In Arts & Entertainment

The brand new and already acclaimed "LGBT Milwaukee" is now available from booksellers everywhere.

Takach book traces Milwaukee's LGBT history

Recently, national gay magazine The Advocate posted a glowing blurb and slideshow of images from "Images of America: LGBT Milwaukee," a new book by OnMilwaukee contributor Michail Takach.

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.

It's a pretty rich history, though, isn't it? What are some of the highlights for you?

When you think "historical research," you immediately envision a dull, methodical, mundane process. This project has been anything but!

I've been fascinated, inspired and humbled by the colorful adventures of our LGBTQ elders, navigating a dubious and often dangerous nightlife landscape in the early 1960s without ever once losing their sense of self. Very few people alive today can understand what it really meant to be your best self in that era. Sure, we might know where the bars were located, and who owned them, and maybe what happened there. But what was it actually like to go out in drag on a city bus in the 1960s? What was it like to transition as a trans woman in a world where "female impersonators" were only seen as comic relief? How did you know if you were meeting the love of your life – or the person sending you to jail?

I really have to applaud Bunny, Josie Carter, Jamie Gays and Ted Quartuch for their contributions. Their stories, photos and insights are more priceless to me than gold. Without their Wisconsin LGBT History Project submissions, this book would have been extremely difficult to produce. While LGBT culture can often be ageist and exclusionary to elders, we would never live the lives we lead today without their struggles.

Reading Eldon Murray's scrapbook at the LGBT Archives, I can just imagine he, and many, many others like him, were reading and clipping these fleeting news reports with a conflicting range of emotions: fear, curiosity, anxiety, rage, doubt. But most importantly, they felt a moment of reflection: a moment of seeing themselves reflected in the world. Eventually that need to be seen overcame any risks, costs and fears.

I applaud these elders not just for their efforts, but for their love of fun, their lust for life, and their brazen sense of bravery. That's the true inspiration. Anyone can suffer through adversity and angst. Milwaukee's LGBT elders didn't just sit and suffer. They came, they triumphed, and they showed the world how to live.

I imagine a lot of this history was harder to uncover than some other aspects of Milwaukee history. Did you find that to be the case? How did you go about your research?

Fortunately, the Wisconsin LGBT History Project had already created a timeline of local historical moments (as seen at PrideFest and other events.) By using this timeline as my framework, and partnering with Don Schwamb (site administrator,) I dove into the challenging task of telling the story of when, how, where and why LGBTQ people emerged as a community. After all, addresses and dates alone don't tell much of a story. Since there has never before been a comprehensive social history written on the subject, I didn't exactly have source material on hand. That being said, I can't thank the staff at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Milwaukee Public Library Historic Photo Collection and UWM Archives enough. Their ongoing support of this project is fierce, relentless and heartfelt.

I was also lucky to have the support of many, many local contributors, who shared their stories and their personal artifacts with me. Some were legitimately surprised that anyone would care. Others shared enough to fill an entire book. I couldn't have done this book without these brilliant people. I especially want to thank Bjorn Nasett for the deep dive into Milwaukee's celebrity drag culture of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. That story could fill a second book!

Through a mix of crowdsourcing, social media outreach, obsessive research, and serious detective skills, I was able to pull together some truly amazing connections. Milwaukee nightlife history is a spider web of interconnected people, companies and affiliations. By working those connections, I was able to get to the stories. And trust me, there were many that I couldn't share in print – as much as I wanted to.

It's interesting, though, how the curation process is really an outside-in perspective. Seeing the book in final format was really a strange experience. After a year of producing segment after segment, which became chapter after chapter, I lost sight of the combined effect that a book has on a person. And, I have to say, I was really blown away by the cumulative experience. I hope readers will feel the same way. It's not just a scrapbook of historical tidbits; it's a progressive story of how LGBT pride was born.

Any places prove to be especially elusive?

Absolutely. First, it's a miracle we have the photos we do, because cameras were not exactly welcomed in early gay bars. In fact, they were often confiscated and their users removed, because photos could be used to blackmail patrons. A camera was as dangerous as a loaded gun. So that was one strike against finding photographic evidence of pre-1970s nightlife.
Next, consider the massive geographical changes in Milwaukee after World War II. Freeway construction, urban renewal and changing demographics have eliminated many early gay bars from our landscape. In some cases, entire city blocks – even entire neighborhoods – are gone entirely.

For example, the White Horse Inn (1422 N. 11th Street) which stood from 1905 to 1963 on "Bavarian Avenue." Today, that address is the center of I-43 between Vliet and Walnut Streets. It's not just difficult to locate; it's impossible to envision.

But it's not just the super obscure places that have evaded me. Trying to find photos of the Factory (158 N. Broadway,) Milwaukee's Studio 54 of its time, has been next to impossible. Everyone remembers the interior. Everyone remembers the experience. Zero photos are available to document it. The same is true of the River Queen, the Seaway Inn, the Beer Garden, Castaways and so many other top clubs of their times.

I will say that the most elusive venue was also surprisingly elusive. The Columns, a gladiator-themed lobby bar that operated at The Pfister Hotel (424 E. Wisconsin Ave.) throughout the 1960s, seems almost entirely erased from history, even though it was the nightlife sensation of its day. Volcanic cocktails? Centurion doormen? Torch song singers performing under Roman torches? Sign me up! However, my calls to The Pfister historian, hotel management and the Marcus Corporation have all gone unreturned. It sure feels like someone, somewhere, doesn't want this amazing era to be remembered.

Just as the book was going to press, we were made aware of two 1950s gay bars that weren't included on the Wisconsin LGBT History Project timeline. We weren't able to include them in this edition, but their complex and compelling stories will definitely be included in future editions.

This is an excellent problem to have. My hope is that this discovery process is never-ending. I hope that the book generates new leads, new stories, new photos and new artifacts to add to this ever-growing cultural tapestry. That would be the best possible reward for my work here.

Is this the last word, for now, on LGBT Milwaukee in terms of books, or are you pondering another one?

It's funny: When I started this project, I actually worried I wouldn't have enough material. As it turns out, there is simply too much LGBT Milwaukee history for just 100 pages! To meet page count requirements, I had to cut over a chapter's worth of content. We could have easily tripled the page count with the work that's already been done. Fortunately, that work will see new life as feature stories on OnMilwaukee.com in the future.

But, at the same time, this story is nowhere near over. New stories are being created every day, and it will be fascinating to watch where the next generation takes LGBT Milwaukee.

Tell us a bit about where the profits will go.

During my 10 years in the Fifth Ward, I watched an entire nightlife culture disappear from 2nd and Pittsburgh in just a few years. At one time, this block hosted seven popular LGBTQ bars. Today, it hosts none.

As LGBTQ people continue to merge into the mainstream, as our landmarks and neighborhoods continue to transform, as our elders continue to leave us behind, there is tremendous risk of our unique history and heritage being lost.

To that end, I've decided to donate all book commissions and proceeds to Milwaukee Pride, Inc., not only the continued support of the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, but also to support local LGBTQ history research, preservation and education initiatives. I think book readers will agree: When your history and heritage is no longer hidden, you have new reasons to live proud.

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