Takach book traces Milwaukee's LGBT history
The book, part of Arcadia Publishing's illustrated Images of America series, is now available and we asked Takach about it, as well as his effort to do the copious research involved, where the profits will go and more.
OnMilwaukee: The book really shows what a long history there is of LGBT presence in Milwaukee; do you think that will surprise some people?
Michail Takach: It really surprised me. Most LGBTQ history lessons start with the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and move forward with the gay liberation movement. What most of these histories diminish is that whether they were openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer, our people have always been here. Our history is entwined with the history of Milwaukee going back to the days of first settlements.
It's easy to say, "Well of course there were a lot of gay bars in Milwaukee; it's a tavern town." But Milwaukee had a highly sophisticated social scene long before the first "gay bar" even opened. Decades before Stonewall, Milwaukee's LGBTQ people were already gathering at random places like Kitty Williams' house and tavern, the St. Charles Hotel, The Anchor Inn, The Antlers Mural Bar, The Old Mill Inn, The Royal Hotel, the Park Hotel Bar, the Legion Bar and the Mint Bar.
By 1969, three dozen known gay bars had opened in Milwaukee – more than any other Midwest city and rivaling both New York and San Francisco.
Did conservative Milwaukee know that there were LGBT bars, for example, as far back as there were, and look away or were most folks just ignorant?
To answer that question, we really have to set the historical context. For most of the 20th century, being different was not celebrated in America. Until the late 1960s, homosexuals were considered to be "sexual deviates," second only to prostitutes as a public health risk, and second only to rapists as sex criminals. Gays and lesbians weren't just reduced to sexual misfits; they were criminalized as sexual predators.
Homosexual behavior was technically illegal, and businesses could lose their licenses just for allowing a homosexual element to gather. We're not even talking hook-up joints. Something as innocent as two strangers sitting next to each other on barstools was cause for alarm. People were not just denied service; they were often physically thrown out. Innocent people could be picked up in city parks, movie theater restrooms, parking garages, wherever, just because an officer claimed they made an immoral proposition or a physical pass at them.
Disorderly conduct charges were life-ending: People lost their jobs, their spouses, their families, their homes, their military benefits, even their college degrees. And that doesn't take into consideration the mandatory psychiatric treatment that came with such arrests, usually involving conversion therapy to "cure" the homosexual condition. These were all daily risks and realities that Milwaukee's gay and lesbian people had to accept. Some took the gamble and won. Many took the gamble and lost.
So, the idea that any business owner would create a safe space welcoming LGBTQ people was pretty unthinkable to most Milwaukeeans. Even though some brave souls did exactly that.
There wasn't always a bar-hopping "gayborhood" in Milwaukee, so most of its citizens weren't aware of the great awakening under way. LGBTQ bars were scattered throughout the city at addresses some people might not even believe today: 9th & National, 18th & Vliet, 14th & Walnut, 19th & North, 11th & Winnebago, 4th & McKinley, 41st & Lisbon, Green Bay & Capitol, 12th & Vine. Even though they were hiding in plain sight, only people who were truly in the know would be looking for them. The scene was still heavily shrouded in secrecy and anonymity. Until underground gay guides started publishing in 1963, the only way to really know where the gay bars were was to know other gay people. Word-of-mouth was everything. This was more than just maintaining exclusive "queer" spaces: Safety, security and reputation were at risk just for being seen near a gay bar after dark.
By the 1970s, some landmark bars were extremely well known. The Mint Bar, sitting in the heart of the city on 4th & State since 1949, was especially visible and especially synonymous with "gay." It's amazing to think that owners Angelo and Bettie Aiello were running a Mom-and-Pop gay bar operation, blocks from the Central Police Station and County Courthouse, for two decades before Stonewall. They didn't care what anyone thought – except their longtime loyal customers. They were light-years ahead of their time. I wish I had known them.
Most Milwaukeeans first engaged with the gay community during the disco era. Crossover spaces like The Factory, the Red Baron, Teddy's and Park Avenue inspired the concept of a "mixed" space welcoming to all people. This trend continued into the 1980s, when La Cage began welcoming over 500 people every weekend – many of which were straight, but no longer afraid to be seen in a gay bar. Slowly but surely, culture changed for the better.
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