Beers & Queer History: artificial taste, less filling

by | Jul 18, 2023 | 0 comments

So, I’m not one to argue with people on social media—especially Twitter these days—but an especially vicious December 1 Twitterstorm was too vicious and vengeful not to intercede, especially as a historian charged with protecting the factual and unbiased history of LGBTQ Wisconsin.

“On World AIDS Day, a reminder that Miller Brewing Company has not been ‘an advocate for the LGBTQ community for decades,’ as it alleges in a recent book on queer bars by Eric Cervini (funded by Miller,)” wrote Twitter user Kevin Murphy. “In 1990, ACT-UP boycotted Miller and Marlboro for their support of Senator Jesse Helms, who among other awful things, opposed federal funding of AIDS research.”

“Thank you…for this useful framing of Miller’s clumsy and infuriating attempt to rewrite queer history,” wrote Aaron Lecklider, author and professor at University of Massachusetts. “This company commissioned a history that would completely dissemble their own complicity in anti-queer politics.”

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This perception was shocking to read. As a former board member of Milwaukee Pride, I knew that Miller’s ever-increasing financial commitment fostered PrideFest’s astonishing growth from a rally (1989) to a lakefront festival (1996) to one of the largest pride events in America. For over 25 years, PrideFest has been the only LGBTQ festival in the world with its own permanent festival park. This has been accredited directly to the support of Miller Brewing Company. Prior to PrideFest, Miller supported the Cream City Foundation for the greater good of local LGBTQ organizations. Regionally, they also supported the MAGIC Picnic in Madison and the North Star Gay Rodeo in Minneapolis. They were also the first national brand to sponsor the Gay Games in 1994. At a time when no brand would step forward to support LGBTQ organizations, Miller *was* a relentless hometown sponsor. 

None of this mattered to Miller’s enemies. This was all merely “rainbow capitalism,” “tax write-offs,” and “corporate doublespeak.” I was accused of “absolving Miller of their anti-queer policies,” “irresponsibly protecting an indefensible brand,” and (ironically!) “losing all historical objectivity as a historian.” I wasn’t absolving anyone—merely stating the facts—but the facts simply did not matter here. Miller was queerwashing their own history, author Dr. Eric Cervini was a traitor, and I was now complicit in this operation. And that was final.

As a historian, I often find this habit—of judging past actions harshly through the more evolved lens of now—is a real barrier to achieving real historical understanding. In fact, it’s often a barrier to building trust with LGBTQ elders, reluctant to share their life experiences and testimonials, because they don’t need or want to be judged for the choices they made in an era without any entitlement at all.

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“You have to understand, this is just how it was,” confided an ‘AARP Table’ customer at the old Ball Game (196 S. 2ndSt.) in 2011. “This is just how the world was. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t easy. Complaining about it didn’t do a damn thing. We had two choices: survive or surrender.”

In the year of “Don’t Say Gay,” when our community is under an unprecedented and relentless attack, when over 400 anti-LGBTQ bills are progressing, attacking allied brands for the actions of their former leaders in a long-lost era is a strange choice of armchair activism. It’s also a strange form of denial: refusing to accept that people, companies, policies, culture can change over time to become more inclusive, equitable, and accepting. 

Miller’s LGBTQ support recently returned to the news cycle following conservative backlash about Bud Light’s collaboration with comedian Dylan Mulvaney. So, I decided to see whether or not the “rainbow capitalism” indictment was warranted.

Beers & Queer History, announced in October 2021 as part of LGBTQ History Month, is an extension of Miller Lite’s long-term “Open & Proud” collaboration with the Equality Foundation. Since 2017, Miller has donated nearly half a million dollars to the Foundation to accelerate justice, community engagement, and leadership development for LGBTQ people. Dr. Eric Cervini, an author, historian, and educator, was commissioned to explain the historical role of beer—and gay bars—in shaping gay culture. Released in June 2022 with little local fanfare, the book is available exclusively through the Miller Shop online with proceeds supporting Equality Foundation. 

Beers & Queer History is, admittedly, a very curious book. The book is supposedly priced at $19.33 to commemorate Café Lafitte in Exile—believed to be the longest-running post-Prohibition gay bar in America—which is not even profiled or explained in its pages. Less than 30 pages in length, the book proposes to tell the “little-known” stories of 10 iconic gay bars throughout America—some well-known historic landmarks (Stonewall Inn, Julius’, the Black Cat, the White Horse Inn;) some obscure nightspots that no longer exist (The Chicken Hut, Rusty’s, Panic Bar, Black Cat Cafe;) and lesser-known diverse spots that deserve more spotlight (Jeffrey Pub, Club One). 

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While it’s heartwarming to see these historic landmarks get some love, and to see their stories packaged and portable for new audiences, the packaging itself is the book’s biggest problem. The ten profiles are little more than 4-5 high-level paragraphs each, which offer few insights into the modern-day character or culture of these spaces. There is nothing “little-known” revealed about any of these locations. The watercolor illustrations—in places where historic photos could have been—do very little to support the narrative. Cervini never goes deep enough with any of the profiles to make an impression. While he includes several self-indulgent references to his own work, the author doesn’t include enough original, historical research to advance these stories further. 

In short, the book is almost too simple. The content feels like it was written in a single afternoon. It lacks substance, and moreover, it lacks soul. It feels like an LGBTQ history book for children—yet confusingly anchored in the culture of beer and bars. 

Shockingly, there’s no representation of Wisconsin—or Milwaukee, the birthplace of the Miller brand. Not the St. Charles Hotel, the earliest recorded gay bar raid in Wisconsin and the largest Prohibition padlock in U.S. history, only a crosswalk away from City Hall. Not This is It, the longest-running gay bar in Wisconsin, now celebrating its 55th year in business. Not even the Black Nite, one of the earliest LGBTQ resistance events in America, ignited when a beer bottle-wielding black woman of trans experience decided it was time to stop running and start fighting back. Was that not pivotal enough?

True, Dr. Cervini never promised an all-encompassing history of LGBTQ America, but you’d imagine at least one hometown / home state experience might be included. Yet, neither Wisconsin—nor the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project—has any role in telling this story. Miller’s long-time sponsorship of PrideFest Milwaukee also goes unmentioned, which is a very strange and short-sighted editorial choice. 

“This book is all about celebrating inclusive spaces,” said Lauren Cassel, associate marketing manager for Miller Lite. By telling stories of how bars—and beer—have brought members of the LGBTQ+ community together, the brand hopes “to inspire more people to be around those they love and feel comfortable being themselves. We’re helping to lead our industry to promote and protect safe spaces in communities around the country,” Cassel says.

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Showing annual support for nearly 50,000 LGBTQ and allied visitors across 35 years certainly would have supported that purpose. The book does credit Miller Lite with supporting Folsom Street Fair, New York Pride, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington Blade, and other LGBTQ organizations. Why not mention PrideFest Milwaukee—one of its longest-running LGBTQ investments—at all?

Beers & Queer History, in the end, is a disappointing read. It doesn’t go far enough, deep enough, or real enough, and neither did Cervini. The book ultimately feels like a corporate diversity & inclusion pamphlet. Twenty-seven pages is not nearly enough space to tell the rich and colorful stories of these queer spaces, nor does it feel like Cervini even tried to teach us anything new. Did Miller impose editorial limitations on the book that reduced Cervini’s good intentions? Or did Miller simply not pay enough to fund the deeper research that a book like this deserved? We’ll never know.

“I was so excited to order this book,” said Jim Kohler. “I agree with the message Dr. Eric Cervini is conveying, but I can’t believe not a single queer bar from Milwaukee made the top 10. Considering Milwaukee, at its height, had over 30 gay bars, is the birth place of Miller, the Black Nite Brawl, and Wisconsin is the first state to pass LGBT protections, I feel we deserved at least a mention in the book. It’s disappointing. Wisconsin friends, I suggest a pass.”

And, sadly, so do I.

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