‘Like cutting off a piece of your body’: a refugee reflects on fleeing Syria for Milwaukee

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For a while, I knew I wanted to share a story about the refugee community here in Milwaukee. In July, I attended an event organized by Tables Across Borders, a global food collaboration highlighting the cuisines of refugee chefs in Milwaukee. The intended audio story was meant to center around community and food — until I met Tahani.

A Syrian refugee and mother, Tahani spoke to me over WhatsApp and, after a few exchanges, agreed to an interview. All of our interactions were in Arabic, so for the final audio product, I translated and transcribed our conversation, turning it into a monologue voiced by me.

However, this is not a fabricated story. This is Tahani’s story.

You can get a feel for our conversation in the following transcribed portions. Then listen to the full story below, which also features a conversation with Ali Aleiou, a Syrian American who shared his personal experiences and perspective.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo is the largest and one of the oldest mosques in the city of Aleppo, Syria. (Photo courtesy: Ali Aleiou)

Please be advised that this episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” contains content involving war themes, dead bodies and military violence.

Tahani, how would you introduce yourself?

My name is Tahani, and I am from Syria, specifically the Daraa district. I am now living here in Milwaukee due to the circumstances in Syria, which is the war. I left Syria in the first month of 2013. My family and I first went to Jordan.

Where did you go in Jordan?

I was in a refugee camp, Za’atari, based in the desert.  They were taking in the Syrian families in tents and then — if you stayed long enough — in caravans, and now I am living here in America because the United States of America called upon the families to bring asylum seekers to America. And I was one of the families chosen.

For the people that don’t know much about Syria and the war, how would you describe it?

The war in Syria was very scary and terrifying — not only for the parents, but for the kids. No peace comes with war. In general, I want everyone to experience peace, for kids to live in peace. Our kids are the future generation. I want a bright future for them and for them to evolve into a better generation. 

What was life like before the war?

We had a simple life. My husband was a laborer. I am a mother to seven children. It was a simple life, but we were happy, Alhamdulillah (“Praise be to God”).

Did you escape Syria with your children? 


Who else came with you?

Just myself, my husband and kids.

How old were your kids when you left Syria?

My eldest is now 22 years old, and when we left Syria he was 12 years old.

Did you leave anyone behind back in Syria? 

Of course. I left my parents and my siblings. Eventually, my mother and a few of my siblings came to the refugee camp in Jordan. But our entire family is broken and displaced. We have family in Syria and Jordan. Some have died, and I am here. 

How did it feel to leave your family behind? 

It was very difficult. It’s like cutting off a piece of your body and abandoning it. One of these days, you’re going to need that body part, and it’s no longer with you. You need family. There’s a lot of distance between us. My mom is currently sick, and I long to be near her. 

Why did you ultimately decide to leave?

Daraa was getting dangerous, where there was no peace and safety. When we were sleeping, they would attack at night. As a mom, I can’t see my kids suffer. I found the only solution is to leave Syria. The nation I loved no longer had security. That was the reason: to give our kids safety, so I wouldn’t bury any one of my children. 

What do you remember of the night you escaped Syria?

It was a chilling night. My youngest was a toddler at the time. I remember one of the volunteers that helped us escape told me that if my baby cried, then I would have to put rocks in its mouth so that the noise from the crying wouldn’t reveal our location. 

What did you bring with you? 

I brought a bit of food — labneh and olive oil — some clothes and our house key. 

Did you bring with you any photos? 

That’s a good question. When we left Syria, we said we would leave for four months and return when the war ended. It’s been 10 years. 

You first arrived in Milwaukee in 2016. What was that like? 

I found it hard to transition. The moment you open the door, you’re in another world. It’s a country that has a different language, culture and lifestyle different than my own. The hardest part was communicating. Because of the language barrier, I felt that even though I was talking, I was forced to be silent and mute. 

Where did you first go in Milwaukee?

The organizers placed us on the North Side. The apartment was pretty run down. The house was filled with insects, so that was a difficult thing to go through. At the time, I wished I would go back to the plane and go back. It felt impossible, and I felt alone. My children were all young. My eldest was 15 years old at the time, and school was difficult. Their education was interrupted, not only because of the war, but because of the discrimination we faced in Jordan as refugees. Within a year, they began to understand the language, and things started to get easier. We started to know the neighborhood, and the people were kind. We also saw other Arabs here, and the first time I heard “assalamu alaikum,” I was filled with joy. Life started to bloom again. It means that they found safety and community here, which means I would find safety and community here. 

What is the greatest joy for you and your family?

That we are safe. That every day, when we leave in the morning, we reunite together under one roof. You put your head on the pillow, and you sleep safely.

What do you wish for your family?

I wish that they respect this country that saved them from war. I want them to focus on their education so they are not a burden to this city. It welcomed them. The Syrian community suffered; Syria didn’t protect its people. Syrians found safety by leaving. 

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Did the Mafia control Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars?

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It’s an oft-repeated rumor spouted across generations: Organized crime was involved in financing and protecting Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars.

But it’s not entirely true. And it’s also not entirely false, either.

On this “Be Seen” bonus episode, co-host Michail Takach and I dive into this topic to definitively answer the question: “Was the Mafia involved in Wisconsin’s earliest gay bars?”

In an exclusive interview with Gavin Schmitt, author of “Milwaukee Mafia (Images of America),” we discuss his years of research poring over unsealed FBI files that mention specific locations and people in Milwaukee.

We also learn about Takach’s favorite story in all of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ history, which centers on a mob-run business called the Ad Lib.

The former Ad Lib near 4th and Wells. (Photo courtesy: the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project)

“Although multiple people were eventually licensed as the bar’s legal owner, the Ad Lib was always part of Frank Balistrieri’s nightlife syndicate,” according to the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project’s website. “Balistrieri, his family and associates had deep involvement in almost a dozen bars between the 1950s and 1980s. By 1966, Balistrieri was truly one of the most powerful men in Milwaukee, and 4th and Wells was the heart of a growing empire.”

As the years went on and entertainment costs rose, the Ad Lib switched over from hiring the best jazz entertainers in the world to a more risqué model that swapped musicians for stripping female impersonators. Somehow, the fact these performers were mostly genetic men was lost on the audience of straight sailors often in attendance, according to Takach.

Listen to this week’s bonus episode above, and be sure to catch all six episodes from the original series.

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Meet the Milwaukee Flugtag’ers who took a flying leap into Lake Michigan

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Something in the air drew 50,000 spectators to Veterans Park earlier this month — actually, more than 30 somethings. That’s how many teams joined in when Red Bull picked Milwaukee to host its annual Flugtag event in which competitors construct homemade, human-powered flying machines and launch themselves off a pier about nine meters high into the sea or body of water.

Flugtag is German for “flying day,” and Red Bull has organized days like the one in Milwaukee every year since the inaugural 1992 event in Vienna, Austria. More than 35 cities worldwide have welcomed intrepid aviators as part of the Red Bull competition. But its roots go a bit deeper than the first Vienna installment — back to 1971, when folks in the small seaside town of Selsey in the south of England invented the format under the name “Birdman Rally.”

Anyone is eligible to apply for the Flugtag event. But they can’t start crafting until their mechanism meets the criteria set forth by Red Bull. Because the aircraft will end up in the water, it must be unsinkable and made from lightweight materials. But the real driving force behind Flugtag is creativity and imagination. Here in Milwaukee, our competitors showed off the culture with contraptions inspired by cheese, a Bucks basketball and even Ian’s Pizza. 

Seeing one handcrafted creation crash into the water after another, I found myself wondering who would do this? Who would take a leap of faith knowing that while “Red Bull gives you wings,” it doesn’t give you landing gear?

Listen to the latest episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” to find out, and check out the gallery below for team photos from the aptly named “Cheddar Than the Rest.”

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Inspired by their hometown, Milwaukee creatives take on the world

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What does it mean to be creative? Its most common use is as an adjective, but it’s also used as a noun, almost as though an individual has embodied this trait so entirely that it becomes who they are. In this week’s “Uniquely Milwaukee” episode, we spoke to some of those individuals to spotlight local innovative talents — Milwaukeeans in the creative industry who are changing the perception of our city.

That term also has some power behind it. When you’re a creative, you’re not just an artist; you’re a leader. You have influence and — most importantly — make a difference in your community. You make an impact.

When I think of this on a scale level, I think of Unfinished Legacy, a Milwaukee streetwear brand started by Brema Brema with passionate supporters in Milwaukee and globally. “The biggest aspect of Unfinished Legacy isn’t the clothing,” said Jene Tate, the company’s event coordinator and community outreach specialist. “It has a lot to do with community.”

Unfinished Legacy put its product line on display for a homecoming pop-up event. (Photo courtesy: Erin Bagatta)

Founder and Creative Director Brema cultivated a brand that has made a name for itself. It was recognized by Vogue magazine, made a huge leap by going to Los Angeles for expansion and spun a viral photo into a high-profile collaboration with all-American denim brand Levi’s.

This week, the minds behind Unfinished Legacy celebrated their roots with a homecoming pop-up and spoke with our very own Element Everest-Blanks, HYFIN on-air host and brand ambassador, for a detailed interview.

Items from Unfinished Legacy in a window display at its recent homecoming pop-up. (Photo courtesy: Erin Bagatta)

But fashion isn’t the only way Milwaukee creatives put themselves — and the city — on the map. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool many artists use to expose people to their work and build a following.

Milwaukee-based video creator Bryce Van Landon, who goes by Cinema Bryce, has perfected his craft: creating cinematic videos of Milwaukee. I would describe his content as the opening credits to an indie film that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. He has nearly 30,000 followers, with videos reaching up to 200,000 views.

Listen to the full episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” to learn more about these creatives, how they navigated their success and the undeniable brilliance Milwaukee has to offer.

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Specters, scents and inspiration: an interview with Willem Dafoe

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You probably gathered from the headline that this episode features Willem Dafoe. And no, it’s not clickbait. It wasn’t even a virtual interview; I sat right across from Willem Dafoe in the same room to talk about Milwaukee and music. Let’s set the scene:

Dafoe was in Milwaukee to deliver a commencement speech to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s graduating class. We were at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, on the Mainstage Theatre, that Saturday. The location was intentional — Dafoe performed there 40 years ago. The first thing he did when he walked on stage was tell his ghost story. He stopped, looked up and around, and with a big smile on his face recalled the time he played Ariel in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” 

The story goes that right before curtain call after his final performance of the night, he went above to the proscenium stage. Standing up against the wall all alone so the audience couldn’t see, he felt someone next to him breathing down his neck. Then it passed. That’s how Dafoe greeted us, talking about the literal ghosts of his past — one that perhaps still occupies that stage.

Willem Dafoe pointing up at the proscenium stage. (Photos courtesy: Erin Bagatta)

What can I say about the legend himself that you don’t already know? Well, I can say I was incredibly nervous. I showed up at the UWM campus roughly three hours early for fear of being late or getting the location all wrong. My heart beat so fast that my ears started to ring. But then he walked into the room, told his ghost story and — whether intentionally or not — put me at ease. I felt relaxed and ready.

Although he’s known for an extensive filmography and naturally villainous face, Dafoe has a calm demeanor about him. I don’t say this lightly, but seeing him in the flesh — so very human — was inspiring. You might be like me and have big, star-reaching dreams you’re not sure how to grasp. I tend to get overwhelmed thinking about the future. Yet seeing someone like Dafoe, who went to the same university I attended, made everything feel possible.

I had 15 minutes with him and had to make them count. The first question I asked was a Radio Milwaukee question — a Dori Zori question in fact. She asked it when I started working here: “What did your childhood smell like?”

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Veterans open up about mental health on the course and in conversation

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The term “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) was coined and gained the spotlight in the 1970s, when countless Vietnam veterans returned home and began experiencing various psychological problems. Before that, medical literature described it as “shell shock.” However, it still took until the next decade for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to officially recognize PTSD as a disorder.

That official designation was part of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which healthcare professionals use as the authoritative text for diagnosing mental disorders. After drawing on research involving people who survived severely traumatic events — including war veterans, Holocaust survivors and sexual-trauma victims — the APA included PTSD in DSM-III in 1980.

Today, about 7.7 million American adults have PTSD. According to a 2015 article, that includes as many as 500,000 U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002. But the National Alliance on Mental Health points out that PTSD is just one of three primary mental-health concerns for someone who served or is on active duty in the military; the others are depression and traumatic brain injury.

Attendees at a Next18 golf camp held at Erin Hills put in time on the practice range and in conversation.

This episode of “Uniquely Milwaukee” began with a conversation I had with a dear friend, Andrea, about therapy. During our talk, she brought up her dad — a veteran who served in the 1980s. She mentioned how their relationship changed over time and how she hoped her own journey to taking care of her mental health will inspire him to do the same.

Later, when brainstorming story ideas for upcoming episodes, that conversation kept surfacing and led to more questions — primarily, what are veterans doing to take care of themselves?

I have spoken to Andrea’s dad, Carl Ruffier, many times. He has a big personality, and our talks are always pleasant. We’ve only talked about his military experience on a surface level, and I was eager to learn more. I was also cautiously optimistic because when Carl speaks, he can go on long tangents, so I had an inkling he would be a great storyteller for this. I was wrong. 

Carl had just finished dinner prior to our conversation, and his energy shifted drastically as soon I put on my over-the-ear headphones and turned on my Zoom recorder. Still sitting at the kitchen table, he crossed his arms and began fidgeting with his fingers. Carl was nervous.

It’s a completely understandable mindset and one that isn’t unique to Carl. It’s present in the voices of other veterans I spoke to at an event set up by Next18, which organizes multi-day golf camps for “veterans with disabilities and first responders providing mental health and holistic lifestyle resource training.”

Listen below to hear their stories.

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How Wisconsin’s LGBTQ community fought back against HIV and AIDS

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On our season-one finale of “Be Seen,” we discuss an incredibly difficult topic: the arrival of HIV and AIDS in Wisconsin. But amid all the darkness, two local leaders spearheaded the state’s response to the epidemic and surely impacted countless lives.

Early GPU Screening Clinic volunteers at the Farwell Center in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy: Susan Dietz.)
Sue Dietz
Mark Behar

On this episode, you’ll first hear from Sue Dietz, the original co-founder of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, and Mark Behar, co-founder of Milwaukee’s first LGBTQ clinic, BESTD.

Then, we discuss how today’s frontline community health leaders navigate HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. We meet organizers of MKE Vogue Nights, a new effort to bring ballroom culture and HIV testing to Wisconsin’s BIPOC LGBTQ community consistently and simultaneously at one event.

If you haven’t listened to previous episodes of “Be Seen” yet, make sure to check out episode three to learn how Wisconsin’s drag queens broke down barriers between gay men and women during the AIDS crisis, and episode five to learn about Wisconsin’s oldest queer bar, which currently hosts MKE Vogue Nights.

(Photo courtesy: the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project)
Mark Behar appearing in a TV interview.
BESTD testing table in 1991. (Photo courtesy: the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project)

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Unraveling decades of history at This Is It, Wisconsin’s longest-running queer bar

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By the time of the infamous New York City Stonewall uprising in 1969, the official beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement, Milwaukee already had a vibrant nightlife scene for LGBTQ people.

As we covered in episode 1 of “Be Seen,” Wisconsin had already staged its own uprising at the Black Nite bar in 1961. But today, no trace of that bar remains. There is only one gay bar left of its era, and it’s the oldest one in Wisconsin.

Photo of the bar from in the 1970s, exact date unknown. Posted to Milwaukee LGBTQ History Facebook page, copyright Darcie L Muckler.

This Is It opened in 1968 at 418 E. Wells St., a year before Stonewall, by owner June Brehm. She managed and bartended at This Is It alongside her son, Joe, who oversaw the bar until new co-owner George Schneider took the reins in 2016. The business has operated in the same building during its entire history.

Owner June Brehm with her son, Joe. Photo via Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

Until recently, little had changed in the retro cocktail lounge; the atmosphere was unapologetically old school, complete with vintage fixtures and carpeting on the walls. But thanks to an expansion in the adjacent space in 2019, This Is It offers more entertainment options than ever before, including weekly drag shows and regular theme parties.

What has been the key to its longevity? Schneider joins us on this episode to share his vision for creating an intentionally inclusive community, and “Be Seen” co-host Michail Takach shares insights from his original interviews with the the late Brehms, both June and Joe.

June behind the bar in the 1970s, exact date unknown. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.
The queens of Baylee’s Battle Academy in 2022. Photo courtesy of This Is It Facebook page.

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Wisconsin’s most notable women’s bars, both past and present

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This episode of “Be Seen” is dedicated to the women who shaped Wisconsin’s queer culture and spaces.

Walker’s Pint owner Betsy Boenning speaks to Milwaukee having one of only 21 women’s bars left in the country. Then, Milwaukee natives Maryann “Flash” Gorski and Diane “Legs” Gregory recount two generations of Milwaukee’s lesbian and bisexual nightlife scene.

Bingo packs the bar at Walker’s Pint. Photo courtesy of Betsy Boenning.
Diane “Legs” Gregory performing at a drag show. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.
Women’s History Party, February 2017, at Woody’s, sponsored by the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

While hundreds of LGBTQ bars have closed over the decades, Milwaukee has been fortunate to be home to numerous, beloved, vibrant women’s bars over the years, dating back to the 1950s, including:

  • Wildwood
  • Nite Beat
  • Carrie’s
  • The Flame
  • Leaded Shade
  • Sugar Shack
  • Fannies
  • Viva La Femme
  • Lost & Found
  • ReneZ Co-Z Corner
  • Tina’s
  • Out N About / MoNA’s
  • Hot Legs
  • Kathy’s Nut Hut 
  • Nightingales 
  • The Black Fox
  • The Beer Garden

Speaking of the clientele of Wildwood, Josie Carter, the gender nonconforming queen who led Wisconin’s first LGBTQ uprising, said, “The women at the Wildwood were huge, mean old Amazons. They were the original bull dykes. They’d fight truck drivers in the street outside the bar. They’d ask, ‘Is this man bothering you?’ And if he was, they’d throw him, literally pick him and throw him, out the front door.”

Sharon Dixon and Joann Kilsdonk, founders of Sugar Shack, the first lesbian bar owned and managed by lesbians in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. 

Another Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project contributor remembers, “My date and I kept getting cat called by an old drunk man at the bar. One of the regulars said, ‘knock it off or you’ll be sorry.’ He asked her, ‘Yeah? What are you going to do?’ So this woman goes into the bathroom, returns with the ceramic toilet tank cover, and smashes it over his head.  And then she said, ‘who’s sorry now?’”

“This sets a tone for exactly how rough and dangerous womens bars were before liberation,” said “Be Seen” co-host Michail Takach.

Owners of Hot Legs, next door to what is now Walkers Pint. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project. 

Listen to this week’s show above, and be sure to check back for our last two episodes coming out this month. On June 20, we’re chatting with George Schneider, co-owner of This is It, Wisconsin’s longest running and oldest gay bar. Then on June 27, we’re closing out season one of “Be Seen” with a conversation with two leaders of vital organizations in Wisconsin’s response HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s.

Milwaukee couple Debi Vance and Cindy Olsheske, as heard in Episode 2 of Be Seen. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project.

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Tracing the roots of Wisconsin’s drag history, dating back to the 1880s

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Wisconsin has a long history loving female impersonators. Before Milwaukee’s City Hall was even built, drag was happening here, going all the back to the 1880s, and likely even earlier.

Drag is nothing new, even though it may seem like it with the rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race and all the other media the show has sparked, including podcasts and YouTube shows. But Wisconsin’s drag scene is well documented, and much older than you may even realize.

On this episode of Be Seen, Wisconsin drag legends BJ Daniels and Tempest Heat share firsthand experiences entertaining in the 1980s to the present, particularly how the community came together through drag benefits during the AIDS crisis.

Listen to the show below, and find a detailed timeline of Wisconsin’s drag history, written by author, historian and Be Seen co-host, Michail Takach.

BJ Daniels performs at Pridefest 2022.

Writing by Michail Takach

Pre-European Conquest
The Potawatomi, Winnebago and Ojibwe tribes of indigenous Wisconsin recognized and celebrated “two-spirit” tribe members who transcended the concept of gender. The “M’netokwe” were highly revered in tribal society for their extraordinary wisdom. They often held more authority within their communities than the tribal leaders themselves. As a result, European conquerors targeted them for extermination.

June 7, 1884
Francis “The Only Leon” performs at Nunnemacher’s Grand Opera Hall in City Hall Square. Leon is believed to be the first female impersonator to take the stage in Milwaukee — at a time when female impersonators were only glimpsed in circus freakshows. Leon’s show was such a smashing success that Jacob Litt booked Annie Hindle, the nation’s first known drag king, to headline the Milwaukee Dime Museum later that year.

April 13, 1888
William Dorsey Swann, the first “drag queen,” is arrested at his 30th birthday party in Washington DC. It was the first arrest for female impersonation in American history, the first time queer people fought back against police oppression, and the first time “queen” was used to describe a gender non-conforming person. Newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel, scandalize the nation with stories of former slaves secretly gathering in women’s clothing.

Shannon DuPree

In 1889, Dr. Frank Lydston reports a “colony of male sexual perverts in Chicago and in every community of size,” with Milwaukee listed among the eight “homosexual capitals” of America. The “fairy boy” movement, which involved young men and boys dressed in female attire for sex work, was no stranger to Milwaukee — where police reported “disreputable” activities at various saloons in the Bad Lands of the Fourth Ward. After years of lawless immorality, the Bad Lands were redeemed by slum clearance by 1923.

November 16, 1893
On trial for grand larceny, Frank Blunt is revealed to be Annie Morris, a Canadian runaway who had been living as a man for 15 years. As a man, Blunt had worked in men-only spaces, gambled in men-only pool halls, and stolen more than a few saloon-keeper’s wives. Blunt insisted that his past life as Annie was the deception and that Frank was the real person. He vowed to return to a man’s life no matter what the verdict. Both the courts and the press were offended by Blunt’s bold defiance and called for his punishment. After early release from prison in December 1894, the court-renamed “Francis” Blunt disappeared and was never heard from again.

August 26, 1899
Although female impersonation was all the rage at the riverfront parks and vaudeville theaters, men expressing as women offstage were still strictly forbidden. Millie Brown, aka Harry Hynes, is arrested outside the Alhambra Theater (334 W. Wisconsin Ave.) and accused of being the mastermind of a cross-dressing crime ring. Millie is sentenced to the House of Correction for living and presenting as a woman. No crime ring is ever found to exist.

River Street, the jewel of the Bad Lands and the city’s best-known red light district, is ordered closed by the vice commission and new Mayor Emil Seidel. Miss Kitty’s (219 E. State St.,) the most opulent bordello of all, was the first to be shut down. According to oral history, Miss Kity was the only madame who employed gay men and female impersonators among her harem, offering truly taboo trade for high-ticket customers.

Dear Ruthie

After being arrested in Milwaukee for bigamy, Ralph Kerwineo is outed by his jilted “wife” as a biological woman. Initially branded a deviant who took advantage of a confused woman, Ralph charmed the courts and the media with his defense of being a simple workingman trying to make it in a cruel world. Although most charges were dropped, Ralph was misgendered throughout the trial and ultimately ordered to resume using his birth name and wearing women’s clothing. After touring the country on the Orpheum vaudeville scene, Ralph was arrested twice more and was finally forced into compliance. He took a husband and moved to Chicago, where he settled down as Cora Seifert until his death in 1932. Ralph Kerwineo is buried in Lake View Cemetery.

Burt Savoy, Julian Eltinge and Karyl Norman, the reigning female impersonators of the vaudeville circuit, make multiple visits to Milwaukee — and inspire national and local impersonators of their own. Savoy begins using the term “slay,” still in use today by drag queens everywhere. Although their shows are considered wholesome family entertainment at the time, and not an extension of queer identity, Eltinge invests significant time and energy in maintaining a hypermasculine reputation for the media. Norman and Savoy… not so much.

July 11, 1928
The St. Charles Hotel in City Hall Square is seized by the federal government and closed for one year. In the largest lockdown of the Prohibition Era, federal agents report that not only is liquor flowing freely at the St. Charles, but the hotel has become a gathering place for degenerates, “bull daggers” and “fairy boys.” One agent reports being solicited by chorus girls “who may not have been girls.”

The Pansy Craze, one of America’s first national expressions of queer community, erupts from coast to coast as soon as Prohibition ends. “Tough Chicago has an epidemic of male butterflies,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, “with 35 ‘pansy parlors’ or more.” Inspired by Chicago’s flowering, Milwaukee opens its first drag cabarets: Club La Tosca in the Third Ward; Chez Paree on 45th and Wisconsin; Bon Ton, College Inn and The Nut House downtown. Although the craze was short-lived, there were long-term social implications: people began to consider “sexual identity” for the first time, as they’d never realized that alternatives existed. However, not everyone was happy with the queering of America. By 1935, police, civic leaders, the press and even the FBI were so eager for social reform that they mutually fostered the “Moron Menace,” a sensationalist series of sex-panic news stories. Cities across America began banning female impersonators — and states began to pass sexual psychopath laws that had devastating effects on human lives.

Candi Stratton

The Jewel Box Revue, a traveling drag company with over 25 marquee stars, was founded by lovers Danny Brown and Doc Benner in Miami in 1936. Originally, the company would tour the northern U.S. during the summers and spend winters at their Miami Beach club. Later, the Revue moved to the Bal Tabarin nightclub in Times Square. Over the next four decades, they inspire not only a national circuit of drag cabarets — including Finocchio’s and The Beige Room in San Francisco; Club My-O-My in New Orleans, The 181 Club and Club 82 in New York City; The Diplomat in Detroit; the Garden Of Allah in Seattle; the Jewel Box Lounge in Kansas City; and The Tic Toc Club in Milwaukee — but the return of drag as wholesome “straight” entertainment. Benner & Brown work very hard to distance the Jewel Box girls from the gay community; however, most if not all cast members were gay, and audiences were invited to dabble in a strange sort of sexual tourism simply by attending their shows. The Jewel Box Girls became TV and magazine celebrities, offering hair, makeup and charm advice to bored housewives and budding queens throughout the 1960s. After seeding America with queer visibility for two generations, the Revue retired in 1975.

At the height of McCarthy Era homosexual panic, Milwaukee’s first hometown drag superstars, Adrian Ames and Billie Herrero, are making tens of thousands each week in the downtown nightclub circuit. Drag shows could be seen at over two dozen local clubs, ranging from high-end dinner theater at Lakota’s to boxing ring numbers at Club Terris to ladies’ luncheons at the Gay 90s to rough trade rendezvous at the Empress Burlesk House. Milwaukee’s first gay neighborhood, the Plankinton Strip, has three full-time bars operating by 1952, but none of them welcome drag queens — as they attract attention that closeted customers don’t want.

The Black Nite Brawl, led by a young black woman of trans experience, ushers in a new age for Milwaukee.

Young queens, no longer feeling limited to stage personas, begin exploring with genderfluid identities in Milwaukee. The drag scene becomes a melting pot — and a refuge — for gay men and pioneering trans women. The Belmont Coffee Shop, Marc’s Big Boy and Loop Cafe become safe havens for emerging gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming youth. Drag queens, formerly banished from men’s bars, become welcome guests and performers.

Sir Lady Java, famed exotic dancer, brings the concept of female-impersonator-as-stripper to Milwaukee, and the Balistrieri crime family is here for it. Over the course of a few months, they convert the Ad Lib Nightclub (323 W. Wells St.) from a jazz club to a strip club to a drag show. By using men in their shows, the Balistrieris could easily circumvent obscenity laws that only applied to genetic women. The Ad Lib created a safe, empowering and lucrative workplace for Milwaukee’s drag performers and early trans women, each of them hoping to “make it big” and join the national performing circuit. When Misty Dawn, a trans woman, was arrested for going totally nude on stage, the courts had to navigate whether or not gender affirmation surgery qualified or disqualified Misty for prosecution. The resulting trial rewrote the rules of nightlife by eliminating 1930s B-Girl laws that policed women’s behavior in bars separately from men’s.

Tiger Rose, Mama Rae, Ken W and John create “MGM: Miss Gay Milwaukee” to showcase the city’s growing drag community. Each of Milwaukee’s 10 gay bars would nominate an annual titleholder, who in turn would compete for the MGM title. The Pageant continued for over 25 years.

Milwaukee’s first gay liberation organization, GLO, forms at UWM. Within a year, GLO is replaced by Gay People’s Union and the far more militant Gay Liberation Front. These activist groups are later joined by the Radical Queens and the New Gay Underground. Only Gay People’s Union survives to see 1980, but not much longer. Once focused entirely on civil, cultural and legal rights, GPU resources were overwhelmed by the community health needs of the AIDS crisis.

Michelle, a trans woman from St. Louis, and her “husband” Sam Mazur, open Michelle’s Club 546 at the Royal Hotel (435 W. Michigan) The club is a smashing success, offering a five-day-a-week drag cabaret with hostess Winnie Storm. The property is demolished in 1974.

The New Riviera Show Lounge opens at 183 S. 2nd St. as a drag destination. The “Dolly Revue,” presenting over a dozen local impersonators, had ambitious goals to bring drag back out of the gay bars. They were the first gay bar to advertise in local papers, radio and TV. Despite their success, a fired performer set fire to the bar on Easter Sunday, 1974, which destroyed not only the Riviera but almost the entire city block.

The disco craze arrives early in Milwaukee with the arrival of The Factory (158 N. Broadway,) with its light-up floors, pulsating lighting and gigantic devil head above the dancefloor. Ruling queen Tiger Rose builds the stage that later becomes the famous “Loading Dock” drag cabaret. The Factory becomes a place where queens can come out dressed, not to perform, but simply to see and be seen.

C’est La Vie (231 S. 2nd St.) opens as a man’s bar that didn’t admit drag queens. Later, owner John Clayton hires his own drag cast, managed by Mandi McCall, Tabitha Stevens, Brittany Morgan and finally, Misha Mahon.

Following the demise of the Riviera, the “Dolly Revue” survivors regroup as “MIlwaukee Entertainers Club,” which used Ball Game (196 S 2nd. St) as their home base. The MEC produced the Miss Gay Wisconsin pageant for many years before disbanding in 1983.

The M&M Club opens in the Third Ward and begins offering live entertainment almost immediately. Over three decades, the bar becomes a tight-knit family, embracing their in-house queens Patsy Parks, Karen Valentine and Rona.

Club 219 opens at 219 S. 2nd St. and ushers in the Golden Age of Drag for Milwaukee. Owners Del and Tony change the rules of drag by recruiting top talent from the Baton Show Lounge, building high-quality, atmospheric stage experiences, and paying the staff a living wage. The bar becomes a launch pad for famous performers, while attracting national shows by Divine, Village People, Gloria Gaynor and Taylor Dayne. After showrunner Samantha Stevens leaves the business, Ginger Spice and the 219 Girls elevate the show to epic popularity.

1982 / 1983
Wisconsin becomes first in the nation to pass a Gay Rights Law in 1982 that prohibits discrimination baed on sexual orientation in employment, credit, housing or public accommodation. Confusingly, the law bans discrimination against homosexuals, but does not specifically legalize their existence. Fortunately, the Consenting Adults Bill of 1983 bluntly decriminalizes sodomy and overturns long-standing legal penalties for gays and lesbians. Wisconsin’s status as the Gay Rights State is widely celebrated; however, these new laws make no protection whatsoever for discriminations based on gender identity. Forty years later, there are no Wisconsin laws specifically protecting trans and nonbinary people today.

La Cage opens at 801 S. 2nd St. The club is a smashing success with both gay and straight crowds, who come for the Vegas-level drag shows and stay for late night dancing. Over the next few years, the 219 and La Cage casts become local celebrities, while engaged in fierce competition for the best shows and largest audiences. Holly Brown & Company, considered one of the most talented drag casts in America, runs from 1988 to 1990.

Paris is Burning, a documentary film about the ballroom houses of New York, introduces middle America to not only the origins of voguing, but the life experiences of trans people of color.

PrideFest Milwaukee is held at Juneau Park for the first time, and also for the first time, the celebration includes a performance stage for drag shows and other talent.

November 1991
Holly Brown and Ginger Spice pass away — within ten days of each other — and the Great Golden Age of Milwaukee Drag comes to a sad, unexpected, early ending.

June 1995
Inspired by Stonewall25, and the cultural losses incurred by the AIDS epidemic, the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project is founded to protect, preserve and document our shared heritage before it’s lost forever. Today, the Project is the state’s largest collection of local LGBTQ multimedia.

UWM’s LGBTQ Resource Center hosts the first Annual UWM Drag Show, a tradition that continues to this day.

Three local drag kings form the Miltown Kings at the 2004 UWM Drag Ball. The group continues until 2019.

RuPaul’s Drag Race debuts. To date, Milwaukee has sent four local contestants (and counting) to the competition: Jaymes Mansfield, Trixie Mattel, Jaida Essence Hall and Joey Jay.

Hamburger Mary’s, founded in San Francisco in 1972, opens its first Milwaukee location.

The Wisconsin Transgender Oral History project launches to capture the voices of trans elders, many of whom had their origins in the drag community.

RuPaul’s Drag Con is founded in Los Angeles.

This Is It, one of the nation’s oldest gay bars, expands its space to include a drag cabaret. The new venue becomes the center of live drag talent throughout the pandemic. Through streaming drag shows and even a “Virtual Pride,” This is It keeps the drag economy thriving at a time when even the local pride festival was cancelled.

The Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project publishes Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour, the first comprehensive history of drag’s role in our local culture.

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