Learn more about the individuals and spaces that have been a part of Wisconsin’s vibrant LGBTQ+ community. Whether someone is from here or changed lives in our state, they are part of the amazing LGBTQ+ history that we live to this day. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you can learn about some of the amazing locations in Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ history as well!
Lorena Hickock was a pioneering journalist and “close friend” (lover) of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Lorena Hickock was born in East Troy, Wisconsin and became the best-known female reporter in America. Learn more about Lorena Hickock at the National Park Service website.
Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright and writer known for “A Raisin in the Sun” and writing about the oppression of homosexuality and being a lesbian. Lorraine attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison! To learn more about Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy, please visit the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust.
Zoe Dunning is a U.S. Naval Academy Graduate and gay rights activist born in Milwaukee, WI. Zoe was the only opnely gay person on active duty in the military after coming out, fighting against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy until it’s eventual overturning in 2010. Zoe Dunning is pictured here left of President Barack Obama. Learn more about Zoe by clicking here.
Sheri Swokowski is an advocate for transgender rights and a former U.S. Army colonel who was born in Manitowoc, WIsconsin. After retiring from the Army, Swokowski openly came out as a transgender woman and faced backlash, becoming an advocate for trans rights in the military. She worked with Senator Tammy Baldwin to promote the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Learn more at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.
Camille Guérin-Gonzales was the Director of the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who helped transform and reinvigorate the program before retiring in 2014. She was married to Professor Susan Lee Johnson (also of the UW-Madison Chican@ & Latin@ Studies program.) Her in-memoriam page covers her impact and story beautifully.
Ruth Harriet Bleier was a neurophysiologist who is also one of the first feminist scholars to explore how gender biases have shaped biology. Her career consisted of combining her academic interests with her commitment to social justice for women and the lower-class. The University of Wisconsin annually awards the Ruth Bleier scholarships in order to encourage young women to go into careers studying the natural sciences, medicine, or engineering, and the University of Wisconsin’s Department of History of Medicine has an endowed chair in her honor. Click here to learn more about how Ruth helped change the face of medicine.
Tammy Baldwin US Senator from Wisconsin, elected as the first openly LGBTQ+ woman elected to the House in 1999 and Senate in 2013. Senator Baldwin has served as an advocate for LGBTQ+ equity and equality throughout Wisconsin and the entire United States. Read about Senator Baldwin’s historic win in 2012 here.
Debra Amesqua was the first woman Chief of the Madison Fire Department and one of the first women fire chiefs in the country. Under her leadership, Emergency Medical Services protocol improved throughout Dane County, and the emphasis on fire prevention strengthened. As a result, the City of Madison recorded only one fire fatality in three and a half years, compared to the national average of seven to eight fatalities in a three-year span. Amesqua received numerous awards during her career, including Chief of the Year by the Wisconsin State Fire Inspectors Association. After 16 years as the Madison fire chief, she retired in 2012. Read more about Chief Amesqua here!
Lou Sullivan was an American author and activist known for his work on behalf of trans men. He was perhaps the first transgender man to publicly identify as gay, and is largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts. Sullivan was a pioneer of the grassroots female-to-male (FTM) movement and was instrumental in helping individuals obtain peer-support, counselling, endocrinological services and reconstructive surgery outside of gender dysphoria clinics. He founded FTM International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals, and his activism and community work was a significant contributor to the rapid growth of the FTM community during the late 1980s.
“A Gender Variance Who’s Who” has a fascinating article about Lou here!
Activist, historian, gay rights leader and public official who was elected as the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board in 1980. Inspired by Harvey Milk, Wagner ran and was elected as the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board in 1980. His leadership in the local gay community helped create a Dane County ordinance prohibiting housing or employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He also co-founded UW-Madison’s LGBTQ+ Alumni Association. Read more about his life at the Isthmus and the Wisconsin State Journal.
U.S. Representative serving as the co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus who credits the hardships faced by being gay for his involvement in politics. Rep. Pocan has followed the trailblazing path led by Senator Baldwin to serve in the Wisconsin State Assembly and the US House of Representatives as an openly gay politician. Pocan has been an ally for the Gay and Straight Alliances that serve an important role in our communities.
Edgar Hellum & Bob Neal were life partners and founders of the Pendarvis House and crucial to the historical restoration of Mineral Point, WI. After falling in love in the 1930s, Edgar and Bob helped turn Mineral Point into the vibrant hub for arts, preservation, and tourism it is today. Watch this brief video to learn more about Edgar and Bob!
Patrick Reese is the current and FIRST openly LGBTQ+ Chief of Police of Evansville WI and vocal supporter of the BASE and Evansville youth. Chief Reese has led the EPD to many changes in support of LGBTQ+ youth, community members and police officers and has provided insight into what our rural LGBTQ+ youth may be facing.
Dianne Duggan is the current and FIRST ever LGBTQ+ mayor of Evansville, WI. Mayor Duggan had previously served on the Evansville City Council and served as an advocate for LGBTQ+ representation and change in our community and we could not be more excited to have seen history made in our community. Mayor Duggan followed in the steps of previous Mayor Bill Hurtley in recognizing June as Pride Month in Evansville and raising the Pride Flag all month long.
LGBTQ+ Locations In Wisconsin
The Black Nite wasn’t just a tavern that tolerated homosexuals; an openly welcome and embracing location for all LGBTQ+ people to gather from the start. Almost 8 years before Stonewall Uprisings, the Black Nite was host to one of the wildest riots that Milwaukee had ever seen after 4 servicemen went looking for trouble and began harassing patrons of the bar. The full series of events is detailed here but in short; LGBTQ+ patrons and allies showed up after the servicemen were kicked out and returned looking for trouble. The Black Night Brawl serves as a stark reminder of where we’ve come from; but also that every now and then you have to stand up for the ones you love.
This is It opened in 1968, and is proud to be the oldest continually operating gay bar in not only the city, but in all of Wisconsin. Owners George and Trixie Mattel continue the traditions of the bar’s founder, June Brehm, and her son Joseph Brehm. Learn more about this iconic location at the This is It website!
Bars, alcohol and drug use are heavily interlinked with LGBTQ+ culture; for decades bars served as one of the only safe havens for LGBTQ+ community members to gather and feel welcomed. The inclusion of This Is It and other locations is not an endorsement of alcohol or drug use but rather a healthy reminder that not all LGBTQ+ inclusivity must require alcohol. We’re proud of the history of gay bars serving as a safe haven and are happy to help share in that title as we create safe spaces throughout our community that provide alternatives to drug and alcohol use!
Designing Men was a clothing store in Milwaukee that tailored to the needs of LGBTQ+ clientele. Designing Men at first occupied just the ground floor, with regular gifts in the front and a smaller room in the back with leather geer. Later also opened the upstairs for additional display room, and launched a related retail wing “Designing Women”. Always had a large presence at PrideFest, as well as Madison’s MAGIC Picnic. Abruptly went out of business approx. 2002.
Evansville’s Inclusive Churches have served as a reminder of the need for inclusivity in Evansville. Proud supporters of the LGBTQ+ Community, Evansville Congregational United Church of Christ and St. John’s Lutheran Church both serve as leaders in inclusivity in our community.
Evansville UCC are part of the “Open and Affirming” program, which states that “Our faith leads us to welcome all persons, including those of all races, ethnicities, ages, sexual orientation, gender identities and expressions, family structures, faith backgrounds, abilities and economic circumstances, in full life and ministry of this church.”
Similarly, St. John’s Lutheran Church are a part of the “Reconciling in Christ” program which means:
- Explicitly state a welcome to people of “all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” or “LGBTQIA+” and name its commitment to “racial equity” or “anti-racism” in its welcome statement.
- Be open to calling an LGBTQIA+ and Black, Brown, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC) Rostered Leader.
- Allow community space/sanctuary to be used for LGBTQIA+ weddings and blessings.
- Make a meaningful contribution annually to support the national RIC program.
The Finlandia Health Spa is the first men’s bath house documented thus far in Milwaukee. Listed in national Gay Guide books as early as 1970, it also advertised throughout the publication of the Milwaukee-based GPU News (1971-1981) as a typical gay bath house, or spa. By 1980, the club advertised as “Le Club Finlandia”, advertising “Roman pool, private saunas, swedish massage. Learn more about the Finlandia Health Spa here!
The WI Capitol has played a big part of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ history as many notable LGBTQ+ rights events and bills have been signed into law at the Capitol Building including the raising of the Pride Flag, the legalization of same-sex marriage and has served as a battle ground for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation served up by opponents to LGBTQ+ equality. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Wisconsin also has led the way in electing LGBT people to office. It started with Jim Yeadon, a Madison City Council member who became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country in 1976 — before Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Read more about how Wisconsin has served as a place of firsts in the history of LGBTQ+ equality by clicking this link. Remember, we are ALWAYS making history in the work we do.