Celebrating a Trans Pioneer

by | Nov 1, 2022 | 0 comments

  • “Ralph Kerwineo and the Refining Influence of Skirts”

On May 2, 1914, Milwaukee police arrested Ralph Kerwineo. The official charge was disorderly conduct, but the accusation was that he was biologically, in fact, she. For 13 years, Ralph had effectively lived his life as a man. He was described as the perfect gentleman, the most well-dressed and well-educated, and among the finest sportsmen in Milwaukee. He worked in men-only jobs at the Plankinton Hotel, Gimbels, and Cutler-Hammer.

Ralph informally married Mamie White in Chicago in 1906, but he couldn’t limit himself to just one woman. The relationship was long riddled with affairs, and Mamie grew tired of Ralph’s smoking, drinking, cursing, and gambling. In 1914, Ralph obtained a groom’s health certificate and legally married his lover, Dorothy Kleinowski. When Mamie found out, she went straight to the police and outed Ralph as a “cross-dresser.”

The sensational story of the “Girl-Man of Milwaukee’’ made international news headlines for weeks. Milwaukee was no stranger to gender non-confirming pioneers; in fact, court reporters reflected on the strange case of Frank Blunt only 21 years prior. The resulting trial could have written the last chapter in the life of Ralph Kerwineo. But something curious happened: The public began to sympathize with the wayward womanizer—even rallying to his cause—making Ralph Kerwineo an unlikely, unstoppable, yet unknown hero of his time.

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Nearly a century later, the story of Ralph Kerwineo was recalled to life in 2013 by author Matthew J. Prigge for the Wisconsin Magazine of History and by the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project’s recent Milwaukee Drag: Seven Generations of Glamour. “Ralph Kerwineo and the Refining Influence of Skirts,” a stage production by Emerald Condor Productions, ran October 10–23 at Inspiration Studios in West Allis. Writer-producer Chris Holoyda and director Jarvell Williams share the inspiration and craft behind their tribute to a long-lost trans ancestor.

Historians aside, few people in Milwaukee have ever heard of Ralph Kerwineo. What inspired your production?  

The inception was really my friend Matt (Prigge’s) story about Ralph for Milwaukee magazine. Matt gave his research materials for the “Girl-Man” article to another playwright, but nothing ever materialized, so he passed the information on to me. I had the same reaction: This was one of the most compelling stories I’d never heard of. My circle of friends was really surprised to hear about it. So, it was a challenge accepted: Let’s see what we can do here.

I wrote the first draft in 2019. The original goal was to let the story shine through, without putting too much of a modern perspective on it, except to honor Ralph’s identity as a man. It’s clear to me that he experienced himself as a man, despite the trapping of anatomy and society at large. I had no intention of fictionalizing his story. This is a sincere retelling of history.

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And the story really told itself. It was incredibly satisfying to see it come to life. I hadn’t read the original source material for some time before we started production, and I’d forgotten how much of it was directly from the research. The fun and the challenge of my role was seeing that the basic story was there, waiting for us to fill in the blanks and be true to the characters and the story. 

But it’s not just an historical piece, it’s a living piece. So many parts of Ralph’s story are still around us today. That’s why it feels important to bring to the stage. I don’t profess to be a LGBTQ historian necessarily, but from my script research, there’s a standard script of queer people moving to big cities and finding their community. Milwaukee was no different. The question becomes, how did people who were gender non-conforming fit in? What did the intersection of racial, sexual, and gender identities mean in Ralph’s era? How did being biracial affect Ralph’s overall place in society?

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There’s also an alternate, often-overlooked narrative of people who were non-gender conforming who lived in rural areas. How did those people adapt (or not adapt) to their communities, and what do their experiences tell us about Ralph? The short answer is that these experiences are still happening. People are still navigating the same challenges today. And that’s why it’s important that Ralph’s story is told.

What can you tell us about your cast?

We have a great cast, and it’s diverse in terms of race and queerness, which is extremely exciting to us. It’s also especially important in telling our story. After parting ways with the original director due to creative differences, the production moved forward in an unorthodox way: The cast largely directed themselves, conducting rehearsals on their own with occasional input from the writer. This method provided greater opportunity for a spectrum of racial representation and queer representation, allowing the performers to contribute their diverse voices and experiences through a unique, collaborative process.

What do you hope audiences will learn from Ralph’s life experience?  

Alternative avenues are important and have always been important. “Don’t Say Gay” legislation is demonizing LGBTQ youth—who are politically powerless—just to rile up the conservative base. I have to wonder how schools will cope with this pressure over time.

Any closing words?

We were so proud to bring people to Inspiration Studios. We could not be more grateful that we had this space. Erico Ortiz, owner and manager, was instrumental to our project. We brought something to West Allis that you won’t see in many suburbs. Inspiration is very embedded in creating an experience: It’s not just show-in/show-out. They’ve built a community around this beautiful and multifaceted space.

Learn more about the illustrious life of Ralph Kerwineo at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website: wislgbthistory.com

Michail Takach is a historian, author, reporter, and communications professional. He earned his master’s in communications and history at U.W.-Madison. As a fifth-generation Milwaukeean, he supported various non-profits over the past two decades, including Historic Milwaukee, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Walker’s Point Association, and Milwaukee Pride. Michail is currently the curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, a not-for-profit devoted to connecting local LGBTQ people with their hidden history and heritage.

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