I don't know about you, but I always thought that Laverne and Shirley were gay. Given that the bottle-capping pair from Schotz Brewery lived in Milwaukee, the city always had a certain rainbow glow for me, even before I moved here more than 15 years ago.
There Goes the Neighborhood
The city's reputation virtually clinks and jingles with mainstream American cultural markers like Harley-Davidson, The Fonz, breweries and brats. Yet in spite of its blue-collar image, Milwaukee is increasingly gay-friendly. Let this guide welcome you to LGBT life in our city.
Milwaukeeans are certainly part of the overall U.S. trend toward increased comfort with LGBT people. Still, a Midwestern, "don't ask-don't tell" sort of tolerance prevails in much of the city. Generally speaking, gay Milwaukeeans aren't exactly holding hands in the streets, but a few neighborhoods stand out as welcoming places for LGBT folks. Here are some highlights to get you started exploring gay Brew City:
If any part of town could be considered Milwaukee's "gay neighborhood," it would be Walker's Point -- at least at night. The majority of the city's gay and lesbian bars and clubs are ensconced in this working-class immigrant neighborhood, under the glowing, four-sided Allen-Bradley clock. Stepping out from the intersection of 2nd Street and National Avenue, you will find a range of bars serving male, female and mixed crowds. If you're into work by LGBT artists, you should also plan a daytime visit to the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center, 703 S. 2nd St., (414) 383-3727, milwaukeegayartscenter.org, to see the latest exhibit. The MGAC is home to a small theatre company that performs gay-themed works by local and national playwrights. On the northern edge of the neighborhood is Barossa, a lesbian-owned restaurant that draws many of its organic ingredients from local growers and will please vegetarians and omnivores alike, 235 S. 2nd St., (414) 272-8466, barossawinebar.com.
The city's East Side is politically progressive, home to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, and generally gay-friendly. This eminently walkable part of town offers great opportunities for both window shopping and outdoor activities. Several lovely parks (in particular, Lake Park and Riverside Park, both designed by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted) make great settings for picnicking and people-watching. A walk or roll down the Oak Leaf bike path will bring you through the east side, from the near-north suburbs to Downtown, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the shores of Lake Michigan.
Some other East Side highlights:
Eight quirky blocks mixing upscale dining and boutique shopping with lowbrow drinking, and still retaining bits of its Italian immigrant roots and trippy-hippie heyday. Out of Solitude, 918 E. Brady St., (414) 223-3101, outofsolitude.com, specializes in custom jewelry, including rings for same-sex commitment ceremonies, and Anomaly Design, 816 E. Brady St., (414) 272-0816, has all those shiny design baubles you forgot to order from the MOMA catalog.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Visit the UWM Union, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd., (414) 229-1122, uwm.edu, when school's in session for regular film festivals, live performances, art exhibits, and lectures. The UWM neighborhood also is home to Outwords, Milwaukee's gay bookstore and prime outlet for LGBT videos, gifts and rainbow gear, 2710 N. Murray Ave., (414) 963-9089, outwordsbooks.com.
East North Avenue
The area around the intersection of North and Farwell Avenues features a number of locally owned clothing and gift stores, the jewelbox Oriental movie theatre, and Beans & Barley, a natural food store and restaurant which is worth the visit just for the community bulletin board. Look on the crowded Beans board for upcoming performances by Milwaukee's very own Miltown Kings (miltownkings.com) drag ensemble or the next Brew City Bruisers roller derby rumble (brewcitybruisers.com).
On the west bank of the Milwaukee River between North Avenue and Capitol Drive, sits the charmingly untameable Riverwest, a neighborhood in which, as one resident says, "Queer neighbors aren't just tolerated; they're expected." Undeniably unique, Riverwest boasts an anarchist infoshop, a fire-spinning school and the city's most dignified sex toy shop (Tool Shed, 804 E. Center St., 414-562-9338). For a treat, stop by the café at the volunteer-run Riverwest Food Co-op, 733 E. Clarke St., (414) 264-7933, riverwestcoop.org, which will serve you all the vegetarian/vegan delights you can swallow for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch. The area also is home to a very welcoming, mixed straight/LGBT bar, ArtBar, 722 E. Burleigh St., (414) 372-7880, artbar-riverwest.com, which, as you might suspect, offers original art for sale with your beer or martini.
A formerly independent town and now fondly nicknamed "Gay View," Bay View still has its own downtown, centered on Kinnickinnic Avenue ("KK" in local parlance). Check out our cheerfully feminist bookstore, Broad Vocabulary, 2241 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., (414) 744-8384, broadvocabulary.com, for reading material, gifts, and frequent feisty author visits. For a great sandwich, salad, or piece of pie, step down the street to Lulu Café and Bar, 2261 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., (414) 294-5858, lulubayview.com. The area is also known for vintage shops and the beautiful South Shore park on Lake Michigan.
Originally the warehouse district for the city's produce business, the Third Ward still retains some of its grit but is now packed with art galleries, theaters, and boutiques. Furniture junkies will want to stop by Design Within Reach, 167 N. Milwaukee St., (414) 224-5353, dwr.com/studios/milwaukee, Rubin's, 224 E. Chicago St., (414) 278-8100, rubinsfurniture.com, and Cranston 250 N. Water St., (414) 289-9880, cranstonaccents.com. Other boutiques purvey elegant paper (Broadway Paper, 191 N. Broadway, 414-277-7699, broadwaypaper.com), killer shoes (Shoo, 241 N. Broadway, 414-765-2355, shoostore.com), and local couture -- and no, I don't mean Harley jackets (see Lela, 321 N. Broadway, 414-727-4855, lelaboutique.com). When you get tired, stop by Bella Caffe, 189 N. Milwaukee St., (414) 273-5620, bellacaffe.com, for a cup of coffee or a bowl of homemade soup and a comfy place to put your feet up.
Most of the large chain hotels downtown are approved by the Travel Alternatives Group, tagapproved.com, a seal of approval based on non-discriminatory employment practices and an assurance that the staff have received sensitivity training on the concerns of LGBT guests. However, Milwaukee has several smaller hotels that offer gay visitors the local character and attention one can't get from a national chain:
The Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., (414) 342-8400, ambassadormilwaukee.com. Recently restored to its original Art Deco glory, the Ambassador offers luxury rooms and suites, and serves up elegant meals at Envoy, its onsite restaurant. All the rooms are non-smoking. In the Marquette University neighborhood, the hotel provides shuttle service Downtown and to major attractions.
The Hotel Metro, 411 E. Mason St., 877-638-7620, hotelmetro.com. This 64-suite hotel greets travelers with a cozy lobby with a fireplace, a well-stocked bar serving creative drinks, valet parking, and a helpful staff. The rooftop spa offers an exercise room and hot tub. Hotel Metro welcomes small pets, too.
The Kilbourn Guest House, 2825 W. Kilbourn Ave., 414-344-3167, kilbournguesthouse.com, is a gay-friendly B&B with five unique rooms. Business travelers will appreciate wireless internet access throughout the house, and leisure visitors will enjoy the historic house's three parlors and baby grand piano. A real taste of Milwaukee architecture and history, located off the beaten path in the Marquette area.
Pencil Us In
Milwaukee is proud to offer a number of annual LGBT events that draw visitors from across the state and nation. A few events you won't want to miss:
Milwaukee's PrideFest, pridefest.com, two and a half rainbow-draped days of fun, is generally held in early June. The 2006 festival was graced with performances by comedian Margaret Cho and club music icon Martha Wash, and drew almost 24,000 visitors. In addition to live performances, fest-goers can enjoy nightly fireworks, a dance tent, and plenty of fried food, shopping, and educational events.
LGBT Film/Video Festival
Held each autumn, the Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival (www3.uwm.edu/arts/programs/film/lgbtfilm) screens national and international work by and about LGBT people. The 10-day 2006 festival was host to the U.S. premiere of John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus," and filmmaker events, feature films, shorts, and documentaries.
Annual Outdoor Events
Milwaukee is known as the "City of Festivals," thanks to the cultural festivals happening every summer weekend at the Summerfest grounds (summerfest.com), so you've got no excuse to stay inside. There are plenty of other events that draw LGBT visitors to Milwaukee's great outdoors. Hosted by the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, the Rainbow Home and Garden Tour is a June outing eagerly anticipated by landscape and interior decorating aficionados. The Saturday Softball League's Dairyland Classic competition (Labor Day weekend, ssblmilwaukee.com), the annual Wisconsin AIDS Walk (September, aidswalkwis.org), or the Lakefront Marathon (October, badgerlandstriders.org/lakefront) will also get you moving, even if it's just cheering on the sidelines.
In Case of Emergency
Milwaukee's vibrant LGBT Community Center, 315 W. Court St., (414) 271-2656, mkelgbt.org, offers a Referral Line that links visitors and locals alike with gay-friendly therapists, doctors, attorneys, and other professionals. Call the main desk (weekdays 10 a.m.-10 p.m. and Saturdays 6-10 p.m.) for referrals or to find out about the Center's other resources which include a library, computer center, and youth drop-in programs.
A Gay Place on a Great Lake
I know Milwaukee's got a certain image. I'll admit, even many of us locals were stunned when Girlfriends magazine ranked Milwaukee the no. 1 U.S. city for lesbians. But given our progressive neighborhoods, fantastic parks, world-class cultural events, spectacular festivals, and the amiable natives, it's no surprise that more and more LGBT visitors are making their way to Milwaukee.
Oh, and by the way, the gaydar went off for Lenny and Squiggy, too. (But, c'mon, what about Carmine?! -ed.)
Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.
Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.
In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.