Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History published this fall by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press is my second volume on the state’s LGBT story. In it I trace the post-Stonewall events in the state. A large part of the volume is how a small-but-dedicated LGBT community created tremendous political progress of national significance in creating the nation’s first equality rights law and created a climate to be the first state to elect three out people to the United States Congress. Another large part of the book is how the effect of these efforts made Wisconsin a gay laboratory for democracy, encouraging LGBT folks all around the state to stand up for their rights. I would like to recap here how the Wisconsin activists used journalistic skills to advance the cause.
One chapter is dedicated to how the state developed a robust tradition of gay media that continues to benefit the readers of Our Lives. These efforts begin in the early 1970s right after Stonewall. The grand-daddy was GPU News, published from Milwaukee. This was a monthly publication put out by the Publications Committee of the Gay People’s Union (GPU), hence the GPU in the title. Later it was a separate organization, Liberation Publications, the publication would last a decade. The spark plug was Eldon Murray, a stockbroker, and a dedicated band of volunteers. Murray would announce that the magazine which had a large number of national subscribers would be sent to major libraries in Wisconsin “to reach and educate the non-gay public.” Local activists of the Fox Valley Gal Alliance ensured that it would be in the Appleton Public Library. For Murray, “Communication is indeed the essence of liberation.”
One of the important writers trained at GPU News was Lou Sullivan, a trans man. Sullivan contributed during the 1970s several articles on trans issues. He would become a national figure with the publication of his groundbreaking Information for the Female-to-Male Crossdresser and Transsexual. He would also publish a biography of an early 20th Century trans person, Jack Garland.
Another very early Wisconsin publication began in 1971. Though it lasted less than a year, The Scarlet Letter was published by a Madison women’s collective including lesbians. An early article was “Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are” by Judy Greenspan. She would go on to run as an out lesbian for the Madison School Board in 1973 and is believed to be the first out lesbian candidate in the nation. In the September 1971 issue, she wrote, “Finally gay sisterhood is blooming all over this country. And our lives will never be the same.”
In Milwaukee another women’s collective published Amazon from 1972 until 1984 which would carry articles on “Dyke Tactics” and “How to Identify a Real Lesbian.” One of the journalists who emerged from Amazon would be Jamakaya (J. M. Domebeck) who was the sole editor for later editions. She had been a counselor on the Women’s Crisis Line and office manager for the Milwaukee Women’s Coalition. She wrote, “Until we take our own lives and contributions as feminists seriously…how can we expect to be taken seriously by others or by history itself?”
In Madison the Renaissance Newsletter was published in the 1970s on behalf of the Gay Center. One of its editors and contributors was mainstream journalist Ron McCrea. Lively issues in its pages included the “Dynamics of Drag” and the “Disco Debate.” Renaissance was followed in 1978 by one issue of The Gay Endeavor and then by Gay Madison 1979–1982 which had started as the newsletter of the United.
The last editors of Gay Madison Peter Klehm and Brooks Egerton launched the new publication OUT! in November 1982 as a monthly Wisconsin Lesbian/Gay Newspaper. As a pitch to a statewide audience they noted, “In Wisconsin roots are taking hold in a rural gay presence that’s very uncommon in this country.” As evidence, when the Rice Lake librarian rejected its free copy as “too sensitive” she was overruled by the library board. Publishing 5,000–10,000 copies, it would achieve a state reach. Editor Brooks Egerton calling for solidarity authored in 1983 an article “What Do Gays and Transsexuals Have In Common.”
Begun in 1987 and succeeding Amazon in Milwaukee, Hag Rag proudly boasted itself “Wisconsin’s Lesbian-Feminist Press.” Running until 1933, its editors were drawn from both Milwaukee and Madison. The October 1988 bimonthly issue was heralded as the “Lesbian Sex Issue” determined “to go boldly where no lesbians…have gone before.” It praised sex educator JoAnn Loulan as the Dr. Ruth of Dykedom. The magazine covered the annual Lesbian Variety Show at the Barrymore Theater put on by Kissing Girls Productions.
Also begun in 1978 and lasting about 20 years, Leaping La Crosse News featured the Western Wisconsin lesbian community. The name derived from a Meg Christian song. The newsletter highlighted the La Crosse area annual tux parries where women could enjoy a night out. “This was the prom we never went to or had a miserable time at.” Some years the fabulous Cumberbunnies would perform.
In November 1992 came Bi-Lines the publication of Bi?Shy?Why?. It lasted until 1996. In the February/March 1993 issue, a writer observed, “It is only the gay and lesbian population who have taken bisexuals into their movement (sometime willingly, sometimes with hesitation).” The Madison group would march proudly with a banner at the 1993 national march on Washington.
For almost a decade and a half, from 1987 to 2000, the state LGBT paper was The Wisconsin Light. It was the beloved creation of publisher Jerry Johnson and editor Terry Boughner, who were also partners. It picked up where OUT! left off. Their first printer ditched them as sinful which the paper denounced as “snot-nosed bigotry.” Like OUT! it claimed a statewide LGBT community. From gay bookstores in the state, it published lists of best-selling gay and lesbian books. Jamakaya provided her “Sister News and Views” and often historical pieces. Dr. Karen Lamb focused on health and AIDS issues.
The above highlights just some of the LGBT media history of the state that preceded Our Lives. These journalists realized that the collective act of coming out by the community in the media was a powerful antidote to the oppressive attitudes of society. And it had its effects to change perspectives both within and without the community.
In December 1990 in the newsletter New Lessons a young gay person imbibing the air of liberation would write that “despite facing ridicule of my lifestyle every day,” he could still say, “I have dreams of high fantasy, dreams of the perfect mate, dreams of pleasant days and blissful nights, dreams that far outweigh the consequences of my sexuality. Dreams that I will make a reality.” Ignorance vanquished.
Richard Wagner ([email protected]), openly gay former Dane County Board Chair and co-chair of Governor Earl’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues, is the author of both We’ve Been Here All Along: Wisconsin’s Early Gay History and Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History.