Milwaukee, WI - As Pride Month kicks off today across America, the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project is launching a campaign to celebrate the birthplace of "pride" in Wisconsin, recognize a turning point in local LGBTQ history, and honor those who fought for the everyday freedoms that we enjoy today.
The Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969 was undeniably the start of a national LGBTQ awareness. But long before that event, gay people in cities around the country were beginning to push back against homophobic violence. Perhaps one of the most notable, but least known, is the Black Nite Brawl in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the first "gay rights" state.
The Black Nite Brawl
On a hot and foggy Saturday night, four sailors went to a Milwaukee gay bar on a dare. After starting a fight with the bouncer, they were chased off by a bar patron wielding beer bottles. Embarassed to be beaten up by a homosexual, they vowed to come back, "clean up" the bar, and teach them a lesson. And, later that night, they did.
But these sailors didn't know who they were dealing with.
Josie Carter, a popular black queen, had already sent one sailor to the hospital "before she even had her face on for the night." As Saturday night customers rolled in, she mobilized the crowd, encouraging them to stay and defend the bar if the sailors came back. The owner wanted to lock up and close down, but people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. Only a year before, a police raid in Juneau Park resulted in a gay man being beaten to death. Gay men were hassled with sting operations everywhere they went. And now, violence was coming to their doorstep.
"We do not run from a fight," Josie told the crowd. "We do not run from anything."
On August 5, 1961, Milwaukee learned how true this was. When the sailors returned, they weren't just fighting Josie anymore. They were fighting an army of angry queens, lesbians and gay men who were past their breaking point, with nothing left to lose.
The Black Nite Brawl at 400 N. Plankinton was the first LGBTQ uprising in Wisconsin history. Six years before Stonewall, five years before Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, and four years before the Dewey's protests in Philadelphia, our elders took an early stand against homophobia and started to fight back.
Newspapers sought to scandalize the event, but instead, these news stories changed local history. For the first time, Milwaukee realized that gay people existed here, in large enough numbers to have their own spaces, and would fight back if provoked. For the first time, an isolated population learned that they were not alone in the world, but that they were part of an actual community. For the first time, Milwaukee's LGBTQ people felt "pride" after a lifetime of shame, guilt, rejection and scorn.
The sailors were cleared of all charges. The bar was ordered to close. Within a few years, the entire block was demolished. And, in the end, this event was hidden by history and remembered only by a small and ever-shrinking group of survivors.
We seek to make this historical event known to all Milwaukeeans. We owe it to these warriors and, especially, to Josie Carter, the "Mother of Gay Milwaukee" to keep their stories and spirit alive, and to give them the recognition they were denied while alive.
In a second year without a PrideFest in Milwaukee, we cannot let the spirit of the Black Nite Brawl go dark.
About the Black Nite 60 Fund
For the first time in our organization's history, we are asking for donations to commemorate this anniversary.
We seek to:
- Light the Hoan Bridge in LGBTQ colors;
- Install a historical marker at the scene of the uprising; and
- Petition the City of Milwaukee for formal recognition of this historic event.
A donation in any amount underwrites the costs of this memorial. It also helps raise awareness, voice and visibility for the critical challenges that gender non-conforming and transgender women of color continue to face sixty years later after the Black Nite.
For more about the Black Nite Brawl, visit OnMilwaukee and National Public Radio.