the often colorless topic of local history. As an author, archivist and communications professional, Michail works with community organizations (including Milwaukee Pride and Historic Milwaukee) to broaden the scope of historical appreciation beyond the "same old, same old."