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Fifty years of Milwaukee gay history


The Gay People’s Union, founded in 1971, was incorporated. Among the reasons for the year-long delay: the difficulty of finding five individuals willing to sign the articles of incorporation for an openly gay group and the reluctance of attorneys to assist with the legal process. GPU was Milwaukee’s primary gay activist organization through the early 1980s. It was housed in a lower flat at 1568 N. Farwell for many of those years.

GPU sponsored a “Midwest Homophile Conference” April 8-9 at the Marc Plaza (now the Hilton) Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, national leaders of the emerging gay and lesbian movement, were the keynote speakers, and over 100 people attended.

In October, a federal court declared Wisconsin’s involuntary commitment law unconstitutional. The judges said the law violated a person’s right to legal representation and failed to consider “less restrictive alternatives.” It permitted forced commitment based on hearsay evidence and allowed detention for over 48 hours without a hearing. Prior to the ruling, LGBT people could be forcibly committed with few rights or the ability to appeal.


In February, Gov. Lee Dreyfus signed the first state law banning sexual orientation discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

The women’s music circuit was in full swing. In 1982, Milwaukee alone saw concerts by Maxine Feldman, Holly Near, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Deidre McCalla and Llena de la Madrugada, Claudia Schmidt. Judy Gorman-Jacobs and others. Venues included the Pabst Theater, Jazz Gallery, Blue River Café and UW-Milwaukee’s Student Union. Christian and Williamson performed their historic concert at Carnegie Hall November 26.


In January, Mayor John Norquist vetoed an allocation of $5,000 to support Milwaukee’s Pride Festival. Norquist had encouraged the Pride Committee to apply for the City Festival funds, and the Common Council had approved the request. After a tidal wave of anti-gay incidents in the wake of the Jeffrey Dahmer case, the veto led to bitter protests by gays and lesbians.

In February, Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted of 15 counts of homicide and sentenced to 15 life sentences. He was killed by a fellow inmate in 1994.

In November, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian member of the State Legislature. She was elected to the State Assembly while serving for her sixth year on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. Baldwin was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1998 and is currently running for the U.S. Senate.


In February, a Milwaukee jury convicted Pablo Parrilla of intentional homicide in the death of Juana Vega, a lesbian. The LGBT community mobilized to demand a hate crime investigation of the murder. The Milwaukee District Attorney’s office has yet to issue a hate crime enhancement charge in the case of any homicides of gay, lesbian or transgender victims.

A Great Lakes Two Spirit Gathering was held May 25-27 on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Reservation in northern Wisconsin. The multi-tribal gathering focused on cultural teachings and healing rituals as they impact Two Spirit children, adults and elders.

The United Way of Greater Milwaukee passed a resolution opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation while stating that it would continue to fund the local Boy Scouts Council. What is needed, said United Way leaders, is more “dialogue” with the Boy Scouts. Ten years later, the dialogue continues …

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