"I got involved in the gay community around 1970. I got involved with Gay People's Union. I met people in the bars and it was the only organization around at the time. I just wanted to meet people, so I started going to their meetings."
One of the biggest factors in the creation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) communities in American cities has been military mobilization. After World War II, large numbers of young queers found themselves demobilized in large cities, far from home, often after having significant same-sex experiences during the war - so they decided to stay.
For Si Smits, it was Vietnam rather than World War II. On returning from Vietnam in 1968, he moved to Milwaukee and enrolled in business school. He's been here ever since, meeting other LGBT persons in a variety of ways, participating in and creating several different organizations - and therefore creating LGBT community.
Smits began to attend meetings primarily to meet people. He doesn't think of himself as the type to join marches or demonstrations, and doesn't really associate his work on behalf of the GPU with such activities. He became treasurer when the previous person left, and has remained treasurer ever since.
The GPU still exists, although it is less active than it was in the 1970s. Smits attributes the decline in activity to the AIDS epidemic. GPU lost a lot of its leaders during the mid-1980s, even as other organizations sprang up to deal with AIDS and other specific issues. GPU still maintains a phone line where volunteers provide information about LGBT events and organizations to callers. Perhaps its greatest legacy was the founding of the STD clinic that is now the Brady East STD, or BESTD, Clinic on Brady Street - continuously in existence for 29 years.
Smits has owned the Bootcamp Saloon for 18 years. He always went to a bar after work himself, so when he needed to move, he rented a space that combined a tavern with living quarters. Like military service, social groups, and AIDS, bars have played an important role in LGBT culture and politics at least since World War II. In that sense, Si Smits has covered all the bases, and in owning the Bootcamp for nearly 20 years now, brings his involvement in Milwaukee's LGBT community full circle.