We define ourselves as a society by the stories we tell.
If we don’t tell the stories of LGBT history, then we’re basically
erasing them, as if they didn’t exist.
–R. Richard (Dick) Wagner
Thus begins Wisconsin Pride—the forthcoming two-hour documentary by PBS Wisconsin in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society telling the personal stories of Two-Spirit*, trans, lesbian, and gay Wisconsinites across the decades.
And, it’s no wonder Dick’s words open the documentary, since his two-volume book series published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press chronicling the history of queer Wisconsinites was the impetus, inspiration, and primary source of stories for the program. The first volume, We’ve Been Here All Along features stories from the time of Oscar Wilde in 1895 until the Stonewall riots of 1969. The second volume, Coming Out, Moving Forward begins with the post-Stonewall era through 2000.
Like the book series, Wisconsin Pride is divided into pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall hour-long segments, though when it premieres on June 20, the entire documentary will be shown all the way through.
“This really goes to the singular dedication of Dick Wagner to produce a two-volume history. It was an enormous writing task, but it was also a tremendous research task—and before that, a tremendous collection task,” said Wisconsin Pride producer and PBS Wisconsin reporter/producer Andy Soth.
“We often do documentaries that accompany the books published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, so it’s a natural connection. When we heard about their commitment to publish Dick’s books, we started to look for ways to produce them as a documentary.”
But Wisconsin Pride didn’t start as an in-house project. There was a nationwide call for proposals, and Andy’s proposal won him the opportunity to produce it with the help of an LGBTQ advisory board. As a cis, straight ally, Andy knew he needed to work closely with the queer community in order to have access, representation, and an authentic voice.
He turned to me, his queer friend affiliated with Our Lives to help him put together the advisory board. The formal advisory board is noted in bold type; the others are affiliate advisors:
• Ariel Beaujot, PhD, Associate, Professor of History at UW-LaCrosse;
• Jenny Derocher, Associate Librarian and archivist at LaCrosse Public Library;
• Robyn Di Giacinto, independent filmmaker, Milwaukee;
• Patrick Farabaugh, Publisher of Our Lives magazine;
• Virginia Harrison, Copy Editor of Our Lives magazine;
• JoAnne Lehman, Senior Editor in the Office of the Gender and Women’s Studies Library at UW-Madison;
• Víctor Macías-González, PhD, Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW-LaCrosse;
• Scott Seyforth, PhD, co-founder of UW-Madison’s LGBTQ Archives; and
• Kristen Whitson, MLS, archivist and co-author of We Will Always Be Here: A Guide for Exploring and Understanding LGBTQ+ Activism in Wisconsin.
The advisory board met in early February of 2020 to discuss the potential content and approach of the documentary. When the pandemic hit, there was a pause in the research and development, then the board met remotely and continued to discuss and advise the PBS Wisconsin production team on the script, stories, and early versions of the program.
The result is a moving, diverse, and honest look at many LGBTQ stories from around the state and throughout history.
The contribution of archives
One of the major sources of materials for the documentary came from the UW-Madison LGBTQ Archives.
Madison LGBTQ+ Archive co-founder Scott Seyforth and his then-research assistant Kristen Whitson provided documents, images, and even audio for inclusion in the documentary. They were two of the many historians interviewed for the documentary as well.
Seyforth said, “Donations to LGBTQ+ archives help stories get told. People writing history or making documentaries turn to archival institutions for material. The more we can provide material for creators to use, the easier it is to tell local LGBTQ+ stories. Until recently, local archival institutions have not typically collected LGBTQ+ material. There are lots of gaps in the kinds of LGBTQ+ material held in local institutions. Now is a good time to provide material to help represent local LGBTQ+ lives.”
Whitson, in her current role as an image researcher and rights coordinator for PBS Wisconsin, said, “I got to see firsthand how many tiny decisions go into making up a full, lush, beautiful production: every note, word, camera move, image is carefully considered. This team in particular has been thoughtful and respectful in their approach, engaging many members of the LGBTQ+ community from around the state. I was impressed by their earnest desire to represent this history well.”
“There were certain stories that Dick covered in his books that were profiles of really interesting people, but you didn’t necessarily find the conflict in the story or how it’s shaped as a story,” said Soth. “All the stories were compelling in that they were people who lived their lives kind of against the grain, and against wide social acceptance, but that was more prominent for certain people than others. So that conflict, and looking at how they adapted and were able to—in many cases—live their true authentic lives despite those challenges, those were the stories we chose.”
The power of hearing our stories told
Whitson reflected on how powerful it is to learn the stories of queer Wisconsinites throughout history. She said, “In working on Wisconsin Pride, what deeply moves me about every story and every segment is the determination LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites have displayed in living their lives throughout the centuries. LGBTQ+ have always been here and always will be, and Wisconsinites have always found a way to live their authentic truths, whether quietly or out loud. We have been relentless in pushing this state forward (state motto pun intended).”
“It’s especially wonderful to see LGBTQ+ viewers see themselves represented,” Whitson said. The first hour opens with a focus on Indigenous Two-Spirit people and includes several stories of LGBTQ+ people of color, which are stories told even less often than queer white stories. It was an important focus of the production team to highlight that history especially, and I’ve been glad to see that the effort is having its intended effect: accurate, clear, inclusive representation.”
Soth said, “We wanted to tell both modern history stories and older history stories—and even reaching back to pre-written history stories by including a story about the Two-Spirit tradition and native culture. I’m so happy we found Kai Pyle, an emerging scholar returning to UW-Madison who researched and wrote about early Milwaukee’s Black and native transman Ralph Kerwenio.”
Pyle, a Two-Spirit scholar, said in the documentary, “If you are living in North America, you’re living on Indigenous land, and you need to know the history of the land you’re living on. The history of Two-Spirit people is an important part of that.” They go on to talk about the way in which Two-Spirit people were respected and even revered by their tribes, seen to have special skills and gifts. “Historically, Two Spirit people have been an important part of our communities,” they said.
Program Summary from PBS Wisconsin
Here’s how PBS Wisconsin describes the program: “The first hour of the film explores how diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are a normal part of the human experience. The documentary opens with Indigenous people prior to Wisconsin’s European colonization, and continues through the 19th and 20th centuries. This half of the documentary considers how being different from the mainstream could provide a unique perspective that enabled LGBTQ+ people to contribute in ways others could not imagine.
“Even in a closeted era, LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites found each other, created community, mentored each other and achieved great things.
“Wisconsin Pride also features and celebrates R. Richard Wagner’s work as a historian and author. Wagner, who passed away in 2021, is featured in the documentary and his two-volume history from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press provided guidance and inspiration. Wagner was an activist, historian, gay rights leader, elected official, and public servant who worked for the state of Wisconsin for 33 years.
“The second hour of the film explores how forward-looking Wisconsinites challenged LGBTQ+ harassment and injustice in visionary ways, long before these efforts received national attention. Through organized protest, an independent press and gay bar-centered social networks, a movement grew that helped build a coalition for legislative LGBTQ+ rights. Embracing and celebrating Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ history is vital for protecting these hard-won human rights and expanding them to all.”
The making of the documentary
Soth shares creative credit with Grant Fenster, co-writer and video editor, and Jon Hornbacher, the creative director. Soth said, they are “a great team to work with who solved the creative challenges with aplomb to create a story that is both emotionally moving and moves along.”
Soth said the production team is indebted to Milwaukee-based Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project producer Michail Takach who was really committed to telling stories like Milwaukee’s early gay bar, the Black Night, and the Josie Carter story.
In the documentary, Takach said, “Eight years before Stonewall, The Black Nite Bar was the scene of the first LGBTQ uprising in Wisconsin history. The heroine of The Black Nite uprising was Josie Carter, an African-American, gender non-conforming queen of color.”
Gay bars were unmarked, underground safe spaces to gather.
“They went there to find community. They went there to find love, to find hope. They went there to not feel alone,” said Takach.
Víctor Macías-González added, “You make friends, develop networks, and gradually begin to develop knowledge of what the gay world is. Learning to become gay if you will.”
“The Black Nite uprising was the first in a series of dominoes that fell that really advanced Wisconsin on the national landscape in terms of gay rights, gay protections, and gay awareness,” said Takach.
In thinking about the people who contributed to the documentary with archival artifacts, stories, and interviews, Soth said, “It was both surprising and not surprising the passion of those people who had dug into this history, without whom we couldn’t have done this program.”
Reflecting on his own experience with creating documentaries in the past versus the one that became Wisconsin Pride, he said, “We’re so driven by a mission, those of us who document history. People are drawn to history for many reasons, but the real kind of personal connection—I’m thinking of Scott Seyforth and Michail Takach—when you’re talking to them, beyond just getting the facts out, they speak about history with such passion.”
He went on to say, “I’ve talked to a lot of historians for projects over the years, and they’re often dispassionate; there’s often a bit of distance from the subject. But Seyforth and Takach and others go at this with the same spirit as those who were in the front lines in protest. Their mission, their struggle, is to tell these stories just as the struggle of earlier LGBTQ people was to get recognized and to have equal rights. It seems like that same passion inspires people like Scott and Michail to make sure these stories are recorded and remembered.”
Those interviewed for the documentary were:
• Ashley Brown, Historian, UW-Madison
• David Clarenbach, Former Wisconsin Assembly Member
• Patrick Farabaugh, Publisher, Our Lives magazine
• Will Fellows, Historian and Author
• Judy Greenspan, Social Justice Activist
• Víctor Macías-González, Historian, UW-LaCrosse
• Audrey Mouser Elegbede, Cultural Anthropologist
• Josie Osborne, Professor of Art, UW-Milwaukee
• Mary O’Sullivan, Editor, Leaping La Crosse News
• Kai Pyle, Two-Spirit Scholar
• Larry Reed, Cooksville Archivist
• Scott Seyforth, Co-founder, Madison LGBTQ Archive
• Brice Smith, Historian and Author
• Michail Takach, LGBTQ Wisconsin History Project Archivist and Author
• R. Richard (Dick) Wagner, Author, Historian, Community Leader, and Public Servant
• Kristen Whitson, Archivist and Author
The personal is political; stories as lived examples for others to follow
Soth is keenly aware that many viewers will be coming to the program with viewpoints and histories vastly different from those reflected in the documentary.
“This is a history program, and the past informs the present. History can educate people; that which some segments of the population have difficulty accepting—because it doesn’t match with their lived experience; I think those people can benefit from some of our historical stories; stories like those of Ralph Kerwenio and Josie Carter. I hope people discover those stories and get a broader perspective,” he said. “For some, it can be hard to come up to speed with how gender is being redefined and its definitions are being opened up. These stories have always existed, and we’re only now recognizing it and helping support it as a society.”
In the documentary, UW-Madison historian Ashley Brown said historically, “Homosexuality very often has been something that society has viewed as shameful. And there can be a tremendous silence.”
Soth said publicly telling the stories of individual lives helps them become examples for others, where they can see themselves in history. “If you take a more macro view of history—such as political or military history—and then you hear these small, individual stories in Wisconsin Pride, you may wonder why they are important. I have an appreciation of the story of the individual, of those who are not well-known, but their lives become examples. They lived history and ran counter to their times,” he said.
A wonderful example of the personal influence of the lived history on present-day LGBTQ people comes from Josie Osborne, interviewed for Wisconsin Pride about the founders of the Layton School of Art & Design (later the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) lesbian couple Miriam Frink and Charlotte Partridge.
“Mary Louise Schumacher, the art reporter for years at the Journal Sentinel who is now a producer, referred me to Josie Osborne, who has a professional (art) connection, a Milwaukee connection, and an identity connection as a queer artist,” said Soth. “But what didn’t make it into the documentary, is that as a child Josie lived next door to Miriam Frink and Charlotte Partridge. She didn’t know they were a couple then—she learned their story later—but she has great memories of their hospitality and going to their house for tea and seeing their art. She knew them as matronly, older women, but when she was coming out, she learned from her mother that they were lesbians, and that helped her with her own process.” They became living examples for her.
Seyforth said, “We often do not tell the local stories that created the LGBTQ+ mass movement. It was moving to see some of those local stories being held up in Wisconsin Pride. I hope this project will lead to continued exploration of local LGBTQ+ history in general, including on local television,” said Seyforth. “There are so many inspiring local stories. This is just a beginning.”
In the documentary, author and historian Will Fellows, reminds us, “It’s not just LGBTQ history or queer history. It’s also just Wisconsin history.”
Only a few of the stories told in Wisconsin Pride were mentioned here. Be sure and attend a pre-screening (see below for details), catch a broadcast of it on your local PBS station, or download it from pbswisconsin.org later this summer.
You’ll learn something, you’ll feel moved or inspired, and you’ll feel Wisconsin pride.