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Highlighting the stories of Milwaukee-area businesses that fix things.

Milwaukee handyman makes queer renters, homeowners feel at ease

a man in a green t-shirt operates a circular saw and cuts wood
Lina Tran
Bill Walker runs his handyman business out of the Milwaukee Makerspace in St. Francis.

In an airy studio filled with light and ceramics, Bill Walker met the artist Janelle Gramling. The room was warm with the heat of a cooling kiln. Gramling pointed to a bare table; she needed a new one for teaching workshops. She had asked Walker — who operates under the moniker Lonesome Bill — to meet her to discuss making one for her.

“I’m just improvising with this folding table right now,” Gramling said.

The Milwaukee handyman, who is queer and trans, said getting things repaired and fabricated often means having a stranger in your home or personal space, which can be uncomfortable for some queer people. An artist himself, Walker is trying to change that by offering services for artists, queer renters and homeowners, and people with disabilities.

a short man and a tall woman talk in a studio filled with ceramics and clay tools
Lina Tran
Walker meets the artist Janelle Gramling in her studio to consult on a new project.

Surveying the space, Walker began to think out loud. “I like having standing stuff to be able to accommodate different people’s needs,” he said. “Also, with this height, I can put casters on them. That’s something that you can move out of the way or utilize differently when you’re not doing workshops.”

Gramling nodded. "I like that," she said.

Walker took measurements and brainstormed what materials he could source in order to keep costs down.

Landscaping, painting, repairs, woodwork — Walker does it all. If he doesn’t know how, he’ll learn. He has a deep sense of self-sufficiency, something he attributes in part to his father, who’s a contractor, and his uncle, whose furniture shop Walker previously worked at.

“I grew up knowing that you could do things on your own,” Walker said. “I grew up knowing that gaining certain skills would make it more fun and make it easier.”

Last summer, some friends of Walker’s had a tree crash down on their fence. They were new homeowners and they were stressed.

“They called me and said, ‘We’ve been trying to talk to this handyman for weeks, and he keeps giving us the runaround. He keeps asking for more and more money,’” he said. His friends had a chainsaw. Could they pay Walker to do the job?

a man with a mustache is wearing work gloves and boots. He sits in a garden doing work
Bill Walker
Walker offers services to artists, queer renters and homeowners, and people with disabilities.

Walker realized to ask for help is to be vulnerable. He wanted to honor that.

“Asking me to take on that role because they knew they were comfortable around me and that I could get the job done well — that to me, was the project that made me feel like not only can I do this, but that I really want to do this,” he said.  

So Walker started working as Lonesome Bill Handyman, staying busy so far with jobs he’s gotten through word of mouth. He comes to work with a sense of service, feeling that it’s important to serve queer and trans individuals and people with disabilities, communities to which he belongs.

“I’ve had people come into my home. Even if it’s something as simple as fixing a sink or a light — feeling like I had to hide myself in my own home,” he said. “Suddenly being forced to hide when you’re working so hard to be visible and thriving outside of your own home — there’s a feeling of regressing when you have to do that. I just never wanted to feel like that ever again. And I didn’t want anyone else to feel like that either.”

Walker also cited a previous professor and mentor, who is a wheelchair user, as an influence on the vision for his business. He “circumstantially needed assistance and seeing how little care he got from people who didn’t know him,” Walker said. “[I was] honored and excited to be someone who could pick up the slack.”

an industrial woodworking space
Lina Tran
The Milwaukee Makerspace in St. Francis

Maintenance work has long been a straight, cis male-dominated space. Some of Walker’s clients admitted they haven’t had things in their house fixed for years because they had preferred to have something broken than somebody who makes them uncomfortable in their home.

Now, that narrative is changing, as queer people claim space in the industry. Queer-run maintenance and repair businesses can increasingly be found nationwide. And, consider Mercury Stardust, who runs a viral TikTok account from Madison as the “Trans Handy Ma’am.”

In her videos, and an upcoming book, Stardust offers accessible home improvement tips and endless encouragement — ”you’re worth the time it takes to learn a new skill,” she always says — with a focus on renters. That comes from the idea that to improve life for a community, one must uplift those who are most vulnerable.

“We often talk about the Black trans community being a community we want to help the most,” Stardust told WUWM's Lake Effect in June. “Take that same type of logic, and you put that into the homeowner space, you put that into a DIY space — what that ends up [becoming], it becomes renters.”

Madison-based TikTok star Mercury Stardust posted a video helping someone use ratchet straps. Now, she's the "Trans Handy Ma'am" and an author.

Like Stardust, Walker often teaches clients how to do things on the job. Through his work, he wants to build a network of people who can build things, make repairs, and help each other. He’s not bothered by the idea that as a handyman, his work could one day become “obsolete,” if it means others can tackle things on their own. He said he’s following in the queer tradition of sharing.

“That is inherently what being queer and trans is,” Walker said. “We have always been here. We have always been helping each other. We have always been skill-sharing. We have always been professionals. And, we have always found each other.”

Walker runs his business from the volunteer-run collaborative Milwaukee Makerspace in St. Francis, where he has access to storage space, resources, tools, and safety equipment. Digging through a wood bin, he thought he could find something for that table project. He turned a plank of wood in his hands, imagining all its possibilities. He was building something new.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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