The Kindness of Strangers

by | Sep 1, 2011 | 0 comments

Picture it. A Wisconsin winter. The 1970s. It is cold in the frozen tundra so you have a heavy coat. After all, only so much fabulous style can keep you warm without cloth or leather!

Head to the gay bar where you check your wrap and throw a tip into the coat check basket. You have just become a gay philanthropist of the day. Wisconsin’s early gay activism in the 1970s survived mainly on the proceeds from the winter coat checks at gay bars. Of course being a “gay philanthropist” was a bit of repeat phrase, since the root of the word philanthropy being the Greek philein “to love” plus the Greek anthropos meaning “man.”

In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams gives Blanche Dubois the final line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This is after her family and culture have rejected her. All too often gay folks have had to depend on the kindness of strangers to build our movement. At times this has been because even gay people have been unknown or strangers to each other in response to the demands of the closet.

Borrowed Space

The first gay organization in Madison and Wisconsin, the Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality (MAHE) was founded in the fall of 1969 right after Stonewall. MAHE depended on the kindness of strangers when it needed to borrow space for meetings. St. Francis House, then and now the campus Episcopal Center—presently facing an uncertain future—was the first public location in town to welcome a gay organization. Later, St. Francis would be a home to Integrity-Dignity, the local organization linked to the national gay Catholic and gay Episcopalian organizations, but here locally run as an ecumenical group.

Passing the Hat

In 1972 Paul Safransky fought his firing from his job at Southern Colony for being a homosexual. Lawyers, including David Adamany, donated their time for the court proceedings that went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, there were still costs for copying briefs and filing fees to be paid. The UW student bar association paid part and the “hat” was passed at gays bars in Madison by a new Madison organization, the Gay Liberation Front, to fund these costs.

In March 1977, the “Renaissance Newsletter” of the Gay Center headlined a story “Financial Crisis Hits Gay Center as Pledges Drop.” Penned by Ron McCrea, local activist and journalist, it noted that regular pledges had brought in just $300 to $400 a month for several years. The problems of volunteer organizations were highlighted when it was noted there were no contributions in November and December 1976 because the post office box expired due to changeover of treasurers and all checks were returned. Then January brought only $30 and February another $80. These paltry sums did not cover even the organization’s tiny budget.

The center’s budget at that time was $100 a month for supplies plus another $100 a month for the newsletter. Another $100 a month went to repay St. Francis House for a loan with a balance of $850 principal with $240 in interest due. The original loan had been for $2,000 to fund a start-up staffer who had since resigned. In June, the newsletter reported a gain of net proceeds of $59 from a benefit poetry reading at the Cardinal Bar. Later in 1977, advertisers like the Soap Opera, A Room of One’s Own bookstore, the Back Door bar, Gilman Street Books, the Cardinal Bar, and Pure Pleasure Bookstore bought ads in the newsletter to help out and rescue the publication of the newsletter. Such was the high finance of Madison’s early gay liberation.

Gay Funds for the Gay Community

The MAGIC Picnic, originally the Back Door Bar Picnic with Rodney Scheel’s leadership, became another source of gay funds for the gay community in this early period of the mid- to late-1970s. The tentative nature of organizational efforts was reflected in the name Madison Area Gay Interim Committee or MAGIC. Volunteer groups would agree to furnish so much labor for the picnic event and proceeds were divided according to each organization’s efforts to pull off the picnic. Of course, highlights like the water balloon toss (wet t-shirts anyone?) and the high-heel race made the event very popular. But major funds were still lacking.

In the late 1970s Dan Curd and yours truly agreed to serve on the advisory board of the Gay Center, a forerunner of OutReach, which met in the basement of the campus Methodist Center. Thank God for friendly, progressive Christians. We were amazed at how small a budget on which the Gay Center operated, less than $10,000. This clearly pointed to a need for more fundraising.

Community Fundraisers

Dan and I, then both living in the historically gay-friendly near eastside with houses on the 700 blocks of Jenifer Street and Williamson Street, got into the community fundraising track. One of our first efforts was an event for the United. We threw a themed event called “An Alice B. Toklas Birthday Party,” choosing a day in the year near her birthday. And no, we did not serve that kind of brownies—younger ones may have to Google this.

For the Gay Center, we next decided to throw a themed party “A Night in Old Key West” at the end of March with promises of “magic and mirth; blossoms and brilliance; stars and southern breezes.” This was 1981 and there was an election for County Executive so Jonathan Barry and Rod Matthews both appeared to campaign for the gay community vote. Candidates were just beginning to figure out how to woo gay voters, following in the footsteps of earlier Paul Soglin and Jim Rowen campaigns that had hit the gay bars.

The suggested donation was $10 for which one would get cool libations and sumptuous hors d’œuvres. Amazingly, these house parties raised $1,000 or more, which was a big contribution to community resources at the time. We also learned that as community fundraising grew, so did our political power.

The United and City of Madison funding

By 1981 The United, another forerunner of OutReach, had built up its budget to $27,000 with the biggest source of funds being $13,250 from the City of Madison while membership and fundraising contributed merely $4,000. The city had decided to support the Lesbian/Gay Crisis line in 1980, the line being virtually the only source for help with coming out or other issues for LGBT people in south-central Wisconsin. However, maintaining even this small contribution and the service was often an annual budget battle as less-friendly city council members for several years proposed budget amendments to remove funding from The United. This being Madison, they failed. Having gay people on the city council helped preserve funding.

The New Harvest Foundation

After the passage of Wisconsin’s first-in-the-nation gay rights law in 1982 many of us felt we could do anything. We knew Milwaukee had established a Cream City Foundation for their gay community as had a few other places, so why not here in Madison? So after six months of lively discussions in my living room, the New Harvest Foundation was born with Tess Meuer and me as the first co-chairs, gender parity being a foundational principle. Jerry Dahlke, a gay man and professional fundraiser, teased us into having an initial goal of $10,000, which we thought was madly ambitious. By the time we publicly launched the Foundation at an event at the old Civic Center in 1984 with Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner, Jerry had pushed the goal up to $25,000 for the initial campaign of three years, of which over one half was committed during the launch.

Community Dinners

In the 1980s there were many community dinners for special groups like the Urban League, the ACLU, and the NAACP, but none for the gay community, so we had to remedy that. The New Harvest Foundation staged the first gay community dinner in Madison in 1986. The Fess Hotel, now part of the Great Dane on King Street, was reserved for the event. There was the usual formula—cocktails, dinner with a speaker, and (to be daring) dancing, which of course here would be mainly same-sex couples. The guest speaker was Evelyn Beck, editor of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology. Her book was dedicated to Blanche Goldberg, founding member of Jewish Lesbians of Madison. Today there is a multiplicity of gay community dinners. Still ongoing is the New Harvest dinner, which held the 25th anniversary for the organization in 2009, joined today by dinners for the Gay-Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE), OutReach, the Out Professional and Executive Network (OPEN), and the Red Ribbon Affair by AIDS Network.

Today the fundraising picture is very different. And why should it not be? We are citizens who pay our taxes unto Caesar—why should our community not get some back in health services and other ways? We also give to the United Way, which funds the AIDS Network, and to other charitable umbrellas through workplace giving campaigns. Four gay community agencies are helped by Community Shares, the friendliest umbrella, including the Fair Wisconsin Education Fund, GSAFE, the New Harvest Foundation, and OutReach.

Gay Philanthropy

We have had significant gay philanthropy in the bequest of George Mosse. The noted Berlin-born history professor and refugee from fascism gave millions to UW-Madison which helps to fund gay scholarship. The UW Foundation also has had a number of individuals create named scholarship funds directed to gay support at the university, which some of us have nicknamed “the fabulous funds.” Individuals like William Wartmann, gay philanthropist, are praised for their support of many efforts for the LGBT community as well as for the arts and the environment. The New Harvest Foundation has an endowment for its ongoing work of several hundred thousands of dollars. As they say in Cincinnati, “Don’t be caught dead without a bequest…”

The combined budgets today for gay community organizations in this area are well over $3 million. Yet community needs certainly are not met fully through these efforts. This dollar amount does not count many volunteer hours that also are contributed—probably worth several more millions. Blanche would indeed feel uplifted here by the many kindnesses provided.

This growth in philanthropy is a record to be proud of and to build on. And it all started with a few bucks for the coat check.

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