The Legendary Children Still Bring It

by | Jan 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Some of them say that we’re sick, we’re crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth. – Venus Xtravaganza

Once a month, 250+ people come together in downtown Milwaukee as a true community: celebrating a shared history and heritage, competing in extravagant exhibitions, cultivating new friendships and families, connecting to critically important health resources, and collaborating on a stronger, healthier, more vibrant future for all. 

And it’s unlike anything most first-time guests have ever seen before.

Welcome to MKE Vogue Nights, brought to you by the Empowering Community Action Initiative, a grassroots initiative led by queer people of color (QPOC) and Health Connections, Inc. The monthly series, happening every third Wednesday at This is It, is planned by community leaders Ricardo Wynn (aka TeeTee Mizrahi) and Chad Carroll, representing the Milwaukee chapters of the Iconic International House of Mizrahi (founded 1992 in Brooklyn) and the House of Dimera Alain-Mikli. 

Monthly themes and categories are heavily anticipated—and eagerly announced on social media two-to-three weeks in advance—so contestants can get their look on. 

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But MKE Vogue Nights are much, much more than just a ballroom competition. The program strives to bridge healthcare and racial disparities, while creating a safe haven for QPOC/LGBTQ self-expression. In addition to celebrating a creative subculture, the Nights deliver a wide array of health and wellness resources: HIV testing, PrEP education, COVID testing and vaccination, safer sex information, and substance abuse counseling services. And that’s not all they’re serving: the Nights also serve a hearty hot meal to all guests and staff, courtesy of Carroll’s Blazing BBQ.

“I don’t know a space where you can go to get a sense of belonging, a feeling where you can be somebody, a chance to create or recreate yourself, as well as food, drink, entertainment and health care,” said Ricardo Wynn. “Vogue Nights show how much we can achieve as a collective community.”

And 2021 was just the beginning of an exciting and ambitious rebirth of the local ballroom movement.

From Vogue to Ballroom—And Back Again

If you were alive in 1990, you remember. Vogueing burst into the mainstream with the March 27, 1990, release of Madonna’s “Vogue,” the first single released from the Dick Tracy soundtrack album, “I’m Breathless.” 

Although Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue” predated “Vogue” by nearly a year, it failed to achieve any American acclaim. After immersing himself in Harlem’s black gay clubs, McLaren became fascinated with the ball subculture and sought to celebrate it with the world. With audio samples from an unreleased Harlem ball culture documentary, and a stylish video featuring godfather of vogue Willie Ninja, music producers William Orbit and Mark Moore (of “S-Express” fame) created one of the most underrated tracks of 1989. The song hit number one on the Billboard Dance chart in July, 1989.

In comparison, Madonna’s “Vogue” became the best-selling single of 1990, hitting #1 in 30 countries, earning double platinum after selling two million copies, and being voted #2 of MTV’s Greatest Videos Ever Made. It was the first multi-platinum single by a female artist. To date, the song is Madonna’s best-selling single in the U.S.—and sadly, all that most people know about vogueing.

“Vogue” was more than just a song. In the summer of 1990 it was a cultural phenomenon. Modeling agencies and salons put together their own vogueing groups. Voguers were everywhere: At mall fashion shows, at summer festivals, at pride parades, at sporting events. 

And most definitely at gay bars.

“It’s Sunday night at Club 219, and as usual, this Walker’s Point gay bar is pulsating to a bass line loud enough to stop your heart,” said Tina Maples in a May 30, 1990, Milwaukee Journal article. “They are, of course, voguing—but they’re about to be out-vogued by ‘Milwaukee’s own Madonna,’ Mimi Marks, one of the 219 Girls performing in the weekly show.” (Plot twist: Marks later found herself vogueing for Madonna herself, who showed up for a Baton Show Lounge performance.)

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“Vogueing is an exercise in self-absorption, a mating dance for narcissists,” said Maples. “It’s no surprise that vogueing hasn’t exactly taken down-to-earth Milwaukee by storm. Except for a few rogue voguers at Cafe Mélange, Esoteria, and Bermudas, the dance remains almost exclusively a gay phenomenon.” Club 219 and Metro Café were hosting weekly vogue competitions with $100 prizes—and even in the underage LGBTQ scene, vogue showdowns were happening weekly at Club Marilyn.

Although she elevated vogueing to an international level, Madonna was far from the inventor, owner, or master of this art form. She wasn’t much of an educator, either, as the history and heritage of vogue extended nearly 100 years. 

Vogueing—and its origins in ball culture—date back to the secretive drag balls organized by freedman William Dorsey Swann in 1880s/1890s Washington D.C. (Swann’s arrest for female impersonation on April 12, 1888, is believed to be the first in U.S. history.) Although segregation was nearly universal in every other walk of life, the earliest drag balls were heavily integrated—and heavily slanted toward white contestants. 

By the 1920s, African Americans and Latinos established their own drag balls in response to discrimination by white judges. Today, houses exist in more than 15 U.S. cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Washington D.C. 

New York City owns the most historic and longest-running ball culture in the world. The House of LaBeija, founded by Crystal LaBeija and Lottie LaBeija in 1972, was a direct response to racial inequities in the 1960s drag pageant system. Today, the House of LaBeija is considered both the first house of ballroom and the starting point of the modern ballroom scene.

Vogue also thrived in jails, where icons like Paris Dupree would battle against other girls during their incarcerations, and at the Christopher Street piers of New York City, where QTPOC youth would gather to socialize, compete, and connect with kindred spirits.

But in 1990, very few Americans—even gay Americans—knew anything about ballroom subculture, unless they were part of the culture themselves. 

That all changed with the debut of an unreleased Harlem ball documentary, otherwise known as Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990).

Paris is Burnt

Paris is Burning debuted in Toronto in September, 1990 and in New York City’s Film Forum in March, 1991. The film won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 1991. It packed theaters in limited release while music rights were approved. Ultimately, the music rights cost as much as the entire production of the film.

On August 23, 1991, Paris is Burning made its Wisconsin debut at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater. The film was an immediate phenomenon, filling the cinema for five showtimes per day for over five weeks. This was a remarkable reception for any independent film—much less a documentary about queer people of color.

Filmmaker Jennie Livingston, a graduate of Beverly Hills High and Yale, could not have less in common with her cinematic subjects. After meeting voguers in Washington Square Park in 1985, she attended balls for years to earn trust and learn the expression of the community. In turn, she confronted her own perceptions of social class and sexual identity. 

“I certainly never felt people were hostile,” Livingston told Newsweek in 1991, “They were humorous, spirited, positive. I came in with a camera and asked a group of people who are not asked what they think, what do you think? When you turn on the news, when you read your magazine, you don’t see anyone asking what is the gay, Black and Latino viewpoint? I came in and said I want to know.”

“People were creating a buffer against homophobia, transphobia, racism, and poverty,” Livingston told The Guardian in 2015. “They were creating this world where self-creation, and you know, giving people trophies and applause for expressing identities that society generally hated.”

“I felt more part of some kind of gay global culture that transcends color and class barriers. I felt part of something.”

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Wisconsin filmgoers felt revelations of their own—through this glimpse of a previously unseen world that felt so far away and yet, so fabulous and familiar. 

Despite the breakout crowds, local reviews were brutal. “Drag queens have gone designer label,” snarked Joel McNally of the Milwaukee Journal, “but none of them is likely to become a household name.” The film critic likened the film to “drag shows that go on too long,” signaling that he had no idea what he was even watching.

Similar to Madonna’s Vogue, Paris is Burning wasn’t even the first documentary about ballroom. It was just the one that achieved national release—thanks to Miramax distribution—which brought Paris is Burning to art houses and university theaters nationwide. 

Voguing: The Message, produced by David Bronstein in 1989, offered an unfiltered view of the scene at the Paradise Garage (1978–1987). “It’s more than walking like a model,” said Bronstein, “it encompasses an entire subculture. The dance floor becomes an important place because it’s where fantasies are lived.” Clips from the out-of-print documentary are viewable on YouTube.

While Paris is Burning was raging across America, a controversy was raging behind the scenes. Although the producers agreed to share $55,000 (20% of the sale price to Miramax) with 13 participants, some felt it wasn’t enough and sought legal action. Paris Dupree, famously, planned to sue for $40 million. Eventually, they settled for the original offer—which was already unusual for a nonfiction documentary.

Still, many questioned the ethics of Paris is Burning profiting from the ballroom community. The documentary, shot for just $500,000, eventually grossed over $3.8M. Rumors circulated that Livingston had bought a Long Island home next door to Calvin Klein. This discontent still simmers today.

“She came in and fooled everyone,” said Kevin Omni Burros in 2015. “She claimed she was doing a thesis.” Writer bell hooks criticized Livingston for creating a voyeuristic, first-person eyewitness film that fetishizes ballroom culture for white spectators. (Livingston never appears in Paris is Burning, but we see the culture through her eyes.)

“When someone from outside comes in and takes something from our culture and makes it theirs, that’s appropriation,” said Elizabeth Marie Rivera, member of the House of Ninja, in a 2015 interview. “People were wondering, where is the money Livingston made? How is she giving back to the community? It’s like she just came in and made a documentary and left.”

“When cast members signed up, they didn’t realize the film would be so big,” said Wynn. “They did not know their lives would be exploited. They were not fully prepared for what would happen. They didn’t realize they’d have to tell their families, their employers, that they were in these shows. The situation created a major mistrust, which is unfortunate, as the QPOC community already mistrusts so much, as we see in healthcare outreach.”

In response, Livingston said, “I didn’t go to film school. I don’t have a film education, and I never suggested that I did. I took one summer class, and I shot that one ball which is not in the finished film. I never said ‘Babe, I’m gonna make you a star.’ I went in and said, ‘I’m interested, will you talk to me?’ I honestly, to this day, do not believe that anybody who signed those release forms was incapable of understanding what it meant, nobody was illiterate; some people were college educated. Plus, most of the people in the film had spent a lot of time with me before the bulk of the footage got shot.”

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To this day, Livingston faces criticism for the film’s perceived flaws. A 2015 petition called for the cancellation of a planned Brooklyn appearance, called the film an “anthropological foray into the lives of low-income, TQPOC ballroom members,” and issued additional demands. These concerns included the still-unsolved murder of Venus Xtravaganza, the disproportionate violence experienced by QTPOC, and the lack of cultural competency and rapid response from law enforcement. Others critique the film’s dark undertones, forgetting that today’s HIV testing, prevention, and treatment options were unthinkable in 1990.

Livingston maintains that she was, “up against an entire establishment of people who didn’t want you as a woman making a film, didn’t want to see queer images, and didn’t want to give you the money, which is still an issue for women and queer filmmakers.” 

“If you’ve ever used words like ‘fierce’ or ‘shady’ or ‘yassss queen’ or ‘work’ on a cute Instagram pic,” wrote Mary Emily O’Hara in a 2015 Daily Dot article, “you’ve been speaking the language of the ball scene—likely, without ever realizing where it came from.”

“Pose” reintroduced the ballroom scene in 2018, perhaps with more cultural competency, accountability, and sensitivity than Paris is Burning served two decades prior. With ballroom back in the zeitgeist, Paris is Burning was honored at the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival—just in time for the Criterion Collection’s restored release of the film—with a screening hosted by Jenny Livingston herself.

Ballroom was officially mainstream again.

Rise of The House of Dimera

While true ballroom was happening in Milwaukee, the scene was very underground and private, and not very open to outsiders. Houses have come and gone over the years, some more formal than others. Today, it’s believed that there are 4–5 active houses operating in Milwaukee. One of the longest-operating and most well-known is the House of Dimera.

“It all started when my mother passed away,” said Chad Carroll, founder and father of the House. “She was my backbone and the backbone of everyone in my circle. She was everything to everyone. Everything fell on me when my mother passed. I had siblings, but everyone looked to me.

“So, I created a family for myself because I felt like I no longer had the family I needed to support me. I formed the House of Dimera (Deciding Individuality Meets Everyday Reality Acceptance) in 2007 and brought it to my friends. We had already been doing parties, but we didn’t have branding or naming for our events. There had been houses before ours, but they had died down and weren’t really doing anything anymore.”

“That’s where it all started, and it just blossomed from there.”

The House of Dimera began promoting house parties—and filling those houses from the basement to the second floor with party guests. They started doing afterparties for Club Purr, then the city’s most popular Black gay club, but eventually the parties became more popular than the club.

“The club owners tried to shut us down,” said Carroll. “But it had gotten to the point where it was our job, our way of living. We paid our rent, ate meals, and bought food from those parties.”

Everything changed for Carroll when a close friend contracted HIV. He committed to learning more about HIV, so he could keep his friend healthy and keep himself safe. He attended meetings at Diverse & Resilient and recruited others to participate in their programs. He soon realized he wanted to do this as a job. 

“I applied for a front-line ambassador position at Vivent Health,” said Carroll, “but I was declined even as a volunteer! I wanted to be part of the action to help my kids and my family. But I was denied, and they didn’t even give me a reason. They filed my application.”

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Later, Carroll recruited 25 people to a focus group. The Black Health Coalition coordinator saw the connection Carroll had with the community and asked for a meeting with him.

“They created a position for me,” said Carroll. “They didn’t have a position, but they created one, and it’s been ongoing ever since. I love my job, and I love what I do. I’ve now been with Black Health Coalition for five years as a full-time prevention specialist and event coordinator. I have learned so much.”

Carroll has kept the House of Dimera running for 15 years. While some of his kids have outgrown the house, moved out of state, or joined other houses, they still call each other family. “We still love each other first,” he said, “no matter where they went, they always come see me when they come home.”

“Progression. That’s what people want and what I want. I want them to advance and thrive.”

Recently, the House of Dimera merged with the House of Alain-Mikli.

The Houses of Monroe, Infiniti, and Mizrahi

Ricardo Wynn started doing ballroom with the House of Monroe in 2016. He served as a program coordinator (later program director) implementing innovative and strategic ways to impact HIV-impacted Black and Latino communities. Today, he works as a HIV Capacity Building Coordinator for the State of Wisconsin.

“I saw an opportunity to lead QPOC/LGBTQ people in an authentic and inspiring way,” said Wynn. “I wanted to operate within the community, for the community. It matters to be down-to-earth, to be out in the neighborhoods and to know those streets. To be trusted and respected, you must do that work.”

The House of Monroe and the House of Infiniti were two of the first Black, gay-owned, operated and led houses connected to recieving funding from the state HIV program.

“They showed the state that community members are capable of doing this work for themselves without the intervention of large agencies,” said Wynn. “They did shows and parties for queer people of color, while providing education, support, and connection.”

“We have legends in our community who have been here since the dawn of time,” said Wynn, “including Vincent Infiniti, one of the House executive directors. One of his kids, Montell Infiniti-Ross, was one of the original members of the House and is still doing the work of preventing HIV in our community.”

The House of Monroe was the second Black gay organization to receive state HIV funding. When that program ended, Ricardo Wynn moved on to the House of Mizrahi, founded in 1992 by pioneer and founder Icon Andre Mizrahi. Wynn joined the house in 2018.

Thunderous applause

Since Vogue Nights began in September 2021, the guest list has grown longer with each show. 

“We see 200–250 people every month,” said Wynn. “And the lines! The very first night, I invited a private funder. He couldn’t get into the event because the line was around the block! The person who helped make the event so successful was unable to get anywhere near it. That made quite a statement!”

Special guests have included Jaida Essence Hall, “Legendary” season one winner Calypso Jete Balmain, and overall house mother Icon Latoya Ebony. MKE Vogue Nights have earned national support from other local and national ballroom leaders. In addition to Vogue Nights, This Is It has also helped raise money for Health Connections and for SHEBA (Sisters Helping Each Other Battle Adversity), a Milwaukee group that supports and empowers Black transgender women.

“Vogue Nights are giving kids something positive and constructive to do,” said Carroll. “My new son, Dante, saw us at the Wiz Ball, and in-boxed me afterwards. He’d never seen anything like this in Milwaukee. He watched “Legendary” and thought it was so exciting to have this here in our hometown. He told me, I want to be part of it, I want to be in your house. So, we met, we talked, and we got him started on his first Vogue Night. I got him ready, and he walked a category. He was so nervous, but I said trust the plan, and just look out on the runway. He won and he has gone ballroom crazy! He’s watching different categories and scheming to win. When’s the next one? What are the categories?”

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“We have so many connections with the surrounding states, and so many people want to be part of Vogue Nights,” said Carroll. “It’s getting to the point where we almost need to state on the flyers, ‘only newbies.’ Our events are not limited to Milwaukee, but we need to support Milwaukee first. Our success is making it harder and harder to do that.”

“The challenge is that there are so few QPOC-supporting ventures in Wisconsin,” said Carroll. “Right now, they only exist through very intentional commitment and collaboration. Black Health Coalition, Diverse & Resilient, and Health Connections play the biggest parts. We have a great relationship with Vivent Health in Milwaukee and Howard Brown in Chicago. Others might take a ‘wait and see’ until they see someone else doing it.”

“Many agencies that receive prevention funding are white-led agencies,” said Wynn, “and they are funded to protect and serve communities of color without any sense of what that looks like. People in positions of power haven’t built relationships with the community—they just haven’t done the work.”

“Fortunately, there are organizations that have supported the community, to make them competent and competitive to do the work,” said Wynn. “Health Connections is Black-led and Black-owned. Through this partnership it ensures that the community is being lead with a QPOC-first mindset. This opportunity allows us to go to where the greatest needs are, first, and truly serve those who need connections. Every level of this initiative is diverse, from top to bottom, and everyone is doing everything they can to build cooperative relationships for our people to thrive.”

“Our number one pain point has been getting people to trust the process. Vogue Nights have been well-received, but we also hear a lot of well-meaning input: find a bigger venue, do this or that, include this group. People come in and think they can do better, but they don’t understand our vision, our long-term plan, or even what we’re doing already. Some people don’t agree with this work, because it’s not seen as ‘traditional’ work. But we lean in where the traditional work just isn’t working.”

Hallowed ground

Founding, funding, and programming Vogue Nights was only half the struggle. The other? Finding safe and respectful places in Milwaukee where queer people of color can feel welcome and supported.

“This Is It has really stepped up to the plate,” said Carroll. “They have been so warm and inviting, and whatever we ask is delivered. Every Vogue Night we review what worked, what didn’t work, and what to improve. George is always asking us what we need and how he can help move it forward.”

“DJ Femme Noir and a group of Black women created a mini ball,” said Wynn, “and FIVE Nightclub in Madison was gracious to host it. They truly support not only the LGBTQ community, but the QPOC community in total.”

“Most of the bars—even on Milwaukee’s north side—give us the runaround,” said Carroll. “There are no real African-American bars remaining in Milwaukee that I’d call supportive. Everywhere that supported us has closed: Club Purr, Marc Anthony’s…we jam-packed those places. The African American Women’s Center was one of the original ballroom halls in Milwaukee and hosted 7–8 balls over the years. We’ve been grateful for Marquette University and UW-Madison. We can do great things with space when we can get the space. We can do things on a professional level. We can really elevate the ballroom scene.”

Despite being a minority-majority city, Milwaukee has a reputation for being one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas. 

“People are sometimes surprised that racism exists in the LGBTQ community,” said Wynn. “Why would it not? We live in one of the worst states to raise a Black child. Black babies face a lot of challenges from the moment they are conceived. Racism has been declared an actual health crisis. These issues don’t go away because we’re partying together. They resurface because we’re part of everyday America.”

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In response, MKE Vogue Nights promises an experience that is Open to All, regardless of racial, gender, or sexual identity. 

“I never thought of ballroom as being just for queer people of color,” said Carroll. “It’s all about different takes. There are white people involved with Vogue Nights, and they have competed and slayed, and they’ve gotten just as much applause as people who are not white. We want everyone to participate. We want everyone to feel safe and respected. We are really all-inclusive. Ballroom may have said ‘this is for us,’ at one time, but even then ‘us’ was LGBTQ people. We want people who are talented and teachable who will listen and learn. I would say to anyone that I want you to be part of this, because you can teach me some things too.

“Ballroom is about being uncomfortable, but finding ways to be comfortable being free. As a person of color, being uncomfortable is a thing; as an LGBTQ individual or ally, being uncomfortable is a thing, too. We don’t know what these things mean or what these things look like. Ballroom is where you get to figure it out. You get to make the choices you want and not be judged for it.”

“There’s a white person who walks every Vogue Night in Milwaukee as part of the House of Hall,” said Wynn, “and one night, they finally won a category! They never gave up after a lot of losses. The whole club went up screaming when they won. That’s what ballroom is about, creating moments and creating space for others. As we know, these spaces wern’t traditionally created for white people. With respect and time can overcome that. Now it’s like, ‘we can exist in a space together, so let’s go!’ They were so fierce, I had to give them a huge shout out: don’t give up, keep coming, and watch how things evolve.

“Simply put, we are striving to have a shared space. Our premise is QPOC: inclusive of the LGBTQ spectrum. These doors are open to anyone to find themselves. It’s your rightful space when you do the work to be accepted.”

“Spectators have to be mindful and respectful,” said Wynn. “But it’s a family. The more people see you; the more people understand and trust you, and the more you become part of the family. Time, Turf, Trust.”

Carroll agreed. “We’re all one big collective family under different house names.”

The future of Milwaukee ballroom

“We are planting our seeds in Milwaukee,” said Wynn, “but we are also taking ballroom on the road. “Pose” and “Legendary” have made people want to be part of this. We are already on the national landscape here. Our Instagram is filled with messages asking: how can we bring Vogue Nights to Waukesha? Oshkosh? La Crosse? Green Bay?”

“We just keep growing, and we are lucky to have a space that grows with us,” said Carroll. “We’re introducing ballroom therapy: how it makes people feel to be encouraged, to receive so much positive feedback, to feel supported by their community, to be rewarded for their self-expression. We are doing our own take on what we think ballroom is and could be.”

“We are from Milwaukee, and we’ve never been considered to have a great ballroom scene, but now they’re copying us,” said Carroll. “Chicago has always gotten all the attention, with no status for Milwaukee. Now, they love us on the East Coast, and they love us in Atlanta, and they love us everywhere.”

So, you think you can vogue?

We asked the hosts what advice they’d give a first-time ball walker. 

“Baby, own it!” laughed Carroll. “I would tell them, as I tell all my kids, go out there and look like the most expensive person in this room. You throw the most shade, you are a treat in this moment. You are the only one on the runway no matter how many people are in the room. Kill it. And most importantly, have fun.

“I always give them a pep talk. People expect us to be so strong, but even when we turn around at the last minute, we hold each other. ‘If you don’t do this thing, and put this wig on your head, we are going to have a problem,’ I’ll say, but also, ‘I’ll be right here the whole time behind you.’”

The organizers stress that it takes a village to create this experience—and they welcome all the community support they can get.

“It really means the world to us when people ask, how can I help?” said Carroll. “We will gladly accept help from people, with whatever talents they have to lend to us. Together, we can get stuff done!”

“Want to help? Reach out to us and let’s have a conversation,” said Wynn. “Email us at [email protected] Follow us at Facebook “MKE Vogue Nights” or on Instagram at @MKE_Vogue_Nights.

“We have funding to continue another year. We know houses will evolve. We’ll continue to put our talents and skills together, and deliver experiences that are nothing less than amazing.

“In the end, it’s all about creating healthier communities for Black and brown people and their families. That’s what we deliver at Vogue Nights. That’s what we really do.”

Michail Takach is a historian, author, reporter, and communications professional living in Los Angeles. He earned his master’s in communications and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a fifth-generation Milwaukeean, he supported various non-profit organizations over the past two decades, including Historic Milwaukee, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Walker’s Point Association, the Brady Street Association, United Performing Arts Fund, and Milwaukee Pride, where he was communications director for 10 years. Michail is currently the curator of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, a not-for-profit, all-volunteer, independent organization devoted to connecting local LGBTQ people with their hidden history and heritage. He is currently working on his second book, The Golden Age of Milwaukee Drag, an exploration of nearly 140 years of drag performances, with co-author Bjorn Nasett.

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