Chuckie Betz knew he was different way back in grade school.
“There were incidents when I was four or five,” said Chuckie. “I remember my parents sat me down and told me that I wasn’t supposed to be wearing kimonos. So, I took my mother’s red high heels and wore them to my kindergarten class. She was the substitute teacher that day. She wasn’t having it.”
Chuckie grew up in Cudahy, where he was one of three children born into an old South Shore family. His father was a truck driver, his mother was a teacher. His grandparents were “entrenched” in Cudahy, as he puts it, and attended services at St. Frederick’s Church. One of his grandfathers even ran for mayor.
“I was a pretty queer child,” said Chuckie, “and it was pretty evident to everyone around me. The neighborhood kids on my block called me Sharlene, but not as an insult. I was just Sharlene and that’s the way it was. The boys used to carry my books—all the way through grade school.”
“I grew up with three gay people,” said Chuckie, “and we all used to hang around. When I was 12 or 13, we would hang outside the Fox Bar (455 N. Plankinton Ave.) because my oldest friend told me it was a gay place. Guys would come outside and talk to us. I couldn’t even go inside, I just wanted to be where the people were. Sometimes we’d linger at the Antlers Hotel (624 N. 2nd St.) These places were already pretty seedy, but they were all we knew.”
Chuckie attended St. Francis Prep High School—a seminary school—for his freshman year when he was asked to leave. “I was not what they were looking for,” he laughed. “Not in terms of lifestyle, nor clothes, nor ambitions! And I was already going out with the guys. So everything was wrong.”
Like many queer youth of his generation, Chuckie hung out at the Loop Café (603 N. 5th St.)
“We couldn’t get into bars, so we became regulars at the café,” he said. “You could fag out there. We met a lot of gay people from the area, of every age, and sorted out where to go and what was happening. There was one waitress, and she was pretty tough, so you did not cause trouble. There was also a regular, older gay crowd who DID NOT like us. They liked things to be cut and dry, butch and femme, queens and kings. They did not appreciate our hippie mindset. It’s funny, the hippies didn’t like us because were gay, and the gays didn’t like us because we were hippies.”
“Marc’s Big Boy on 5th and Wisconsin was another big hangout,” said Chuckie. “They would let you come however you were dressed. That restaurant might as well have been my real high school. All of the gay kids from all over gathered there. We’d parade up and down Wisconsin Avenue.”
He transferred to Cudahy High School for his sophomore year, but didn’t receive a warm welcome.
“I was called a faggot on the first day I walked into that school,” said Chuckie, “and I’d never met any of those people before. They harassed my gay friend and me daily. It just wouldn’t quit. After a while, all of the bullying, all of the harassment, all of the assaults… it got to be too much. The teachers would do nothing about it. Nothing at all. It was obvious I was not going to survive three years there. I had to get out.”
Chuckie transitioned to Cathedral High School in downtown Milwaukee, where his uncle was a priest. He became close friends with his art teacher and the principal.
“There was a lot of talk about me, but nobody said anything to me until graduation practice,” said Chuckie. “As they called my name, and I walked up, these guys yelled out ‘WOMAN!’ But they knew they couldn’t touch me, and they never did. After graduation, I was invited back to give presentations on gay life. I have to say, Cathedral was very liberal, way ahead of its time.”
After graduating in 1969, Chuckie pursued his love of art at the Layton Art Institute. By that time, the Fox Bar was long ago razed for freeway construction. He was aware of the nearby Seaway Inn (744 N. Jefferson), but knew nothing about This Is It (418 E. Wells St.) until many years later. He also discovered the Castaways (196 S. 2nd St.) and the Rooster (173 S. 2nd St.), two of the most popular bars in an emerging gay village south of downtown.
“Getting into the Castaways was a fake ID situation,” said Chuckie, “you had to go early, very early, and you had to show them some kind of ID. So we’d show Jimmy Zingale charge cards, insurance cards, anything but a real ID. And he would let us in! I was so excited to get in, along with my friends, that I can’t tell you what happened once we finally got inside. I will tell you though, we attracted the customers. We were the draw.
“I went to the Rooster religiously once I turned 19,” he said. “The drinking age was 21, remember. But they had no problem with me being only 19. Me and my friends would get devastated at that place. “Big Al” Barry owned the place. They had remodeled it pretty extensively and always kept it nice and clean. The bartender Dudley had a boyfriend named Rubber Duckie and a friend named JP. Sometimes, Dudley would close down the backroom and serve JP’s dog Lola little bowls of wine. The scene was that small, that comfortable.
“Eleven days before my 21st birthday, the River Queen (402 N. Water St.) opened, and it was just great,” he said. “It was a huge, upscale place. The whole concept was completely different from anything we knew before. Only a few years earlier, we would have been hanging out at the old, dark, dingy Fox Bar a block away. Now we had fancy gay places. And it was mixed from day one—men and women together. No attitudes allowed! Things were changing, and we were nixing the old ways of doing things.
“We were all so broke, though, even the dime beer nights were a stretch sometimes,” said Chuckie. “People would sneak in beer and booze and hide it in the toilet tank to keep it cold! They didn’t get caught for years!”
Chuckie remembers a heavy police presence inside and outside of the River Queen, including the vice squad cop who once drove him home to Cudahy. “His gut was so big it was sitting on the dashboard!”
Chuckie also remembers the existence of the Regency East (1758 N Water St.) and Stud Club (546 N. 5th St.) but not much about the experiences of going there. Other Milwaukee east side favorites included the Neptune Club (1100 E. Kane Pl.), where he once ran for the Miss Neptune pageant, and Ten Hundred East (1000 E. North Ave.), which was a favorite of his in the early 1970s before leaving Milwaukee, and in 1980 upon moving back.
“On Halloween, we were all at the Neptune when a man in a bunny suit exploded in flames,” said Chuckie. “His costume was supposedly flame-retardant, but it obviously was not. He must have caught a cigarette ash or spark somehow. Everyone started throwing their drinks on him, which only made things worse. So, I dragged him into the bathroom and tore off the suit to discover he was very badly burnt. So we drove him to the hospital, with me wearing only a floor-length velvet coat and underwear. The nurse brought me his false eyelashes in an envelope to hold onto. I’ll never forget that night!”
Meg Holzhauer was 15 when she started working at the Granfalloon (1627 E. Irving Pl.). The coffee shop was operated by publisher John Kois and DJ Bob Reitman, but they were too busy with their other endeavors, so Meg was left alone to run the place.
“It was this weird, dark, little place that served hamburgers on one side and donuts and coffee on the other side,” remembered Meg. “The tables were made out of these gigantic longshoreman wire spools. And it was always empty. We had NO business!”
She remembers seeing Chuckie walking down Farwell Avenue, in a huge black cape, with a bull whip wrapped around his neck.
“I knew I had to meet this guy,” she said, “and one day he came into the Falloon with his entourage. We fell in love with each other right away. We were kindred spirits.”
“Chuckie and I got really drunk when I was 16,” said Meg, “and announced we were getting married. We announced this at the bars. We announced this to our families. Chuck Sr. was very down on homosexuality, so he was pleasantly surprised by this news. My father, not so much. He said, ‘My daughter is not marrying a queer man.’ He knew me too well.”
“We had to be safe in those days,” said Chuckie. “Everyone was fighting everyone. We’d get attacked by straight guys trying to pull people into their cars. We’d give their license plates to the police, but the police wouldn’t do anything. They overlooked it all. I remember seeing my friend, Gary, showing up with black eyes and a swollen mouth. He was such a big guy, and he got beat up all the time. It was a reminder to us all, if he can get beat up, we all can. Later, I learned to carry a knife in my boot.”
The Granfalloon was under near-constant pressure from the East Side Neighborhood Association, affectionately known as the “East Side Mothers.” The president of the association lived on Irving Place and wasn’t thrilled to have a counterculture hotspot on his block. They doubled down on the Granfalloon hard, especially when it became known as a gay destination. Meanwhile, the coffeehouse stocked up on baseball bats to defend its gay patrons from harassment.
Sadly, the Granfalloon lasted just under a year, but that year made Chuckie famous. He appeared almost weekly on Bob Reitman’s radio show to talk about gay issues. He did an interview with Channel 12 that inspired a weeklong series on gay rights.
“If there was a way to get into the media, Chuckie would find it,” said Meg. “The cameras just loved him!”
The birth of Gay Liberation Front
Chuckie remembers the scene getting more and more organized, with people wanting to make a more meaningful and lasting impact. There was a lot of talk, but very little action, about creating a “Freedom League” for homosexuals. In March 1970, eight people at UW-Milwaukee got together and formed the Gay Liberation Organization with faculty advisor Barbara Gibson. By the second meeting, it was clear that the members were not in agreement.
“One side wanted tea dances so they could meet other gay men,” said Chuckie, “and the other side wanted to march in the streets to drive change. Eventually, the GLO broke in half: The social side became the Gay People’s Union and the radical side became the Gay Liberation Front.
“Gay Liberation Front was really radical,” he remembered. “They would disrupt services at local churches, sending a gay man wearing a crown of thorns into the mass. They picketed movies like The Boys in The Band, which made all gay men seem miserable and boring! When beatings increased in Juneau Park, we patrolled the park with bats and clubs. Eventually, a gang member got thrown through a window at the Hotel Knickerbocker. We occupied the First Baptist Church for several days. We took over the UWM Union during the Kent State protests. But GLF was really small, and the movement itself was still very small, so we needed to align ourselves with other causes to be seen and heard.
“We would say really outrageous and shocking things,” said Chuckie, “like we might say we wanted all straight men to be castrated. We wanted to be noticed. We wanted to let people know we were out there. And we wanted them to be scared of us, because gay people had been scared for so long. It was time to turn things around.”
“Our nature was to question authority, speak up, not back down, and go right to the streets and march,” said Meg. “You had a constant churn of protest activity throughout that entire era. All those little factions, all those interest groups, all that fighting for what was right. Thank God for UWM. Everyone got their posters ready no matter what the issue was.”
One of the GLF’s greatest milestones was attending the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970, where they met with Gay Liberation Front and STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) representatives from New York City. But the trip almost didn’t happen.
“We heard it was happening,” said Chuckie, “and we decided we needed to be there to represent Milwaukee. The county was tearing down my neighborhood—this whole strip of beautiful, historic homes—for the Park East Freeway. They even tore down my house—the Layton Art Institute—which ended this tradition of artists living on the lower East Side.”
“We had friends that lived on Ogden Avenue, so we went house-by-house and lifted stained glass windows that we sold to finance the trip. And then we hitchhiked our way there and back!”
Today, Chuckie doesn’t remember who he met at this historic conference—“it was all so much, so fast”—but the guests included Huey P. Newton, Sylvia Rivera, and Marsha P. Johnson. He remembers seriously considering a move to New York City.
Chuckie’s activism was blooming—and he had met a large group of people (including Flash Gorski) who encouraged his self-expression. When the Vietnam Vets Against the War parade was announced, they knew they had to be there.
“We were very much into demonstrating with other groups to recognize gay rights,” said Chuckie. “And we had this old car, but no hood ornament. I decided I was going to be the hood ornament. And that’s how I wound up on the front page of the newspaper.”
On September 6, 1971, Chuckie appeared in The Milwaukee Journal in his full genderfluid glory. It was the first time that a gay pride event—and possibly a gay person—had ever been seen in the local newspaper. More than 50 years later, the photo was chosen to represent the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project’s new podcast, Be Seen.
“What’s funny is that we also dressed up the driver of that car in drag,” said Chuckie, “and we took him from corner to corner downtown, until finally the police arrested him for violating the ‘three article rule. So that became the next thing we fought against.
“Milwaukee was really a tough place to be,” said Chuckie, “because you had Breier running the police and Seraphim running the courts. And they’d come after you. If you became known as a troublemaker, they would come for you. They could beat the hell out of you and you couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
“I was picked up for a different charge and wound up in front of Judge Seraphim,” he said. “My lawyer Sandra Edhlund appeared in a man’s suit, and I appeared in glamorous furs. Seraphim took one look at me and decided there was a problem with me based on my appearance. I got sent to a psychiatrist.”
In fall 1971, Chuckie and two other GLF members (Angelo Peaches and Connie Worm) created the Radical Queens. The Queens had a very extensive manifesto, which included the threat “we’re angry queens that are out to get you. And when we do, we’re going to set your hair aflame and scratch your eyes out, fuckers!” However, Chuckie insists they weren’t a very formal or even organized group, and there was never a formal membership or charter. Chuckie is also very clear that he was never trying to be female, or even very effeminate, in his drag appearance.
“This was street drag, as they called it in New York,” said Chuckie. “It was genderfuck drag. Drag as terrorism. Drag as confrontation. We weren’t trying to be pretty. We weren’t trying to be women. We were trying to scare the fuck out of straight people. It was one part woman, one part man, some jewelry, some fur, and some glitter. Huge hats. High heels. Fur purses. Maybe a little acid here and there. We’d crash events dressed up like this, just to shake things up and leave people guessing. Was it worth it? Of course. It was worth every minute to be seen.”
Chuckie remembers disrupting everything from Wisconsin Avenue fur shops, to a Job’s Daughter revival at the Marc Plaza, to the makeup counter at Woolworths, to a high school musical in Cudahy.
“One day, we’re in the Gimbel’s Wig Department, coming down the escalator one by one, posing like fashion models in our impossible outfits, on this very long escalator ride, when I see my future brother-in-law and his co-workers staring up at me,” said Chuckie. “What a way to introduce him to my social life! But he wasn’t shocked at all. He just said, “Oh, hey Chuckie!”
He remembers showing up at parties with Christmas lights woven through his hair, doing LSD at the Circus Parade, hanging out with Father Joe Feldhausen at the “gay church,” partying with Jerry Rubin of the Chicago 7, and traveling to Washington, D.C. with Father Groppi. He also remembers bringing a gay liberation presence to the Be-Ins in Lake Park, the Water Tower Riots, and the Fountain Riots. “I was always big on breaking windows,” he said, “and I broke them again at the San Francisco riots in May 1979.
“We included everybody and anybody who wanted to be part of our movement,” he said, “but there were people who just did NOT like us. The older queens were just so pissed. I got pushed into a pond by a drag queen once. She didn’t think we were funny AT ALL. And yet, later, we became best friends.
“There was so much name-calling, so much verbal bitch-slapping,” he said. “The older queens didn’t have easy lives, and they felt we were disrespecting what they’d done. But they were into passing drag, which didn’t interest us at all! We wanted to be an art form, not a pageant winner. So, we introduced them to drugs—and suddenly we were accepted!”
Keeping the movement alive
When the Gay Liberation Front dissolved, the New Gay Underground was born at 904 E. Pleasant. Chuckie remembers unfurling a huge banner from the windows across the entire roof. Today, it’s a condominium building, but back then it was a rooming house filled with gay artists and activists.
“It was all gay people,” remembered Chuckie, “and if we had any problems with straight people, they police would come over and tell them to leave! There were so many parties. So much dancing. So much drinking. It was really a moment in time. Eventually, the police went to my parents’ house in Cudahy and tried to convince them to get me out of the Pleasant Street house.”
“They were stone broke, and never had a dime, but they were such a bright group,” said Meg. “You just don’t even know how cultured and worldly they were for 1970s Milwaukee—in tune with arts, music, fashion, social justice. Everything.”
“All those humans were so genuine,” said Chuckie. “It was a melting pot of great minds. What you saw was what they were. They were creative, clever, intentional activists. Everything had to be genuine. There was no posing, no faking it.”
“And Chuckie didn’t save his drag for Saturday night,” said Meg. “He didn’t turn it off. He couldn’t turn it off. It was always on!”
“New Gay Underground was started to encompass everyone,” said Chuckie, “and to bring some life back into the movement. But it got so splintered. It wasn’t neat and clean. The original members grew up, graduated from college, and removed themselves from the scene. Times changed SO fast. And then New Gay Underground was over, too.”
In the mid-70s, Chuckie moved to Los Angeles and became part of a social group known as Les Petits Bon Bon, who ruled the Sunset Strip as “living art” and socialized with heavy hitters like Rodney Bingenheimer, Cherry Vanilla, and even David Bowie.
“I went to the Hollywood premiere of Last Tango in Paris,” said Chuckie, “and later had dinner with David Bowie and his boyfriend at Rainbow Grill. We knew everyone. We experienced a lot.”
Later, Chuckie moved to San Francisco, where he worked at the original Hamburger Mary’s, the Stud, and as the first cocktail waitress at the first Folsom Street Fair. He remembers building the first DJ booth at The Stud, and drawing the 1979 bar poster.
“Everywhere you went in San Francisco was gay,” said Chuckie, “you didn’t have to go to a certain area. We lived by Polk Street and spent many nights at the Palms and Buzzbys. I even hung out at the Trench!”
Meg lived upstairs, and she always did his eyelashes before he’d go out. The pair was living check to check, and times could be a little tough. Meg remembers stopping at Macy’s Union Square every morning to put on her make-up before work. Chuckie remembers a shoe store off Market Street that offered high heels in men’s shoes with a discrete fitting room. “I said, no thanks, I’ll just try them on here!”
One night while preparing for a hot date, Meg noticed that her favorite bra and dress were missing—because Chuckie had put them on and went out on the town.
“I never had a date with that man again,” she said. “We fought about this for weeks!”
“She ‘accidentally’ cut a bald spot in my head,” said Chuckie, “and she said I moved. I did not move! She did it on purpose. I wound up with this weird asymmetrical haircut. I went down to Sassoon and asked them to fix it. And then I wound up with a modeling gig!”
Meg remembers Chuckie nursing her broken heart after a major breakup. She laid on his living floor on Hyde Street for a month, listening to the same song over and over. And Chuckie remembers when his neighbor suddenly became very, very sick and died of a mysterious disease nobody had ever heard of: AIDS.
“It was just starting to percolate,” said Chuckie. “Nobody was talking about AIDS. Nobody had any idea such a thing could happen. It was like the last moment of innocence.”
“Our life in San Francisco was an explosion of sequins, tube tops, and gold lame,” said Meg. “It was such a time to be alive.” After losing an audition for a Divine show, Meg decided it was time to move back to Milwaukee.
“Our landlords wanted us out, so I accepted a job offer, and moved to St. Louis,” said Chuckie, “but I could not stand it. I wound up back in Milwaukee in 1980.”
Meg was happy to see him. “In reflection,
I have to say: it’s a wonderful experience
to be in love and to be so close to a person without it ever being sexual. And it lasts so much longer.”
Looking back with love
Today, Chuckie is retired and living in South Milwaukee. He is the only known survivor of Milwaukee’s Gay Liberation Front and the Radical Queens. “This is it, honey, this is all that’s left,” he jokes. The other two Radical Queens are long gone. There aren’t any GLF members remaining to tell their story.
Fortunately, Chuckie carries this colorful history forward for all of them.
“Back then, people were always ready to battle for what they believed in,” said Chuckie. “I worry that people are so focused on their online lives, they’ve forgotten about what’s going on in the real world. I worry that we’ve become divided when we should be coming together. I worry that we’ve become way too comfortable when we should be sleeping with one eye open.”
At the same time, Chuckie looks back lovingly on a lifetime devoted to liberation.
“Each decade of my life has been like a completely different lifetime,” said Chuckie. “I’ve had more life in a decade than some people have in their entire lives. I could not be more grateful or fortunate for the life that I’ve had.”
Learn more about Gay Liberation Front, and the history of gay rights in Wisconsin, at the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project website, mkelgbthist.org.