Businesses in the History of the LGBT Community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Bars and Clubs in Wisconsin

Bars as Meeting Places

Gay people (men and women) have experienced a drastic evolution in their methods of social interaction over the past 50 years. Prior to the 1960s, gay people tended to gather with one another only in the privacy of their own homes, there being no or few public places to gather. (There is some question about, how did a gay person find another gay person in those days? Perhaps it was what we now call "gaydar", the ability to pick up on slight nuances of speech or mannerisms, that enabled one gay person to find another. But I leave that discussion to the psychologists!)

As late as the early 1960s, the only "public" venues in which to gather and meet others of like mind were a few restaurants or bars that provided an opportunity for gays and lesbians to meet either in certain sections or in separate “back rooms”. Examples of these places in Milwaukee are the Loop Restaurant, Antlers Hotel bar, and The Royal. The sole exception known to the author is the Mint Bar, which was founded in 1949; but even that bar and many other gathering places for gay men were still often either primarily "straight" or at least "mixed".

Milwaukee began to see more dedicated gay bars in the early 1960s; The River Queen opened in 1960, Your Place in 1965, and both This Is It (which is still open), and The Rooster in 1968. After Stonewall (1969), gay people throughout the country began to stand up and demand some rights. This of course was an evolutionary thing, happening over time rather than overnight. But the list of gay organizations and media shows how things evolved over the next few years (more of that another time).

Since the early 1970s, there have been no shortage of both gay and lesbian bars in Milwaukee and the major metro areas of Wisconsin; Castaways, Stud Club, Nite Beat, Beer Garden, The Wreck Room, JoDee's in Racine (still open), the Shack (Kenosha), Back Door in Madison, and many others opened in the first half of the 70s.  

The mid-late 70s was also the era of disco, and the combination of gay rights and the popularity of disco, particularly among gay men, was a key factor in seeing an explosion of bars and clubs founded by and dedicated to gays and lesbians. This was when many of Milwaukee’s legendary bars (many of them dance bars) came into being: Ten Hundred East, The Factory, C’est La Vie, the Ball Game, Red Baron, M&M, among many others.

But even in the 70s there was some bias against gay bars; in fact it was not until 1984 that the first gay bars in the city opened up large windows to the street (with the first being the M&M and La Cage); prior to this time, windows and doors were closed to outside view (with the exception of the 12” square window that city ordinance required of all bars).

Since the mid 1980s, gay and lesbian bars are a staple in the major metro areas of Wisconsin, and violence against them is seldom heard of. Since the 1990s, bars are openly advertised as gay in public media, chambers of commerce literature, etc.

(Note: the bulk of this perspective is from the standpoint of gay men's bars and meeting places. Lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people all have developed their own patterns of meeting and socializing, unique not just to them as groups but to individuals. For example, even today, some gay men go almost exclusively to straight bars and clubs, while some bi men go to straight and gay clubs about equally. So there is no attempt to depict every nuance, but rather to convey a somewhat predominant thread of change and evolution.)

(The preceeding is largely from an article that first appeared in the January 2006 issue of Q-Life newspaper, written by the webmaster.)

Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!

    It was our perception that most if not all of the gay bars in town were "syndicate bars" or at least working in total cooperation with the Milwaukee Vice Squad. The owners always seemed to know in advance when a raid was about to occur. They'd hustle the younger-looking kids and married men out the door, forget to inform the patrons they viewed as druggies or troublemakers, and then have a designated bartender take the official hit on any given night. I think they took turns getting busted.

    Maryann G.

Credits: concept and format by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: January-2007.