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Galano Club helps Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ community find lasting recovery

The Galano Club has helped members of the LGBTQ+ community achieve long-term sobriety for almost 50 years.
The Galano Club
The Galano Club has helped members of the LGBTQ+ community achieve long-term sobriety for almost 50 years.

Editor’s note: Some names in the following article have been abbreviated to protect anonymity.

Against the buzz of Milwaukee’s countless breweries, bars and clubs, the Galano Club (G=gay Alano=alcoholics anonymous) has helped LGBTQ members find recovery and community for nearly 50 years.

All Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups have only one core requirement: the desire to stop drinking. But for many, forging relationships with one another is necessary for a lasting recovery. Special-interest AA groups, like the Galano Club, help members beyond recovery; they offer members connection and camaraderie with people in their own communities — something traditional AA meetings have historically lacked.

“Facing discrimination then trying to come to sobriety and talk about your issues is too difficult,” Galano Club treasurer Guy Roeseler said. “How do you talk about your struggles with drinking and not reference who you are, who you’re in a relationship with, what’s your lifestyle like? That’s why Galano is really important.”

Special-interest groups have been a controversial aspect of AA meetings for decades. Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was said to have opened its door to anyone who wanted to stop drinking, regardless of gender, race, creed or sexual orientation. However, due to segregation and prejudicial behavior, AA members of marginalized identities quickly recognized the need for their own meetings.

The first Black AA group was founded only 10 years after the start of the program. The first gay meeting was held in 1967. More and more special-interest groups started to emerge, helping a larger number of people find recovery through connection.

“I have friends with long-term sobriety — like 45 years,” Roeseler said. “The club has been very important for people to maintain long-term sobriety. You need to have a safe space. Gay people were not comfortable going to a lot of ‘regular straight meetings.’ People were just not as understanding or accepting.”

From formal (and informal) beginnings

Milwaukee’s Galano Club formalized in the mid-1980s, but the organization has roots that reach back a decade or more prior.

“[The LGBTQ group] started somewhere in the ’70s,” said Raymond K-K, a founding member of Milwaukee’s Galano Club. “Each group had a number back in the day. If the group number had a 94 at the end of it, that was a gay meeting. That’s how it was designated. You just knew that. It was a word-of-mouth thing; there wasn’t anything listed.”

The Galano Club's home in West Allis.
The Galano Club
The Galano Club's home in West Allis.

When first starting recovery just about anywhere, socializing is difficult because so many activities involve — if not revolve around — alcohol. In Milwaukee, you can change “many activities” to “nearly all.” As a result, sobriety can be isolating. The Galano Club became a space to socialize without the temptation of a drink.

“This was the only place we had to get to know each other,” K-K said. “We started this all to be able to socialize and find support outside of the gay bar scene. [The bars] were a place to drink, to get laid. It wasn’t a place to talk about your feelings.”

The Galano Club’s first location was on Farwell Avenue and, as K-K said, “It just took off. We would have BBQs, we had a counter that looked like an old saloon, all non-alcoholic drinks. We hung out there, we had parties there. Eventually, a board developed, we created bylaws and started an annual retreat.”

The organization moved to several locations through the years, including the building where the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center is today, before landing at their current West Allis location. Membership has grown and waned, some founding members have passed, and the organization took a big hit during COVID.

But, despite the setbacks, they remain undaunted — helping a new generation of LGBTQ people struggling with addiction find respite in the group and hoping that even more do in the future.

Odds stacked against you

Wisconsinites have a tricky relationship with drinking. Alcohol is so tightly woven into the social culture of the state, getting sober isn’t just an uphill battle; it’s a statistical improbability.

Across all sub-demographics — age, race, education level, gender and income — Wisconsin outranks the rest of the United States in excessive drinking, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

“Addiction is a mystery,” Roeseler said. “I've woken up on rooftops, under pool tables, and the next day I would drink again. That’s the craziness of it. It's completely irrational.”

Galano members follow the traditional “12 step” program that originated in AA. The system is rooted in Christianity, which is an issue for many, especially queer members who have felt ostracized by the religious institutions they were raised in. But members of Galano encourage newcomers to consider “God” as “some force outside themselves.”

“That's a nice thing: There is no set belief system,” Roeseler said. “God can be ‘a good orderly direction’ or a group of drunks. God can be whatever you believe in. The 12 steps help you forgive yourself and forgive other people. You make amends to the people that you've hurt, and that frees you up of all that guilt and shame you have.

“But you have to be honest with yourself and take responsibility. That’s the only way it will work.”

The Galano Club's car in the 2024 Milwaukee Pride Parade.
The Galano Club
The Galano Club's car in the 2024 Milwaukee Pride Parade.

This year’s Pride Parade theme was “Respecting Our Past, Honoring Our Future,” an apt theme for an organization as historic and important as the Galano Club. Led by K-K and other members, their banner and decked-out car was a way to remind Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community they are not alone and that recovery is possible.

Each day in West Allis, the club hosts a different kind of recovery group, including Al-Anon, a group for friends and families of addicts, and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. Their 4 p.m. meeting every Sunday is located at the LGBT Community Center so Galano members with limited mobility can use the elevator and attend their meetings.

On June 30, Galano will host an open meeting and BBQ with a speaker from Al-Anon and a speaker from AA — an opportunity for newcomers to experience a commitment-free event and see if Galano is right for them. There’s also a complete schedule on the club’s website for anyone interested in something more specific to their needs.

“In AA,” K-K noted, “the newcomer is the most important person in the meeting.”

Carmella D'Acquisto is a Milwaukee-based journalist. When she's not typing behind the computer, you can catch her at a local show or thrift store. You can find more of her work on her website.