LGBT progress over the decades in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gazette
APRIL 7, 2016


I’ve had the privilege of covering the Milwaukee LGBT community as a reporter since the 1970s. Here are some highlights of local LGBT history.

Forty Years Ago

In November 1976, Sistermoon Feminist Bookstore & Art Gallery opened on E. Irving Place, later moving to E. Locust St. Until 1984, Sistermoon served as a primary meeting space and cultural center for Milwaukee’s feminist and lesbian communities. Book groups, political meetings and concerts by women singers were a regular part of its schedule.

In October 1976, in a case that gained national attention, the Army Reserve ordered the discharge of Milwaukeean Miriam Ben-Shalom because she was a lesbian. In 1980, a federal court ordered her reinstatement, but the Army refused to allow Ben-Shalom to re-enlist, starting another round of court battles.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ended Ben-Shalom’s 15-year struggle when it refused to hear her case. However, she remained involved in the campaign for LGBT military inclusion, joining in the festivities when the Obama administration revoked the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011.

Thirty Years Ago

In 1986, the Galano Club was founded as an umbrella organization offering Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Alanon and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meetings and fellowship to members of the LGBT community (although everyone is welcome). The Galano Club was located on Milwaukee’s east side for many years before moving to the southwest side in 2014. Find out more at

Other community-building organizations started in 1986. The Lambda Rights Network focused on gay political progress in the wake of Gov. Tony Earl’s defeat by Tommy Thompson and the disbanding of Earl’s Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Lesbians of Color began support groups, dances and other cultural events by and for women of color and their friends in the Milwaukee area.

Twenty Years Ago

In early 1996, Erv Uecker and Ross Walker pledged $120,000 over the next decade to support a gay community center for Milwaukee. Within months, town hall meetings were held, a steering committee was formed, and fundraisers and a “Name the Center” contest was held. The organizing resulted in the establishment in 1998 of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.

PrideFest debuted in its new venue at Henry W. Maier Festival Park June 7”“9, 1996. The weather was cold and rainy, but about 9,600 people braved the elements to enjoy the music, speeches and drag races. In September, Bette Midler was the honorary chairwoman of AIDS Walk Wisconsin, attracting a record number of participants and raising over $1 million for AIDS services.

Ten Years Ago

In May 2006, The M&M Club, a popular night spot and restaurant for the LGBT community in downtown Milwaukee, closed after 30 years of business. In addition to the drink specials, karaoke contests, Sunday brunches and Friday fish fries, M&M’s second floor banquet space hosted many community meetings and parties.

Throughout 2006, Milwaukee LGBT activists worked hard to organize opposition to a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex civil unions or marriages. On Nov. 7, 2006, Wisconsin voters approved the amendment by 59 percent.

In 2014, the amendment was invalidated.

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