While “Don’t Say Gay” legislation continues to circulate in 16 states, a group of local activists, educators and historians have taken action to connect Wisconsin with its diverse LGBTQ heritage.
LGBT MilWALKee, a mobile app offering guided, interactive, and multimedia walking tours through generations of local LGBTQ history, will launch in June to celebrate National LGBTQ Pride Month.
“Our history has been one of erasure,” said Dr. Brice Smith, project director. “It’s not taught in schools. It’s not passed down between generations. It’s not visible in our cityscape. In 2022, there are still no historical markers in Milwaukee about LGBTQ events. There are no memorials to any LGBTQ people.”
Thanks to generous financial support, the LGBT MilWALKee project already achieved its first round of fundraising goals. It has received over $28,000 through donations, corporate sponsorships. LGBTQ philanthropists, business allies, and everyday citizens who value of history and the Milwaukee’s LGBTQ community.”
“No more,” said Dr. Smith. “This app will reveal the spaces we claimed, the roles we played, the lives we led, the love we spread throughout the city we call home. It will help us all rethink how we walk through life. We are deeply grateful for everyone believing in us and making this app experience possible for the public.”
After downloading the app, users will have their choice of multiple, self-guided walking tours with unique location markers. Each location will include a present-day photo of the site, as well as a 2-3 minute narrated video sharing the site’s LGBTQ story. These mini-documentaries will provide a rich multimedia experience that can be enjoyed time and again.
More than 100 potential sites have been identified for the project. The app will launch with the first five tours and 50 locations in June. Of special interest is the tour site at 400 N. Plankinton Avenue created for the Black Nite, scene of Wisconsin’s first LGBTQ uprising in 1961, later known as “Wisconsin’s Stonewall.”
“Tour locations will reflect not only the diversity of who we are, but also the diversity of when, where and how we’ve left our mark,” said Dr. Smith. “We’re telling stories. It’s not like cracking open a history textbook and reading a bunch of words about boring facts.”
For years, Dr. Smith has researched local LGBTQ history through the Milwaukee Transgender Oral History Project and extensive research on trans pioneer Lou Sullivan.
“We’re using sites to tell the stories of the LGBTQ people, organizations and events that transformed and transfixed our beloved city,” said Dr. Smith. “We’re doing it in a way that feels like sitting with a friend at a bar, or going through an old photo album with your aunt or uncle, or looking in the mirror and liking what you see. And it is LGBTQ Milwaukee through and through.”
For the project, Dr. Smith assembled a team of talent to help bring his vision to life. Members included Ashley Altadonna, videographer and filmmaker, proprietor of Tall Lady Productions; Michail Takach, historian, author and curator of Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project; Aimee Gironimi, narrator and voiceover actor; proprietor of Wise Owl Productions; Robert McCarthy, CEO of Accurate Web Solutions and regional ambassador for the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
LGBT MilWALKee has also been working closely with established community resources, including the Milwaukee County Historical Society, Milwaukee Public Library, UWM Archives, and the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, to bring this history to life.
“I’m hopeful that our successful launch will lead to more funding, so we can pursue even more compelling and vital stories such as these,” said Dr. Smith. “I look forward to working with community elders, leaders and icons, like Janice Colby, to document and preserve what has always been an oral history within a closed community. Together, we can save their stories for future generations to know.”
LGBT MilWALKee will make its PrideFest debut on June 3 at the Stonewall Stage. In addition, Dr. Smith and team will showcase the app at their Health and Wellness table from June 2 to June 4.
“Recent political events have only motivated our team to do more,” added Dr. Smith. “The idea that LGBTQ history might be erased, censored, or filtered through a conservative view of what is and is not appropriate history is deeply disturbing. This approach isolated, separated and demoralized our LGBTQ ancestors specifically to keep them in line. No more. The LGBT MilWALKee app is a lifeline to generations of history and heritage, right in the palm of your hand. We are telling our own stories, by LGBTQ people for LGBTQ people. We are here to be a lifeline.”