June 2, 2022
By Ashley Altadonna
How often have you driven past an abandoned storefront (or really any building) and considered its history? What stories, memories, and secrets does it hold? I’ve lived in Milwaukee for over twenty years, and though definitely a part of its LGBTQ community, I never really thought about the history that our queer community has with the city.
LGBTQ history isn’t something taught in schools, much less talked about, except maybe during Pride Month. Perhaps it's because too often it feels we are in a daily struggle just to retain the rights we have currently. When state legislators across the country are drafting bathroom bills, banning healthcare, and outlawing participation in school activities, it can be difficult to look back at the progress we’ve made.
But what if there were a way to share our stories and our histories that was readily accessible? What if there was a place to learn about the lives, organizations, and events that shaped Milwaukee’s queer community? Well, wonder no more! A team of writers, historians, voice actors, videographers, and app developers at LGBT MilWALKee have created just that. LGBT MilWALKee is a free walking tour app available on Android and iOs that connects users, through guided tours, to the spaces LGBTQ folks claimed, “the roles we played, the lives we led, and the love we spread throughout this city we call home.”
Here are our stories and histories brought to life through videos connected to physical locations. Stories such as the time LGBTQ Milwaukeeans literally fought for their right to exist years before the Stonewall Riots in New York. In 1961, when a group of sailors threatened to “clean up” the Black Nite Bar, they were met by a group of over 70 angry patrons, led by a Black trans woman Josie Carter. A brawl ensued, and the LGBTQ patrons successfully defended their space in the city. Or the tale of the 19th-century philanderer Frank Blunt, who not only stole hearts, but wallets as well, and who made headlines because he happened to be assigned female at birth. And let’s not forget the career of world-famous female impersonator Billie Heraro, who made millions in post-prohibition Milwaukee. Heraro's wildly successful career was ruined by famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, who was appalled by the fact that Heraro’s impersonation of her was so good that audiences often assumed they were seeing the genuine article.
LGBT MilWALKee offers a chance to learn about these stories, along with the activists and organizers who fought for gay liberation in the 1960s and 1970s and who later struggled against the epidemic of AIDS in the 1980s. Users can rediscover parts of our city through the gay bars and bathhouses, parks, and community centers that provided refuge to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Milwaukeeans over the past century. The app also recognizes that our community’s history is still being made every day by folks who organized the Pride March for Black Lives Matter in 2020, and other individuals who continue to stand up and demanded equal rights to marriage, healthcare, employment, education, and housing.
The LGBT MilWALKee app is free to download and currently includes 25 sites and 3 tours, with plans to add another 25-75 more sites by the end of the year. You can learn more at their website www.lgbtmilwalkee.com and donate to our GoFundMe page.
The Tool Shed/Trans Tool Shed is a proud sponsor of the LGBT MilWALKee project.