Donald F. Schwamb, known to everyone as Don Schwamb, was perhaps a typical 1950's child dealing with coming out as gay. He remembers telling his parents when he was 12, "I don't like girls, I like boys". This of course caused them to threaten to take him to a doctor, but Don stuck to his convictions even at that age, and when he told his parents essentially the same thing at age 18, it "stuck"- and they accepted him and his friends from then on (with natural reservations).
Don remembers first becoming involved in Milwaukee gay life in the early 1970's. He scoured the newspapers and made some phone calls, and decided to attend a meeting of the Gay People's Union (GPU), which was scheduled to meet in the basement of a church on the east side of Milwaukee. He remembers driving to the meeting, and circling the block several times: Are there any police cars around? Will anyone see me? Is anyone else going in? After parking and screwing up his courage, Don decided to go in.
Over time, Don became active in many gay community organizations. He would serve for over 8 years on the board of Milwaukee GAMMA (social and sports group), including one year as President. He served over 10 years on the Board of the Cream City Foundation (CCF), including 8 years as President. We was one of the driving forces in spinning off the Milwaukee AIDS Project (MAP) from BESTD Clinic and founding the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, becoming that organization's first Vice President of the Board of Directors. He was also active in areas of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, and a BESTD Clinic HIV counseling and testing volunteer. He is also a co-founder of the Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar social group.
Most importantly, Don is the founder and driving force behind the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, this web site being his brainchild and pet project. He began being involved in architectural preservation in Milwaukee in the 1980s, working with the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Committee and assisting with background work on historic designations, including that of the East Side Commercial District and others, in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, being involved in the LGBT community in the early-1970s, historical references were mostly an oral tradition. Mainstream media had a largely negative or at most semi-tolerant attitude toward the "gay community". While there were a few organizations (primarily the GPU, Gay Peoples Union), only their newsletter, and some coverage in Amazon, covered the LGBT community in any positive light. This changed with several "bar rag" publications in the mid-late 1970's (G Milwaukee, GLIB, Gay Milwaukee, Escape), and then the first Wisconsin-based LGBT newspaper 'OUT!' in 1982. But all of the locally produced LGBT media were here today, gone tomorrow, and he early on realized that learning more about the local fight for acceptance and community development would take more intense digging.
His interest in LGBT history was intensified by the PrideFest History Exhibit at PrideFest 1995 and 1996. He joined a group of people focused on interviewing individuals in the local LGBT community who had been instrumental in moving the community forward, and that led to the development of various permanent "panels" for the PrideFest History Exhibit. Over the next years, Don and a small group developed more panels for various organizations and anniversaries, a year-by-year Timeline of notable LGBT events in Wisconsin since Stonewall, and decade by decade bar maps. Don bowed out of planning the PrideFest History Exhibit after 2015 due to other commitments at PrideFest. He has been managing the PrideFest Cash Room each year since 2010.
But that background gave Don the vision for a web site to document and cross-link people, places, and events in Wisconsin's LGBT history. In the beginning (starting around 2000) it was related to his interest in architecture: how gay bars had gradually been self-identified and how they moved and became more 'open' as homosexuality became more acceptable. When the 'Project' to do interviews began, he incorporated that content; and that quickly transitioned to organizational history, events, and (as primary source material) the history of LGBT-focused print media in Wisconsin. Since 2005, he have tried to have some focus on all of those primary areas.
Thus, Don has become a recogized local LGBT historian. He has been consulted to contribute to numerous articles and books (including articles in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, local community-access cable news programs, Quest magazine, Q-Life newspaper, and the book "Bottoms Up- A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries", published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press). He was featured on the cover of Quest Magazine in October 2007, for the cover article "Capturing Wisconsin's Gay Story". In 2012, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel consulted Don for the article "Tolerant Times bring change to gay bars".
Don was recognized for his work for the community, and especially the LGBT History Project, by being awarded a PrideFest Medal in 2015. As stated in PrideFest's press release the time:
Both archivist and activist, Don Schwamb has been bringing the Milwaukee LGBT community's past into its present for years as director of the PrideFest History Exhibit. He is also the creator and operator of the extensive and informative Milwaukee GLBT History Project website. "Don's passion for education is both commendable and critical," said Scott Gunkel, president of Milwaukee Pride, Inc. "He has documented an era of Milwaukee history that you'll never read about in history books. Without his tireless preservation of our shared local history, much of this knowledge would be forgotten within one to two generations. It would be very easy to forget how we came from then to now, and all of the challenges and triumphs we shared as a community since then." Don's long-standing contributions will continue to educate and inspire LGBT pride for decades to come. Congratulations Don!
In 2015-2016, Don collaborated with Michail Takach, who curated "LGBT Milwaukee", an 'Images of Modern America' book celebrating Milwaukee's gay and lesbian heritage over the past 75 years. Don also wrote the Foreword for the book.
(An index to the book, and links to reviews and interviews with the author, is available at this link: Book Index.)
In September 2018, Milwaukee Pride Inc. (parent organization of Milwaukee's PrideFest) agreed to sponsor the Wisconsin LGBT History website, funding the costs of domain name registration and hosting, and commissioning a logo. From that announcement, Don was intervewed for several new articles, appeared on WISN-TV news, interviewed for the local PBS station, and briefly spoke at the first Milwaukee Pride "Stonewall Stage Talk" event hosted at the Milwaukeee Public Library, among many other appeals for his knowledge and expertise. (Schwamb severed ties with Milwaukee Pride Inc. in 2020 due to that organization's failure to conduct independent financial audits, their changing of its By-Laws to eliminate officer term limits, and their reduced involvement with other LGBTQ community organizations.)
Don and his work creating and maintaining the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project are also recognized in the book "Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History", the second volume in Madison LGBT activist and author R. Richard Wagner's two-volume work on gay history in Wisconsin. The book credits the web site in numerous footnotes.
In 2020, a national film producer contacted Don and Michail to colaborate on a to-be-announced project, and a large format scanner was donated to Don on behalf of the project, who has scanned and created individual PDF's (which are also OCR'd) of magazine and newspaper-size Wisconsin LGBT periodicals (such as 'Wisconsin Light' and 'IN Step').
As of 2022, Schwamb continues to work on the website multiple days every week, in conjunction with Project Curator Michail Takach, who does the bulk of mainstream-media historical research and writes most articles; Schwamb prefers to stay in the background working behind the scenes. In June 2022, Schwamb received recognition from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors for his work in the LGBT community. (See image of that citation to the right.) Read the full text of the citation, and photos of the presentation, here.
Schwamb continues to be mentioned in numerous articles and publications regarding Wisconsin LGBTQ history; a few of those are as follows:
Credits: Written by Don Schwamb in autobiographical form.
Web site concept, creation, design and format by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: July-2022.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.