Over 120 family members and friends crowded Milwaukee’s Quaker Meeting House on July 5 to pay tribute and share a potluck dinner in memory of Carol Stevens, a founding mother and guiding light of the city’s lesbian community.
Stevens passed away Saturday, June 26, at St. Mary’s Hospital surrounded by loved ones. She was 86.
Stevens was a member of the Gay People’s Union in the early 1970s, and one of only a handful of people at that time willing to publicly identify herself with the first gay organization to incorporate as a non-profit in Milwaukee.
She was a mainstay of many LGBT and feminist groups in the decades that followed, including Grapevine, the Lesbian Alliance of Metro Milwaukee, Silver Space and Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE). She was an avid volunteer, working for publications like GPU News and Amazon, staffing information tables, selling raffle tickets and organizing dances for the women’s community.
“The great thing about Carol was how committed and dependable she was,” an old friend said. “She’d have an idea for a fundraiser or event and then get everyone involved to make it successful. She didn’t really see herself as a leader and yet that’s exactly what she was.”
She was also a legendary hostess and cook. Together with her longtime partner Jai, she opened her home to hundreds of women over the years for feasts and potlucks. All women were welcome, from argumentative political dykes to nervous “newbie” lesbians taking their first tentative steps to meet other lesbians.
Almost everyone at the memorial celebration commented on the generosity and gift for friendship which Stevens used to bring women together and mentor them.
Mo White, who called herself one of Stevens’ “adopted granddaughters,” cited six important life lessons she learned from her grandmother: Always look for the good in people. Fight for what is right and stick up for yourself. Find pleasure in life. Work continuously to better yourself. Be true and loyal to your partner.
Finally, White said: “Carol always said, ‘I have a good life because I think I have a good life. There are always things to be grateful and happy for.’”
Longtime friend Kathy Herbst pointed out that alongside her goodness and generosity Stevens also had a “toughness and tenacity about her.”
The crowd roared when White told an anecdote illustrating that toughness. Once, when a driver cut Stevens off and took her parking space, she marched to the offending vehicle after the driver had left and released the air from some of its tires.
Stevens loved reading, especially mysteries, and enjoyed music, theater and games. At the service, participants joined in singing some of her favorite songs, including “Shenandoah,” “Always” and “The Girl in the Red Velvet Dress.” For many years, Stevens and Jai hosted the Off-Stage Players, an amateur play-reading group, in their home. They also loved playing Charades, Scrabble, UpWords and Finish Lines.
Education and self-improvement were constant themes in her life. She earned her bachelors degree in Criminal Justice from UW-Milwaukee just a few months before her 75th birthday.
Stevens was born Carol Mauser in 1924 in Oak Park, Ill., and grew up in Chicago. As a child, she lived a few blocks from Wrigley Field and became a big Cubs fan, attending games with her father.
She married in 1951 and had three daughters, Vicki, Valerie and “Little” Carol, who later chose the name Chiron. Stevens divorced about 20 years later, starting her new life in Milwaukee in the early 1970s and getting involved with the emerging gay, lesbian and feminist communities.
She and Jai were presented with the PrideFest Community Service Award in 1997. On the occasions of Stevens’ 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays as well as her and Jai’s 30th anniversary, potluck parties were held at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. Last year, they were named king and queen of SAGE’s annual Spring Fling. “It was such a treat to see them dancing,” Bill Serpe, SAGE executive director recalled. “Carol was always such a pleasure to be with.”
Stevens is survived by daughters Valerie and Chiron, four grandchildren, her partner of 38 years Jai, and hundreds of friends and admirers.