Always Been Here – Wisconsin’s History of LGBTQ+ Presence and Activism

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

A group of people holding signs outside of Memorial Union.
Protesters outside Memorial Union.[1]

During the Fall 2022 semester at UW-Madison, Matt Walsh, a self-described influential “religious Right” leader was invited to speak on campus by conservative student group the Young America’s Foundation (YAF).[2] Walsh was invited to speak about his highly controversial film, What is a Woman, which many find to be transphobic and misogynistic. The event sparked protests on campus, with protesters congregating outside of the Memorial Union to participate in chants and picketing. Eventually, counter-protests converged on the street opposite the Memorial Union, with participants wielding anti-abortion signs and reading the Bible into a microphone.[3] With outrage running high among students, Dean of Students Christina Olstad and Associate Vice Chandler Gabe Javier released a statement calling Walsh’s message “harmful towards our trans community.”[4] In turn, this statement elicited a response from Walsh, who tweeted, “I would like to just say to the UW administration – you should be ashamed of yourselves, you disgraceful, self-debasing cowards,” further expanding that “you spineless, gutless clowns owe me an apology.”[5] Walsh’s presence on campus and the restlessness that followed sparked a renewed interest in Wisconsin’s history of LGBTQ+ presence and activism, which is ample and perennial.

It is important to note that queer relationships and identities in Wisconsin long predated the arrival of Europeans. The Anishinaabeg and Ho-Chunk peoples who have inhabited the land we now call Wisconsin since time immemorial have a rich history of same-sex relationships and gender nonconforming identities, with the Anishinaabeg even having a word for tribal members who exhibit both masculine and feminine energies, “ayekwe.”[6] Thus, queer people have been here since the Anishinaabeg and Ho-Chunk began inhabiting this land.

Sepia tone picture of a building with a car out front.
This Is It in 1975.[7]

Discussion around Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ population gained steam during the 20th century. Milwaukee specifically was at the forefront of pro-LGBTQ+ spaces in Wisconsin and even the nation during the 1960s, earning Milwaukee the title of “the most underappreciated gay Mecca in the U.S.”[8] This was largely due to the presence of gay, lesbian, and drag bars in the area. Without question, the most famous of these bars is This Is It, located in downtown Milwaukee. Established in 1968, it is among some of the oldest gay bars in the country and is the oldest gay bar in the state.[9] Since its founding, This Is It has long provided a safe space for Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ population. But the legacy of influential gay bars in Milwaukee doesn’t stop there. Eight years prior to the Stonewall Riots, the famous six-day clash between LGBTQ+ bargoers and police after a bar raid in New York City, the Milwaukee bar Black Nite had a similar confrontation.[10] In August of 1961, a group of four sailors went to Black Nite on a dare, only to be kicked out after starting a fight with a bouncer.[11]

Embarrassed to have been bested by the LGBTQ+ patrons at the bar, the four sailors made threats upon being kicked out to come back to the bar and “clean up” and “teach those sick f****** a lesson.”[12] However, when these sailors returned, they were met with resistance from “an army of angry queens, lesbians and gay men who had reached their breaking point, with nothing left to lose.”[13] The confrontation was brief, and neither the sailors nor bar patrons were charged in the aftermath. However, the bar was forced to close a year later because of claims from the Milwaukee Common Council that the bar was “disorderly.”[14] Today, LGBTQ+ advocates in Milwaukee are in the process of installing a historical marker near where Black Nite stood to commemorate the event.[15]

Black and white photo of three men.
Left to right: Leon Rouse, Governor Dreyfus, and David Clarenback.[16]

Long-standing and historic LGBTQ+ spaces in Milwaukee were not the only aspects that contributed to Wisconsin emerging as a leading state in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. In 1967, Milwaukee legislator Lloyd Barabee introduced a bill to the state assembly that would decriminalize homosexuality.[17] Four years later in 1971, Barabee would introduce another bill that would protect gay men and lesbians from job discrimination.[18] While Barabee ultimately left the state assembly before his bill was realized, David Clarenbach, a “freshman lawmaker” at the time, took on Barabee’s bill.[19] With the help of a UW-Milwaukee student, Leon Rouse, who garnered support for the bill from Milwaukee’s progressive religious leaders, the bill was ultimately passed and signed into law in 1982.[20] This bill was historic and put Wisconsin on the map as the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality.

Still, Milwaukee’s legacy of LGBTQ+ presence and activism doesn’t stop there. Another prominent example of activism in Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ scene at the time was the establishment of the Gay Peoples Union (GPU) on the UW-Milwaukee campus in 1971.[21] This club, which would eventually receive national attention, regularly orchestrated and participated in protests.[22] Aside from spearheading marches and picketing events, the GPU also established a variety of initiatives to assist Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ population. These initiatives included establishing Milwaukee’s first gay and lesbian community center, opening the first gay health clinic in Milwaukee, publishing a monthly magazine on gay issues, and more.[23]

While conversations around Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ population have been renewed, Wisconsin has been home to queer people since people began inhabiting this land. Starting during the mid-20th century, Wisconsin emerged as one of the nation’s leading states in the fight for equality and the fight against discrimination towards LGBTQ+ people. Through the actions of advocates in these spheres, such as those who cultivated and defended safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, politicians who initiated policies to protect Wisconsin’s queer population, and students who founded new resources for gay health, Wisconsin has established itself as a place where transphobes can expect to be challenged – without an apology.

[1] Hope Karnopp, Ian Wilder, and Noe Goldhaber, “Transgender Rights Supporters Protest Ahead of Matt Walsh Event at Memorial Union,” The Daily Cardinal, October 25, 2022.

[2]Matt Walsh Is a Writer, Speaker, Author, and One of the Religious Right’s Most Influential Young Voices,” Matt Walsh, June 22, 2022.

[3] Audrey Thibert. “Matt Walsh Visit to UW Campus Elicits Protest, Contention.” The Badger Herald, October 26, 2022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matt Villeneuve, “Gender in Native Communities,” University of Wisconsin – Madison, October 31st 2022.

[7] Michail Takach. “This Is It Turns 50: The Past, Present and Future of Milwaukee’s Oldest Gay Bar,” OnMilwaukee, August 3, 2018.

[8] Victoria Magee and Samantha Hendrickson, “11 Facts about the Wisconsin LGBTQ Community You Might Not Have Known, until Now,” Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 28, 2021.

[9] Takach. “This Is It Turns 50: The Past, Present and Future of Milwaukee’s Oldest Gay Bar.”

[10]The Black Nite Brawl of 1961,” Milwaukee County Historical Society, n.d.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Drake Bentley, “Black Nite Uprising Officially Designated a Milwaukee County Landmark; Now a Physical Marker along the Riverwalk Is in the Works,” Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 2, 2022.

[16]First in the Nation – Wisconsin’s Gay Rights Law · MPL,” First in the Nation – Wisconsin’s Gay Rights Law · MPL.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Magee and Hendrickson, “11 Facts about the Wisconsin LGBTQ Community You Might Not Have Known, until Now.”

[22]Gay Liberation Movement: The Gay Peoples Union Collection,” Explore History Dev, Accessed April 19, 2023.

[23] Magee and Hendrickson, “11 Facts about the Wisconsin LGBTQ Community You Might Not Have Known, until Now.”