Gay Milwaukee man celebrates 100th birthday

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Ken Fells. -Photo: Adam Horwitz

One of the most common and malicious myths that homophobes perpetrate about LGBT people is that they live on average 20 years less than heterosexuals, due to their “unhealthy homosexual lifestyle.”

Tell that to Ken Fells.

Born in 1912, Fells celebrated his 100th birthday in July at the Rainbow Community Potluck Picnic. Surrounded by friends from SAGE Milwaukee, Fells was feted with a cake and got a treasured chance to spend time away from the group home where he lives.

The oldest known living gay man in Milwaukee, Fells has become something of a mascot to SAGE Milwaukee, and the organization has connected him to an LGBT community that didn’t existed for the vast majority of his life. At a July 28 SAGE ice cream social and garden party, Fells recounted how he wasn’t aware of any gay life in Milwaukee when he was a young man. He always hoped to move to Chicago, where there was more freedom, but it never worked out, Fells said.

Fells remembers clearly the house he grew up in on Milwaukee’s South Side – he even recalls the address. It’s in the vicinity of what is now the gay nightclub La Cage.

The first gay club he remembers visiting was The Castaways, which opened in 1979.

But Fells knew of no gay clubs in Milwaukee as a young man. He didn’t have his first sexual encounter until about 1960, when he met a man named Victor at Union Station and they began seeing each other every Saturday. It wasn’t a relationship, really, just a regular tryst.

Fells remembers Victor fondly.

Fells said he could recall being attracted to other boys as early as kindergarten. But his father picked up on his attraction and condemned it. Since Fells lived with his parents or relatives for most of his life, he didn’t have the leeway to explore his sexuality. He had no LGBT friends.

So it’s ironic that at age 100, he’s finally surrounded by a supportive LGBT community through Sage Milwaukee. The group is affiliated with SAGE USA, the oldest and largest organization in the nation devoted to improving the lives of LGBT elders. SAGE Milwaukee offers a full schedule of social events, provides advocacy for LGBT seniors, offers counseling and assists the city in planning and coordinating services for this underserved population.

Located on Milwaukee’s East Side in Plymouth Church, 2712 E. Hampshire Ave., SAGE Milwaukee is run entirely by volunteers.

The group currently has about 100 dues-paying members and an e-mail list of about 500, according to board president Dawn Schmidt. Four hundred people receive newsletters in the mail (some of them also receive it by e-mail).

The average age of SAGE Milwaukee members is 60, but about a quarter of them are under 50, said board president Dawn Schmidt. For many of the older members, events such as the July ice cream social are their only opportunities to interact with LGBT peers.

Fells does not feel safe being out in the long-term care facility where he resides due to the number of fundamentalist Christian residents. He has a couple of friends there, but the connections are nothing like those he feels with fellow SAGE members, he said.

Fells requires a walker to move about and his mind is slowing down. His memories are mostly dim and only recalled with effort. His speech is slow, soft and child-like.

Most of his memories are from childhood. He doesn’t remember much about his work life, which was in blue-collar jobs. Fells’ fondest recollection is of riding on the engine of a steam locomotive from West Bent to Milwaukee.

Despite living in the closet and never making that move to Chicago that he dreamed of, Fells said he looks back on his century on the planet without regret.

“I think I’ve had a pretty interesting life,” he said. “And when I go to parties and things like today, it makes me happy.”