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'Wisconsin Pride' documentary celebrates the history of LGBTQ+ Wisconsinites

PBS Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Society partner to prodcuce "Wisconsin Pride", a new two-hour documentary.
PBS Wisconsin
PBS Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Society partner to produce Wisconsin Pride, a new two-hour documentary.

Thanks to a collaboration between PBS Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Historical Society, a new two-hour documentary dives into the perspectives and stories of LGBTQ plus Wisconsinites through the decades.

Wisconsin Pride” shares the lived experiences of an often overlooked part in our state’s history, despite us being the first gay rights state. It highlights both everyday people and trailblazing activists, showing the battles for human rights that took place in Wisconsin long before these efforts got the national spotlight.

PBS Wisconsin senior producer Andy Soth explains the critical role historian and author Dick Wagner played. Wagner died in 2021, and the documentary is dedicated to him.

It’s a common misconception that most LGBTQ history and activism occurred on the east and west coasts. But Wisconsin has actually been a national leader…

Ralph Kerwineo
Wisconsin Magazine
Ralph Kerwineo

"[Wagner] was a multi-talented person. He served the state as a civil servant. He served Dane County as an elected official and then throughout his life was kind of a collector of what we now might refer to as ephemera and papers of LGBTQ," says Soth. "You know, there are people who are archivists, there are people who are collectors, and there are historians, and Dick was really all three."

Wagner's continued research and writings would eventually become the framework for his first two books.

The first part of the documentary explores the diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, which are a normal part of the human experience. Ralph Kerwinieo, one of the people highlighted, is a prime example. Born a female and later presenting as male, Ralph Kerwinieo got a job working at a factory to better support himself and his partner at the time. When their relationship soured, the partner revealed Kerwinieo's secret, leading him to be arrested and later referred to as "the girl man of Milwaukee" in the local media.

"It became quite a spectacle ... and it's interesting that it's characterized as a masquerade and the coverage was all about this 'deception' that he had been pulling off, when of course the irony is this was really expressing his authentic self and not at all meant to deceive," notes Soth.

George Poage
Chicago History Museum
George Poage

Another example is George Polman Poage, a gifted track and field athlete and the first African-American to ever win a medal in the Olympic Games. Poage became lost to history after becoming a teacher and needing to abruptly move a few times throughout his life. Extensive research found indicators that Poage may have been gay, which was later confirmed to a researcher by Poage's grandnephew.

"It gave that confirmation that completed the story ... the important element to telling Poage's story," notes Soth.

The film's second half highlights Wisconsinites challenging the harassment and injustices LGBTQ+ people faced long before it was a national story. One big component of this organizing was the role of LGBTQ+ radio and publishers in creating awareness and community. These conversations sparked more discussions in the state, leading to continued support. After the nation's first gay rights bill was signed in 1982, Wisconsin laid claim to the moniker "The Gay Rights State."

Wisconsin Gay Rights State
Madison LGBTQ+ Archive
Wisconsin Gay Rights State

Soth says, "One of the first things they did was get on the radio — the first regularly scheduled radio program and fortunately it's archived. So, there's some interviews we use of other historical figures from Milwaukee that it's just wonderful to have because you hear these voices of these people."

Many of the stories of LGBTQ+ members are often lost to history, making intentional research and documentaries like "Wisconsin Pride" an essential element to preserving their stories and creating a sense of community.

Soth hopes that the documentary can help change the conventional view of history as one outside of cause and effect or great events, and more about celebrating how individuals lived authentically.

"[The documentary is] just a series of stories of individuals, and very relatable individuals. Gay or straight, I think you can see and recognize the humanity in all of these folks," he says. "It's really about these figures who people have not learned of and feel like they know now."

There will be a free screening of "Wisconsin Pride" at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee tonight at 7pm. You can find more information here.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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