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The untold history of Milwaukee's Guerrilla Gay Bar

Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar logo
provided by MGGB
/
WUWM
Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar logo

Not all history is well known, even if it happened as recently as 15-years-ago. That's when Milwaukee's Guerrilla Gay Bar was at it's peak. Anonymous leaders would rally dozens, to hundreds, of LGBTQ people and take over a popular, straight bar in Milwaukee.

The team started their takeovers in 2007 and ran their final event January of 2016. Michail Takach is the president of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, but he was also one of the main organizers for Guerrilla Gay Bar throughout those years. He shares his history with the takeovers and talks about growing up in Milwaukee's gay bar scene.

Milwaukee metro roots

[Growing up in] Oak Creek was basically a farm town. It was not the suburban metropolis it is today. There was no IKEA, there was no movie theater, there was no target, there was nothing.

When we had a Mcdonald's open my school actually went on a field trip to see it — like it was some kind of technological advancement.

Growing up in the club

When I was 15, I started going to La Cage, which was the big dance club of the '80s in Milwaukee. My friend's sister was in the drag show and she got us in constantly. I mean, there was no questions asked, I was never ID’d, nothing. I don't know if it was because I was young, blonde and cute or what, but I would see what adult night life looked like and it was quite different at that time.

Michail Takach
Photo provided by Michail Takach
/
WUWM
Michail Takach

La Cage and 219 we're probably the only gay bars in Milwaukee that would let straight people in comfortably and actually welcome them. And at one point, because of the drag shows at those two bars, which were like epic productions unseen ever since, it was like full ensemble shows that went on for hours, stage hands, special effects, amazing costumes and all this stuff. So people would come just to see the shows, if you were straight, it was no big deal to go to these bars to see the shows, but you probably wouldn't want to be seen going in them any other time.

It was not really the safest environment at Walker's Point [at that time]. If you went to 219, which was at 219 South Second Street, you would not walk to La Cage, which was five blocks away because it was dangerous. Someone might drive by and throw something at you, someone might yell things at you, people might get out of the car and chase you. There was real distinct homophobia in the air down there back then and people got bashed, brutalized, robbed and all kinds of terrible things that are unthinkable today.

Notes from the '90s club scene

Over the next 15 to 18 years, rave culture exploded and competed with the bars. That was like the height of inclusivity because anyone could go to raves no matter what color you were, no matter what gender you were, no matter what sexuality you had, everyone was welcome. It was literally the more the merrier. That was the apex, the early '90s of inclusive nightlife. And after that, when rave started trickling off and it was approaching the millennium, most of the big dance clubs in Milwaukee started disappearing.

And there was this polarization in nightlife, towards this binary decision of are you going to gay bars or straight bars? It was really weird because right around that same time was when a lot of the legacy gay bars started closing. Things were much more rigid like if you went out and you went to a straight bar, you were constantly looking over your shoulder — you felt uncomfortable, you felt nervous, you felt they might make fun of you or not serve you or ask you to leave.

The call to action

There was a rather enigmatic Myspace post that went out calling for organizers to join this group that was gonna be planning nightlife takeovers. And if you are interested, you were to send your information to an email address and explain why you wanted to be involved. So I reached out. At that point in my life, I lived in Milwaukee for so long and had just gotten so settled in my ways that I was eager for something to change. And that year really, really brought the change.

On Thursdays at midnight, we would announce where we were going. The details would only be available on social media. We did not tell the bars ahead of time. There's a long myth that we were in cahoots with the bar owners and they knew we were coming so it really wasn't a surprise. But that isn't true. We never told any bar we were coming. Ever. We just showed up at 9:30 p.m. sharp on Friday night and poured into this bar. And ultimately, you know, over the course of that night, we showed the economic power of our dollars to bars that maybe had never really had gay crowds in before.

April 2011 takeover
Kaitlin Rathkamp
/
WUWM
April 2011 takeover

Our philosophy

Guerrilla Gay Bar was born and inspired from this idea to disrupt the status quo, to shatter expectations and remix everything by taking all those rules and just throwing them out the window and getting a whole bunch of people together who otherwise would never be under the same roof. It worked like magic in Milwaukee because [we were] starving for something new at that time. They're starving for experience. And on a monthly basis, we went out, every first Friday, and took them on a tour of their own city. They were tourists in their own town and got to be a little bit subversive in the process.

The guerrillas

It was a really wild, diverse group of people. We had tons of people of color who I had not seen in other bars in the city, ever. We had trans women who would come out in droves because it was so safe and so fun and maybe these are places they would have loved to have gone but they wouldn't go alone. Who can blame them? We'd have older people who don't go clubbing anymore and feel out of place and something like this they [would] come out every month. That'd be their big night out.

September 2011 takeover
Provided by MGGB
/
WUWM
September 2011 takeover

The bars ripe for take over

We tried to avoid small spaces that would be dangerous, like if people went and they really poured in, that it would create some kind of liability for the business. We didn't want that. So places like Landmark Lanes, Victor’s, places that were huge and well known, but people didn't necessarily know them because they might not have ever been to them.

Then we also chose the stereotypical straight bars like Steny’s where people for years were afraid to go in there or even cross the street in front of Steny’s because they thought, they're gonna yell at me, they're gonna make fun of me, they're gonna rush me.

There have been fights between La Cage and Steny’s customers going back to the '80s, pretty bad ones too. There was a famous one where some guys at Steny’s harassed some of the drag queens in the show, and one of them who was like 6’ 6’’ and weighed 350 pounds, got into a rumble with the guys and beat the hell out of them. So, there was this history of tension between those bars and we were able to show that was then and this is now.

I think that the customers thought it was cool and kind of fun to see these strange shenanigans going on. I think in the back of their minds, they're like, wow, there's a lot of them, like there's a whole lot of these people and how did you get them all to come? The businesses' reactions ranged from fear, there were a few that [when] we announced that we were coming there they would post a comment or send us a message and [say], we're kind of nervous about this, we don't know why you chose us, what do we need to do? And we'd be like, have enough staff on hand for a busy, busy night. That's really all you need to do. At the end of the night, we would have bar owners reaching out to us and saying, when do you want to come back?

The only place we ever did [come] twice was Victor's because that was the most attended event we ever did. There were close to 400 people that showed up for the event in March of 2008. For one, it's a dance club so people could dance. Two, it was huge so they didn't have to worry about being crowded. Three, it was on the east side so it's around other bars and if it sucked, they could go somewhere else. But four, I think it was just that allure of Victor’s, the reputation, the brand of Victor’s is kind of edgy, kind of naughty, and for lack of a better word, a swingers club.

2011 "Meat and Greet"
Provided by MGGB
/
WUWM
2011 "Meat and Greet"

Now, the reactions from some of the gay bars were not necessarily great. We got criticized for taking money out of the community, which happens all the time. That's a fight that has gone back to the '70s in Milwaukee when some of the newer discos, like Park Avenue, would have gay nights on Sundays. And the gay bar owners were furious because they're like, why would you go there? They only want you on Sunday. Well, they kind of did the same thing with us with Guerrilla Gay Bar. They were like, these people should be spending money at my bar and our response was well, if you offered the same experience, if you offered the same sensation, they would be.

The crowds

There was never a fight at one of our events. There was never a rejection of us. There was never anyone who asked to leave because they were too drunk or because they were offending people. There was no lewd or lurid behavior, unfortunately, I always hope that something would break out that would be story worthy the next day. But people behaved themselves and they just had a really good time in this huge mob of people that they felt unity with. And I think that was also important at that moment in time as all these legacy bars were closing to feel like you're losing this but you still have this.

September 2011 takeover
Provided by MGGB
/
WUWM
September 2011 takeover

A guerrilla’s legacy

I did this for nearly 10 years, on a monthly basis, committed every single first Friday. It's something you do like when you're younger, you have a lot of free time, you have a lot of energy left in you to be creative and clever and kind of intrusive at the same time. What happened is a lot of people grew up and suddenly it wasn't as fun to be this nightlife outlaw the first Friday of every month.

We were in this window of time where people were looking for fun and there was nothing fun to do. At that moment in time, to think about the looks on people's faces when this mob of people would come in and to see physical affection between same sex people, to see trans women and men in a public place, I don't think that people see things like that [anymore]. They might see one or two gay people with their straight friends, they may see people that they have no idea are on the LGBTQ spectrum because it's so normal, it's so mainstream.

And for a long time, we were heading in this mainstream direction with everything from marriage equality, to trans rights, to true equality. That seems to have back flipped over the past eight years. So, maybe Guerrilla Gay Bar is needed more than ever. But, I think it's up to the next generation to figure out what that looks like, how it makes a difference. Most importantly, how to achieve that visibility and voice factor because that's what drives change.

_

Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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